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Meles, Close-up and Personal

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi had a long day on Friday, February 13, 2009. First, he met with members of the Amharic press for two hours, this was then followed by another round with members of the foreign press corps and the local English journalists. The press conference comes after over a year since he last met the media.

Issues from diverse areas were raised, including how the two-year Ethiopian intervention in Somalia could be deemed successful; Colonel Mu'ammar al-Gaddafi's latest bid to broker a deal between Ethiopia and Eritrea;  what is at stake for the administration in reinstating the life-in-prison sentence on Birtukan Mideksa; and the challenges on the macro economy.

Question time with The Prime Minister lasted for a full two hours and 25 minutes.

The following is an excerpt on issues that are personal and up close to him that Fortune selected in this first series on this press conference.




Q: You have told the foreign media in the past that you have had enough of this office and would like to be relieved. But at the same time, you have told the local media that you are a soldier for the EPRDF, and wherever the party deploys you, you will continue to play that role. This is kind of mixed signal. Is it a deliberate act on your part? What is your stance at this moment?

PM Meles: I do not think there is any conflict between the two. My personal feeling is that I have spent enough time here and I have to move on. But I am here because I am a leader of the EPRDF; and I want to leave this position without leaving the party. Technically, it is possible for me to say "thank you very much, goodbye, and no matter what you say I am out" and tell the leadership to decide whatever they want. In that case, I would have to leave not only my government position, but also my party one because I cannot be a member of any party.

My hope and expectation is there will not be any conflict between my desire to leave and the party's opinion. If, in the end there is a conflict between the two, I will have to make a decision as to whether to accept the party's decision, or   to leave.  I will have that freedom when the time comes. My preference, however, is to make sure there are no conflicts; if there are, my hope is they will be ironed out using civilized methods of resolving differences.

Q: You could explain democracy in a number of ways; one of them is it is a system where there is limit to the executive power. Considering the fact that the Ethiopian executive is more powerful than the legislator, do you think you have any limit to your executive power?

I would not necessarily agree with you that limitation of power, executive power, is necessarily a democracy. If that was the case, Somalia would have been the most democratic state in the world. But, indeed, rule of law requires that everybody's power is limited; not only of the executive, but also of the legislator because they cannot legislate about anything and everything. For instance, they cannot change constitutional mandate without following certain procedure that is beyond the normal majority vote.

Limitation of power also concerns the judges because they cannot make judgements as they wish; they do so on the basis of the law. Limitation of power is at the centre of democratic exercise, including limitations of the power of the executive.

My power is limited by many instruments. The first and most important instrument is the constitution, which says exactly what I can and cannot do, as well as what happens if I do what I am not supposed to do. That is a very powerful constraint on executive power. The second limit on my power as leader of the executive is Parliament; they have to approve all legislation and the budget, and we serve at the discretion of Parliament. When Parliament feels like it, it can dismiss this government anytime; they do not need election to do that. That is the limit of my power as far as the legislative control is concerned. Of course there is also the judiciary; I cannot detain anybody unless the courts say so.

These are the constitution limitations of power in any democratic society; they are here, functioning and healthy.

Q: Let's talk about your interpersonal relationship with Sheikh Sharif Ahmed Sheikh. When you met [last week] what assurances did you give him that you would not re-enter his country; and what assurance did he give you he would not return to his Jehadist ways?

Of course, the new President assured us that his intention is to promote peace within Somalia and with its all neighbours. We are happy that we have got such reassurance. But, it would be foolhardy to base state policy on some statement, at some particular time, by some particular individual. You do not work on the basis of trust by individuals, or lack of it thereof. As a state, you operate on the basis of assessment of capabilities and desires of actors.

I do not think anything Sheikh Sharif says can be taken as a final guarantee that there won't be any lapses. The reassurance that I seek is of the fundamental type; it is not for Sheikh Sharif to give. The reassurance I seek is from a political process in Somalia, but not from one particular outcome of Somalia, but the underlined political processes. These underlining processes have a number of positive aspects to them. The major clan group, which had been the main support base for Al-Shabab, is now fighting them more effectively than anybody else. This group is seeking our support; in doing so, we are providing what we can.

Sheikh Sharif and his friends had distanced themselves from the terrorists before he became president. His visit to Ethiopia during the AU Summit was not the first contact we have had with this group; as a government, we have had contact with them for quite sometime now. We are reasonably confident that this is not some idiosyncratic  move on the part some individuals, but a major political trend among the so-called moderate Islamists.

Irrespective of specific guarantees we have got from Sheikh Sharif, I think these are the most important reassurances we have.

Can Sheikh Sharif give me assurance that Somalia won't revert to total chaos?

No. Even if he wanted to, I would not believe him because there are counter-bearing trends, which include enumerable fights among sub-sub-sub-clans. This has the potential of undermining any government in Somalia.

My reassurance to Sheikh Sharif; I doubt whether he needed one from me to that extent about our re-entering Somalia. Our government reserve our right to hot pursuit, for every country reserves that. But, we have no intention of going back to Somalia, and try to stabilize Somalis. We believe we have done quite enough; we believe we have been successful; and therefore, we have no need to re-enter.

Q: The new chairman of the AU visited your counterpart in Eritrea, and he offered to restore the friendship you once had with Issayas Afeworki. I wonder how you feel about this offer; do you take it seriously, or do you perhaps feel Mr. Gaddafi could be a prejudiced mediator?

Of course, we very much welcome such initiative and his offer to help. I would not mind even if the person who is taking the initiative is from Mars; so long as he does the job, I will be very happy with it. And our Chairman is not from Mars; he is chairman of the African Union (AU); he knows the problem; he understands the issue; and it would be appropriate if he tries to resolve this problem.

Do I expect a radically different outcome as a result of his efforts?

I have no reason to believe that, not because the brother leader will not devote a lot of energy, but because the Eritrean government started its dance. I do not believe the President of Eritrea has changed his colours. The only way out is what we have indicated; the two of us need to get together and discuss to iron out the issues, including the issues of delimitations. There is no issue as legal demarcation and legal delimitations. We are eager to discuss the practical issues and about the normalization issues of our relations. We would welcome any person who could help us resolve the problem.

Q: People doubt the capacity of the current chairman of the AU to assume the role he is given. What do you personally feel about it as a leader of a member country?

All I can tell you is that I voted for him.  

Q: Your country is being seen as caught between capitalism and socialism. Which one do you prefer?

We are not sitting between one of the other; we are seated in the middle of capitalism. This is a nearly white capitalist country. The EPRDF talk of the developmental state is to develop the economy and become a mature capitalist economy. The role of the state in a capitalist economy can vary from close to zero to high level of involvement. That does not in any way undermine the fundamentals of capitalism. What we are building here is a nearly white capitalist system and we have no illusion about building any other system here.

Q: Many were appreciative of your leadership skill prior to the 2005 election; some of them still believe that they cannot imagine the current government without you as a prime minister. What do say to these people before making a decision?

If I have done something good it is primarily because I belong to a very good party. Whatever good I might have done could be expected to be continued by the party, because the party is the source of whatever good I have done.

Q: This year marks one more year that you have stayed in power in Ethiopia than the previous leader of this country. What would you think as your single most important achievement over the past 18 years?

I cannot separate my achievements from what can be considered as the achievements of the ruling party. Whatever achievement there might have been, it does not exist independent of that party.

The two most important were successfully managing the transition from the military dictatorship of Mengistu regime to an emerging democracy without collapsing, like many similar countries did, such as Yugoslavia and Soviet Union. That was a major challenge and I think I have done better, with all its pluses and minuses.

The second most important achievement was for this party to rekindle hope through the renaissance of this country; particularly over the past five to six years. There is hope and optimism now that this country will ultimately get out of poverty. I think it [the ruling party] has charted that course of optimism. With its pluses and minuses, again, the dynamic of continued economic stagnation for several decades has been reversed. We have now entered into a trajectory of fast economic growth; and we have now joined very small and elite nations that are fast moving in terms of economic development.

I consider these two fundamental achievements of the party over the past 18 years; and to the extent that I am involved with this party, I share both the responsibility of failures and of successes.



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