by the Strathink Editorial Team
In Part 1 of our series, we look at diplomatic cables on the relationship between among Ethiopia, Eritrea and the United States. Meles believed that there were many in the U.S. government who favored Eritrea over Ethiopia and used a double standard in its relationships with the two countries. The Ethiopian Prime Minister believed that the U.S. was naïve in its understanding of the Eritrean President’s psyche, which had unfortunate consequences for the region.
Who Was Prime Minister Meles Zenawi?
Wikileaks’ collection of classified cables from the U.S. Department of State is a treasure trove of information—not only about U.S. foreign policy but also about the world leaders whose conversations with U.S. diplomats are meticulously detailed in these pages. These rare glimpses of exchanges at the highest levels of government offer insight into what really was said about the critical issues of the times and, even sometimes, about the people who said it.
The outside world knows little about Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi—his views on his own country, the Horn of Africa and even U.S. politics—other than the clichés written about him by the international media. In media reports, the Prime Minister comes across as a one-dimensional strongman who ruled Ethiopia with an iron fist—the stereotypical “Big Man” of Africa.
These appalling reports failed to present the intellectual heft, insight and passion of a man who had a vision of Ethiopia—and Africa—that transcended the view of that drove the conventional narrative about his country. Meles Zenawi saw the potential of an Ethiopia rising and a continent capable of assuming an equal place at the table within the international community.
Meles Zenawi changed this narrative against formidable odds. Old habits die hard but slowly the narrative is shifting on Ethiopia, in particular, and Africa, in general. These cables provide us with snapshots of how Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, who sadly passed away almost four years ago, promoted a new vision for Ethiopia based on Ethiopian interests and achieving this vision Ethiopia’s own way.
The cables, many written by U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia Donald Yamamoto and Charge d’Affairs Vicki Huddleston, are brilliantly penned to reflect the frank, and sometimes slightly uncomfortable, conversations between U.S. diplomats and the Ethiopian leader. The topics are weighty: Eritrea and Isayas Afewerki, Somalia, Sudan, Kenya and Ethiopia’s own internal politics.
And while U.S. diplomats did not always agree on the tactics and strategies the Ethiopian Prime Minister felt were in the best interests of his country, rarely did the diplomats disagree with his analysis. Meles Zenawi demonstrated time and again a wide-reaching mastery of facts on the ground, incisive intellectual powers and pragmatic political instincts. Moreover, he had political imagination that allowed him to see beyond the ordinary and embrace the extraordinary.
Meles on Eritrea
It appears from the number of cables written about meetings with the Prime Minister that, contrary to what is written in the media, there was a consistent and active engagement at a very personal level between the two governments. U.S. ambassadors, other diplomats and members of Congress often held lengthy conversations with Meles Zenawi about even the most contentious issues between the two countries.
One issue that provided the U.S. with a great deal of useful information and advice was the Prime Minister’s intimate knowledge about the mind of Isayas Afewerki, Eritrea’s President and Meles’ former comrade-in-arms during the struggle against Mengistu Haile Mariam. Although Eritrea’s prevailing mythology promotes the view that Isayas was somewhat of a mentor to the Prime Minister, it is hard to believe that the Eritrean leader had much teach to a man with such intellectual depth. However, there is no doubt that the two men knew and understood each other.
When Ambassador Yamamoto relayed the news to Prime Minister Meles that the U.S. was considering putting Eritrea on the list as a state sponsor of terrorism, Meles advised Ambassador Yamamoto that he must understand Isayas’ psyche and be prepared to follow through on any threat made by the U.S. According to Ambassador Yamamoto, Meles said “If you use a gun, make sure there is a bullet in it.” Meles went on to say that if the U.S. made a statement outlining its intentions, then it better follow through otherwise it will be seen as a victory for Isayas.
According to Ambassador Yamamoto, the Ethiopian government’s view of Isayas Afewerki, certainly the one held by Prime Minister Meles, was that he was “an extremely dangerous, hostile and evil individual whose sole goal is to make Eritrea the dominant power in the Horn of Africa and to promote Isayas’ role as paramount leader in the region.”
According to Meles, he did not believe that Isayas had a “death wish” but his self-preservation went beyond mere survival. The Prime Minister believed, according to Ambassador Yamamoto, that Isayas had no problem forcing the Eritrean people to make sacrifices, from enduring great economic hardships to even death to ensure Eritrea’s regional dominance and Isayas’ leadership.
According to Meles, Isayas knew that his military had no chance against Ethiopia. His strategy was to widen the horizon of the battlefield—in other words, take the war to Somalia and Sudan. The Prime Minister believed, said Yamamoto, that by destabilizing Somalia, using Sudan to attack western Ethiopia, increasing the tension between Ethiopia and Djibouti, supporting internal divisions within Ethiopia and training Ethiopian opposition groups in terrorism, Eritrea could keep the international community focused on Ethiopia and minimize the criticism against Eritrea. This, said Prime Minister Meles, was Isayas’ “war by other means.”
The Ethiopian Prime Minister believed that not engaging Isayas and isolating Eritrea was the best strategy for containing Eritrea’s intransigence. Meles believed that Isayas and Eritrea was a distraction from the more pressing challenges facing Ethiopia. More important was to stabilize Somalia—eliminate extremist threats and establish a credible and viable government in Mogadishu.
Meles also believed that Sudan represented a bigger threat to Ethiopia’s security and regional stability than Eritrea.
As far back as 1998, before the Ethiopia-Eritrea war officially began, Prime Minister Meles was telling the U.S. that Isayas was not a “rational decision-maker” and “did not understand the rules of the game.” Meles argued strongly that Isayas’ view of reality was different than the rest of us.
For many years, Meles was fighting a U.S. worldview that tried to balance Eritrea with Ethiopia in its foreign policy equation. The balance tended to tilt towards favoring Eritrea despite the facts on the ground. The Ethiopian government firmly believed that that the U.S. applied a different standard to Eritrea than it did to Ethiopia. Ethiopia also believed that there were a number of officials in the U.S. government who favored Eritrea over Ethiopia, no matter what Eritrea did.
For example, when Ethiopia deported Eritreans thought to be a security threat in Ethiopia, the U.S. released a strong statement condemning the action. Prime Minister Meles though that this was unfair and unbalanced. There was no statement about the children killed by Eritrean airstrikes in Mekelle, the destruction of Zalambassa by Eritrean forces and the hardships being endured by 170,000 displaced peasants in Tigray.
According to Meles, even the role the U.S. tried to play in preventing war was misguided and favored Eritrea. According to the U.S. charge d’affairs, Prime Minister Meles proposed the following language for the U.S. to use for Isayas: “Isayas, this is your mess. You may pay some political costs by withdrawing from bdme, but if you do not, you are on your own, without our support and without our pressure on Ethiopia to avoid the war.”
Meles suggested this, “If the U.S. lets things take their course and evolve naturally, just be aware that nothing will prevent Ethiopia’s attempt to dislodge Isayas from Badme if he does not withdraw voluntarily.”
Visit our website on Sunday for Part 2 of this series on Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. In Part 2, we look at diplomatic cables on Badme and the EEC and the 2005 election.