Understanding Meles Zenawi: Conversations with U.S. Diplomats (Part 1)


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.


21 Responses to “Understanding Meles Zenawi: Conversations with U.S. Diplomats (Part 1)”

  1. wedinakfa says:

    Who you fooling Mr Hitler opps Mr TPLF, now the dead are asking to be resurrected, I say Omen only in Ethiopia!!

    • Weredekal says:

      Wedinakfa, What are you doing here? Go to your own fifty den Eritrea…”Mr Hitler” is found in the “North Korea” of Africa!!! Good luck with Wedi Afom.

  2. Wedi Zere says:

    I always thought the late PM Meles was a thoughtful man who was capable of bringing both people transcending and demolishing the division wall between them and bring them together again. Thought Ato Meles regretted the destructive role he played in dividing this same people of the same family. Thought he regretted the claim he made that Ethiopians were colonizing Eritreans and did something to rectify it.No one could have understood both people more than him because he was hailed from both sides but instead he worked so hard to keep the division between these same people that share everything as firm and permanent as possible.

  3. Yir says:

    Meles had a bright brain for

    Ethiopia & Eritrea. He was a good leader.

  4. Sonia says:

    It is really really sad that the World is always let to know the truth about facts/things. This man, Meles was unusually intelligent man, but few, if at all knew him.

  5. belesa says:

    He is intelligent alright. Intelligent enough to hide his true self even from the most intelligent observers.
    His true self is unfold in the form of genocide and ethnic cleansing as we speak, in Wolquite and Amhara, Oromia, Ogaden…etc. And he could carry out this atrocities in broad day light and after he is buried and no one talks about it. That is hoe intelligent he is.

  6. Alemayehu M. says:

    Meles’ passing marks a sombre moment for Africa as well as a potentially worrying one for the peoples of Ethiopia. Without question, Meles has presided over the most constructive and dynamic period in Ethiopia’s modern history.
    The country has made notable progress over a relatively short period in numerous fields of economic and human development. It also seems undisputed that a large part of this achievement is attributable to the leadership Meles gave his country over this period.
    Meles was exceptional as an intellectual, capable of contributing – for example – a robust chapter on the developmental role of the state.

  7. Alemayehu M. says:

    Meles’ passing marks a sombre moment for Africa as well as a potentially worrying one for the peoples of Ethiopia. Without question, Meles has presided over the most constructive and dynamic period in Ethiopia’s modern history.
    The country has made notable progress over a relatively short period in numerous fields of economic and human development. It also seems undisputed that a large part of this achievement is attributable to the leadership Meles gave his country over this period.
    Meles was exceptional as an intellectual, capable of contributing – for example – a robust chapter on the developmental role of the state
    . His ideas as translated into policy may not all have been right, but they did have scope and serious grounding.
    The critical vehicle for controlling the disruptive and potentially fatal impacts of a leadership transition is not the electoral system or parliament. It is the ruling or dominant political party.

  8. ebeshir says:

    No one can think a leader of any nation with normal mental state can allow his country to be land locked. For me Meles Zenawi is a Dictator with no comparable one. There is no any kind of excuse for the crime he committed not just killing citizens but killing a generation and a nation as well. The consequence can go very far regarding security, political, social, moral, and keeps down the head of all Ethiopians. It is easy to see what is going around our neighborhood…countries like Eritrea, Arab countries
    even Djibouti can easily put any kind of influence any time they want. Ethiopia is only protected because the Western got their interest because of War on Terror. Once they finished their business the country can fall under any influence of all countries around us even Djibouti or Somalia, Kenya because of their port. The brutal Meles left Ethiopia in a glass house that can never mess with it’s neighbors at any case. So if anything else about Meles is he has a history painted with the blood of the children and women that get away because of his death. A visionary leader is a leader who can create a visionaries that can build a nation, not a bunch of thieves, criminals, looters, killers, corrupted young people with low standard,… Look the generation who only think how to steal and get rich the way their “visionary” and his family and river boys did. A “visionary” can not be full of crime but a dictator.

  9. Yosef says:

    Ebeshir, I don’t think this is your name. It must be Ginbot Seven who wrote the comment above. Otherwise it must have come from the remnants of the Dergue. If you insist you wrote it, I would say you desperately lack originality as you are merely parroting either or both of them. I don’t think you have the intellectual capacity to judge Meles for you are too superficial. Meles’s IQ was at least three times as high as yours.

    • ebeshir says:

      Yes Yosef ! I am a real dump with low IQ even zero. IQ does not make people immune to dictatorship or vampire who suck human blood like Meles. If you proud of killings of innocent you can give away one of your family member. That is the real feeling how much is losing significant one. It does not need to be Ginbot 7 or remnant of the Derg to voice for the voice less and for their justice. It is not parroting shouting for democracy. I remember when the Derg regime was calling the current Tplf and Eplf regimes secessionists, bandits, bla bla for 17 years which was true that they were damaging infrastrutures, bridges, factories, robbing banks and burning churches and human alive they bled Ethiopia from their inception to this age. To day they are in the same music and Tone for the past 24 years. You may think and talk about superficial isolated “development” only for thugs “development.” Any government in this relatively “peace” and pouring of billions of debt and aid Ethiopia should have feed it self and deny famine. But people like you can only see their belly if it is not half and wants to be full regardless of other poor Ethiopians be dead in millions. Just do a simple survey how many of Tplf officials became corrupted millioners and billionaires and how many of you get salary with out working. If you want I am ordinary citizen but watching ! Need you to grow boy!

      • Yosef says:

        Hi E-Beshir, thank you for enlightening me agin on your opinion on Meles. You are definitely entitled to your opinion. You would rather say ‘the glass is half empty’ because you only see the negative aspects. I prefer to say ‘ the glass is half full’ for the positive aspects far outweigh the negative aspects of the change that Meles initiated and championed until his last breath. He had grand dreams for Ethiopia. I am proud of what Ethiopia has achieved so far in such a short time. Although I would not say there is no corruption and injustice, I dare say we can stamp out these evils if we unite and fight together. No hard feelings, my friend. In the final analysis, you and I are concerned for our country. Let just agree to disagree for the moment.

        • ebeshir says:

          Thanks Yosef ! Always there are possibilities for discussion. Your wish and my wish may have similar end. No one is above Ethiopia in the past and in the future. There was neither big man or big dream but big people or big Ethiopia. We need to stop worshipping individuals period.

  10. Yared says:

    For the first time what I know on Meles was the one person who are from both side used to say”Meles is smart than Isaias”in 1998 and know now what he meant on that topic thing but in reality Isaias was and still very wise on Ethiopia.He know better Meles’s small mentality Before Siye and Gebru startad the war against Eritrea.Isaias want and work hard to unity Ethiopia though Meles worked hard untill his Death to kill Ethiopia.

  11. amanu says:

    American are much more enemy than Ethiopia to Eritrea . so if melse were thought this and share the idea with them ,they would do all possible to help meles . don’t exagrate him .

    • Ashu says:

      Meles undoubtedly used his genius for devilish purposes, the effect of which is worst than brutal dictators.The destructive bomb, his installation, is apparent now than ever.

  12. Abera says:

    why should meles shoulder the blame for Eritreas’s sepration from Ethiopia ? Eritrea is an Ethiopian land but was left to colonization and later to barbaric killing by leaders in Ethiopia. What Meles and his TPLF did is bring peace and stability to the nation and the region and a learning epoch to the Eritrean public that unless part of Ethiopia they can not propsper and live in peace nor the Red Sea be profitable sport.

  13. Hunduma says:

    Collection of lies by TPLF mouth piece! You won’t even convinve an Ethiopian sheperd by your claim that Meles considered “Sudan as more threat than Eritrea….” and the other bunch of lies in this article!

  14. Kassa says:

    Think of it again right now!

  15. Kassa says:

    That was beyond of the boarders!

  16. Ernest says:

    This is a matter close to my heart cheers.



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