Understanding Meles Zenawi: Conversations with U.S. Diplomats (Part 2)

by the Strathink Editorial Team

Part 2 of our series on the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi looks at conversations with American diplomats on events following the 2005 election.


Prime Minster Meles is displaying a kind of respectful defiance of the international community as he builds Ethiopia democracy—his way.

U.S. Ambassador Donald Yamamoto

To understand Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is to understand one underlying, inviolable premise of his leadership philosophy—Ethiopia would not be governed from the outside. Whether it was the Ambassadors Group in Addis, the U.S. Congress in Washington, D.C. or the European Union in Brussels, Meles would not submit to international pressure “to sacrifice Ethiopia’s long term democratic development for the ‘mob justice’ of international public opinion.” On this point, he was steadfast.

The principle of non-interference was a central tenet of both the Prime Minister’s domestic policy and foreign policy. Concerning Eritrea, the Prime Minister believed that Ethiopia, despite its desire for regime change, should never have boots on the ground. This explains his refusal to march into Asmara following Eritrea’s defeat by Ethiopia during the border war. Although Ethiopia had sent troops into Somalia to route the Islamic Courts, Meles stuck to the principle of non-interference in Somalia’s political affairs—working instead to strengthen he Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and security. Prime Minister advised the U.S. to do the same—let Somalis drive their own political process.

This did not mean that he didn’t listen, and even cultivate, a wide range of opinions. U.S. charge d’affairs Huddleston said in one cable, “Meles seeks advice from a wide variety of people with divergent views, even antagonistic to his own, in order to ensure that he fully understands all sides. He does not want to be isolated or confined to one single approach. Meles does not stand on protocol and invites visitors to meet with him even after our [U.S.] Embassy would not normally make such as request.”

Huddleston added, “Meles is an avid reader with books and reading materials throughout his private home. He is deeply inquisitive and constantly asks questions, verifying information with a variety of sources. Meles is also very interested in knowing people, who they are, their background, and how they came to have certain ideas and views. But of importance is that Meles constantly challenges set views and policy ideas.” In the end, however, Ambassador Huddleston noted that Meles heeded his own counsel.

The events following the 2005 elections in Ethiopia brought considerable challenges to the Prime Minister’s office. For Meles, one of the most significant challenges was to separate the hardliners in the opposition—who were working to overthrow the constitution, and effectively, the government—and the vast majority of voters who wanted to send a message of protest to the EPRDF, such as over taxes and agricultural policy. He began by releasing about 5,000 protesters who had been detained and screened. This group was comprised mainly of unemployed youth who, according to Meles, had been used by the CUD leadership to throw stones and create an atmosphere that signified insurrection.

Meles was pressed by the international community to release the jailed leadership of the CUD but the Prime Minister was adamant that fomenting street action was unacceptable. He made clear to the diplomats attempting to intervene that these actions were a threat to Ethiopia’s democracy. Meles believed that to forego the judicial process would foster disrespect for Ethiopia’s rule of law. The Ethiopian people would believe that the international community governed Ethiopia, not the government.

When the British threatened, and made good on their threat, to withdraw some foreign aid, unless the leadership was released, the Prime Minister responded by saying, “that would be over my dead body.”

Instead, Meles was encouraging the international community to engage with the opposition members who made the decision to join the parliament. Meles was working with the newly installed parliament on a number of reforms—revised parliamentary rules for a multi-party legislature, new rules for the National Electoral Board, and a new media law.

The international community, however, maintained its focus on the jailed CUD leadership.

The Prime Minister felt, according to the cables, especially resentful of the ambassadors group in Addis Ababa. He argued that the ambassadors in Addis were hindering any kind of meaningful dialogue between the government and the opposition by their interference. The opposition, he believed, was using the ambassadors as an alternative to a dialogue with the Ethiopian government.

The U.S. ambassador expressed opposition to trying the CUD leadership in court. Meles made clear that in order Ethiopia’s democracy to move forward, “this thing has to go all way.” The Prime Minister was adamant about signaling the message to Ethiopians —especially the opposition—that there were consequences for failing to respect the constitution and rule of law. He was acutely aware of the “public relations challenges” of the detentions but concluded, “This is a painful price to pay , but I know the value of these trials internally. The opposition needs to know that no matter how much they protest in Crawford [Texas], they cannot change democratic processes here.”

Further, added the Prime Minster, the Ethiopian government would not resume its talks with the opposition until the ambassadors group concluded its own dialogue. “opposition parties need to know the right address for dialogue is right here.” Meles stressed that he would not interfere in the conversation between the ambassadors and the opposition, but would let it play out. He was concerned about the delay this was causing, but believed there was no alternative. Once the dialogue between the opposition and the government commenced, he said, foreigners might be invited in but would not direct the process. Meles acknowledged that the embassies’ interaction with the opposition is a normal part of diplomacy. However, he said, some embassies seemed intent on “saving us Ethiopians from ourselves.” According to Ambassador Huddleston, Meles concluded by saying, “Salvation must come from within.”

In 2007, the U.S. House of representatives had proposed punitive legislation against Ethiopia, “The Ethiopia Democracy and Accountability Act.” According to the cable traffic, Meles called the legislation an “insult” and a threat to bilateral relations. On several occasions, cables noted that the Prime Minister preferred a partnership with the United States based on “values” and not just counterterrorism. The Prime Minister stressed that Ethiopia’s activities to counter terrorism in the Horn would continue regardless of U.S. support, but cooperation was a much better option for both countries.

Meles argued that legitimate constructive criticism from friends in a fair and respectful manner was on the table, but legislating about “the minutia of internal politics in Ethiopia” was not appreciated. The Prime Minister repeatedly emphasized that Ethiopia’s survival depended on democratization as it is too divisive for anything else but, and always but, “it is Ethiopia’s process.”

Even during the most challenging periods of the Prime Minister’s tenure in office, Meles was steadfast in his commitment to govern Ethiopia from the inside. Throughout his time in office, the international community, particularly the U.S. Congress and the E.U, scrutinized Prime Minister Meles’ every step. Yet, bowing down to external pressure was an anathema to a government intent on maintaining its independence and sovereignty.

Throughout the period following the 2005 elections and its aftermath, Meles tolerated the strident calls from the international community to release the jailed CUD leadership. He allowed the dialogue between the CUD leaders and ambassadors group to play itself out before re-starting the more useful conversation between the government and the opposition. He faced intense international pressure for external forces to dictate the terms of post-election politics yet insisted on maintaining the judicial process. It would have been much easier to give in to international pressure and reap the short-term reward of the perception of magnanimity.

However, the Prime Minister could not see sacrificing the short-term gain of international support for the long-term goal of advancing democracy. It was inconceivable to the Prime Minister, based on these conversations with U. S. diplomats, to succumb to a public relations solution rather than the more difficult process of protecting the constitution. After all, overthrowing the constitution was at the heart of the opposition’s actions following the election. The international community wanted gestures that would only serve to legitimize the unconstitutional activities of the opposition.

The international community played an inappropriately outsized role during this period. The EU’s election monitoring team, led by Ana Gomes, had fallen under the spell of Berhanu Nega and his Rainbow Party—one of the mainstays of the CUD. Her attempts to de-rail the electoral process have forever tarnished the role of election observers worldwide. The aftermath of the monitoring group’s arrogant pronouncements about the results—before the results were in—empowered the opposition to take what they felt was theirs through unconstitutional means.

Adding insult to injury, that same international community that had encouraged, either directly or indirectly, the CUD to challenge the election outcome outside of constitutional means then demanded the release of the CUD leadership.

Meles, however, did not bow to international pressure. The Ethiopian government would follow through on the judicial process. In the end, the CUD leadership was tried and convicted. After 20 months, the CUD leadership was granted amnesty and released. Their political rights were restored—including the right to vote and seek political office. Salvation had come from within.


Part 3 of this series will look at Ethiopia’s counterterrorism efforts in the region, with a focus on Somalia.

4 Responses to “Understanding Meles Zenawi: Conversations with U.S. Diplomats (Part 2)”

  1. Mulae says:

    Melds was a dictator who ruled Ethiopia with an iron feast. He was a man of principles, which Ethiopia could have been better off without. It was meles’ principle that cost tens of thousands of young Ethiopians and a port when he repeatedly was outsmarted by his former comrade in arms, PIA of Eritrea. In the end, he left Ethiopia landlocked and vulnerable to future internal and external upheaval with the help of its historical enemies.

  2. Mulae says:

    Meles was understood, his messages were clear and loud. He did not wan to heed the peoples vote and embrace opposition parties.

  3. Melak says:

    Ato Mulae i think you are talking about another Meles, because the Meles we lost four years ago was a miracle maker.unless you missed the DERG era Ethiopia the current one is much better.anyway check your record before writing nonsense.

  4. Tibebe says:

    Meles has performed as or better than many famouse world leaders. No one will have one solution for the multi cultural Ethiopians, however, Meles has chalenged himself and the Ethiopian people enough to have a sence of accomplishment and pride in the country. Eventhough there are shortcommings to his leadership, his successes surpasse by far. He is one of the best sons Ethiopia has whose work has resulted in some fruitfull form, and his achievements will be appreciated for many generations to come.


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