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Interview for 20 October 2018 Edition of Ethiopis, Ethiopian Amharic Weekly

Q: Please share your reminiscences about Meles Zenawi. Was he a democrat? Did he strike
you as an honest person? Was he good for Ethiopia?

A: Most of my interaction with Meles Zenawi occurred when I served as ambassador to

Ethiopia from 1996 through 1999, although I subsequently met with him on several
occasions in Addis Ababa and Washington until his death in 2012.

Meles was one of the most focused, disciplined, and intelligent persons that I have ever
met. One example makes my point. During one of my many meetings with Meles I had a
long list of issues to raise with him. He usually asked me to make all of my points and then
he responded. I went through a list of at least ten issues, realizing towards the end that I
should have shortened the list. Meles listened patiently, took no notes, and then responded
fully to each issue in the order that I raised it. I have met very few people who could do

Meles was not a democrat as I interpret democracy in a Western liberal democracy and I
doubt that even he would claim to be such a democrat. In the framework of revolutionary
democracy, perhaps Meles saw himself as a democrat but that is not my context for
responding to your question. Meles maintained strong control within the EPRDF but
sometimes had to accommodate the views of others. He ruled Ethiopia following recent
experience as a guerrilla fighter and that experience sometimes impacted how he governed.

In my view Meles was an honest person in that I know of only one occasion in all of our
meetings where I was able to determine definitively that he was not truthful. With that
exception, he was often exceptionally frank in our discussions and he expected me to be
likewise with him.

Was Meles good for Ethiopia? That is a question better posed to Ethiopians than an
American. I think I can say that Meles was good for Ethiopia’s economy. Have there been
mistakes? Yes. But the economic growth numbers were impressive. Was he good for
political development? That is more problematic. He and the EPRDF created ethnic
federalism, which has plenty of critics and proponents. Was it the most appropriate form of
government for the period after 1991? That is clearly subject to debate. I have long had my
doubts about ethnic federalism and once asked Meles if he really thought it was the answer
to Ethiopia’s future. He responded that Ethiopia has tried everything else (monarchy,
communism, military rule) so it was time to try ethnic federalism. To suggest that Ethiopia
has tried every other form of governance is a bit of an exaggeration but Meles was
convinced that ethnic federalism was the right decision.

Q: Was a dramatic shift away from Meles’ policies inevitable after his death?

A: I would argue that in the years immediately following Meles’ death there was little
change in policy and that this was completely predictable. Meles knew of his impending
death and, typically Meles, set the agenda that remained in place through the time that
Hailemariam Desalegn remained prime minister. Real change was not possible until most of
the guerrilla fighter generation had disappeared from government and the second
generation of leadership led by Abiy Ahmed came to power.

Q: Share with us your thoughts about Abiy Ahmed and the change he has brought to

A: With the departure of so many members of the old guard and the rise to power of so
many younger Ethiopians who have no connection to guerrilla fighting, I was not surprised
Prime Minister Abiy would undertake significant change. But I have been surprised by both
the scope and rapidity of the change begun by Abiy Ahmed. While I agree with the
overwhelming majority of the changes, I worry that if he moves too quickly on some of the
reforms that he will encounter serious opposition that could jeopardize the desired positive
result. Ethnicity, land, and religion have been especially sensitive issues for centuries. It is
essential to tread carefully when changing the government’s approach to these issues. It is
also important to ensure that all ethnic groups, especially the smaller ones and those who
perceive they are underrepresented in the central government, be treated fairly and with

Q: Is Ethiopia more stable or unstable after Abiy? And what prospects do you see in this
regard in the near future?

A: I tend to believe that Ethiopia is more stable after Abiy, although recent ethnic conflicts
raise serious questions about stability in the near future. The government’s response to
ethnic conflict will be critical to the maintenance of stability. If there are serious human
rights abuses, then Ethiopia may return to a pattern that would be most unfortunate. These
are perilous times for Ethiopia but, frankly, I could make that statement on several dozen
occasions dating back to the 1960s. Fortunately, the overwhelming majority of Ethiopians
are well meaning. Ethiopia has endured many crises and I believe it will endure the current
one and come out of it even more united so long as the government responds wisely.

Q: How has the emergence of Abiy affected the geopolitics in the Horn of Africa? Is the
peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea durable?

A: Except for changing policies vis-a-vis Eritrea, Prime Minister Abiy has not had a significant
impact on the geopolitics of the Horn of Africa. Relations with all of Ethiopia’s neighbors,

except Eritrea, were good under Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn and they remain
good under Abiy. The important change is Ethiopia’s relationship with Eritrea. The
reestablishment of cordial relations with Eritrea is a huge positive development for both
countries and for the wider region. In my view, this peace is durable because it is in the
national interest of both Ethiopia and Eritrea to have normal relations. There is no
downside to this development.

Q: Why are there so many foreign military bases in Djibouti? And how will they impact the

A: The United States, China, France, Japan, and Italy have military bases in Djibouti. Saudi
Arabia may join the others. The explanation is simple. First, Djibouti has a good port that is
strategically located at the southern end of the Red Sea, which connects with the
Mediterranean through the Suez Canal. Second, Djibouti is willing to accept these bases
because they earn foreign exchange and help guarantee the security of the Ismail Omar
Guelleh government.

The bases have different purposes. The American base is designed primarily to counter
terrorism in the wider region, including Yemen. The French base is intended to support
French interests throughout the Indian Ocean region. The Chinese base is focused on
supporting its anti-piracy operation in the Gulf of Aden, aiding its peacekeeping
contributions in Africa, being available for evacuation of Chinese nationals from conflict
zones, and extending Chinese naval power into the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean. The
primary goal of the Japanese base is to protect Japanese shipping and commercial interests
in the region. Saudi Arabia, if it establishes a base in Djibouti, will be looking to support its
war in Yemen. Other countries with troops in Djibouti have small contingents with limited
goals. Consequently, these bases impact the region in different ways, depending on their

Q: Has Islamic extremism gotten weaker or stronger in the Horn of Africa over the past

A: I would argue that Islamic extremism today is weaker in the Horn of Africa than it was a
decade ago. Because of al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda-affiliated organization, extremism is
holding its own in Somalia but not strengthening. The Islamic State presence in Somalia has
not resonated and remains a minimal threat. Sudan has cracked down on Islamic
extremism. No where in the Horn of Africa is Islamic extremism ascendant. Nor has it gone

Q: What should we worry about in the Horn of Africa over the next five years?

A: There are several obvious political issues that are of concern. One is bringing an end to
the civil war in South Sudan and establishing a government that reigns in corruption and
makes a serious effort to represent the will of most South Sudanese. Another is to defeat al-
Shabaab, reign in corruption, and develop a government that represents the will of most
Somalis. In addition, some kind of accommodation is needed concerning the future of
Somaliland. Although the current situation could easily continue for the next five years, it is
not normal. Finally, the entire region should pay more attention to improving the human
rights situation and strengthening the rule of law.

With relatively high population growth rates in the Horn of Africa, especially Ethiopia, it is
important to focus on economic development and particularly increased employment
opportunities for young people. Growing unemployment or under-employment will
contribute significantly to political instability. Although the time horizon is longer than five
years, all of the countries in the Horn of Africa need to pay more attention to food security
and especially more effective farming/herding policies and practices in each of the
countries. Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, and Eritrea can and should be food self-sufficient.
They are not. In years of severe drought this is understandable. In years of normal rainfall,
there is no excuse.

David H. Shinn

20 October 2018

“በብሄርፌደራሊዝምላይእኔራሴ ጥያቄአለኝ”