The late Meles Zenawi was a staunch supporter of Eritreans’ legitimate right to self-determination and independence. He displayed this support not only after entering Addis Ababa with the help of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front/Army (EPLF/A) in 1991, but also when he was still a rebel fighter in the countryside of Tigray in Northern Ethiopia, where he articulately advocated for Eritreans’ legitimate right to independence. Zenawi and his Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) have long recognised the Eritrean issue as that of a colonised nation and that its problem with Ethiopia could only be resolved by respecting the Eritrean people’s desire and legitimate right to self-determination and independence. Many within the Ethiopian anti-Dergue (1974-1991) opposition movements, mainly Abyssinians, used to believe that the Eritrean problem should be resolved within the context of a “Democratic Ethiopia”, and that calling Ethiopia a “colonial power” was un-Marxist and contradictory to the history of colonialism, because colonialism, they argued, was linked to industrialisation and the derive for raw materials etc. But Meles Zenawi and his colleagues argued against this assertion citing the case of Portugal that was once a colonial power even when it was not an industrialised country.
In 1991, when the TPLF assumed power in Ethiopia, Eritreans believed that the Ethiopian assumptions – regarded by the Eritreans as fallacious –would not be pursued. Indeed, all the pronouncements of the TPLF leaders at the time appeared to be genuine. However, in an interview with the American writer Paul Henze on 31 March and 1 April 1990, Meles Zenawi, then head of the TPLF, made two notable points. First, he said that he did not expect Eritrean unity to endure once the Dergue was expelled from Eritrea. The main reason he furnished for this was that Eritrea was a religiously divided nation, and that he expected to see internal conflict once the enemy had gone. Second, he also expressed his unqualified preference for an Eritrea linked to Ethiopia in a federal arrangement rather than an independent Eritrea. Meles’s thinking at that stage led Eritreans to conclude that the TPLF had itself never been free of the old fallacies of the Ethiopian ruling classes. For the Eritreans, the only exception was that the TPLF wanted Eritrea, not for Ethiopia as a whole, but, according to Meles’s own admission, to benefit the interests of Tigrai. This hidden agenda has, according to the Eritrean government, continuously been in the forefront of Tigrian propaganda literature and the pronouncements of the TPLF’s leaders. In fact, according to TPLF propaganda, the issue is no longer their allegation that ‘Eritrea occupied Ethiopian territory, by force, at Badme’. It is, rather, Eritrea’s internal political and economic problems, which were presumably to be ‘corrected’ by any war waged by the TPLF against Eritrea. In short, the re-occupation of Eritrea or parts of it appears to be, from the Eritrean point of view, the real reason for the present conflict. Seen from this perspective, the border dispute is the direct result of the TPLF’s expansionist policies and disposition.
TPLF’s Expansionist Policies and Disposition.
As I have already stated, on 3 and 5 April 1990, Paul Henze interviewed Meles Zenawi, the .head of the TPLF at the organisation’s Headquarters in Washington D.C. The interview which lasted for more than five hours was conducted in a question and answer form. Present but participating to only a limited extent in the conversations, were Berhane Gebre Christos (European representative of the TPLF, based in London), Seyoum Musse (TPLF Foreign Affairs chief), and Assefa Mamo (Washington representative of the TPLF.
PaulB. Henze: What is your position on separatism?
Meles Zenawi: We are not separatists. We want a united Ethiopia. But we do not want a centralized Shoan-dominated Ethiopia. I just read the speech you gave to the
Eritreans here a couple of weeks ago. I support everything you say. I agree
with you that the Ethiopian state is valuable. It should not be destroyed.
It should be put back together on a democratic basis and with guarantees of
freedom and autonomy for all its peoples, so it can develop economically.
Federation is the only way this can be done. We are in favour of federation.
This is the only way the damage the Derg has done can be repaired.
PBH: These bring us to Eritrea and the EPLF. How are your relations with the EPLF? Do you talk to Isaias Afewerki?
MZ: I talk to Isaias often. We have no disagreements now. During the 1970s
we worked together and had no serious disagreements with them. In 1984 we
broke relations. The break was over different understandings of the Soviet
Union. They still believed the Soviet Union offered a model for the future
and that it could be reformed. They argued that the Soviets were misled on
Ethiopia. They wanted to persuade the Soviets to support them instead of the
Derg. They thought the Soviet system was a model they could apply in
Eritrea. We thought this was foolish because we had learned in Tigray that
we had to develop our own model and apply our own system in accordance with
our own conditions and practical experience. We watched all these talks
where the Soviets tried to use the Italians and the East Germans to bring
the Derg and the EPLF together and we always thought nothing could come of
them. We were right.
So we had very poor relations with the EPLF for four years, 1984-88. Then we
worked out an agreement again. They came to see the Soviet Union the way we did. They gave up their illusions. They saw what was happening in the Soviet Union under Gorbachev. After their great victory over the Derg at Afabet in early 1988, we both began to cooperate again. They have given us help, but
we are still a very independent movement. We are not dependant on them. We
control all of Tigray now. We would not want to be dependent on anybody from
the outside. We won our battle at Enda Sellassie with our own strength. If
they had not helped us, it might have taken longer, but we would still have
won. But that does not mean that we see everything the way EPLF does. I want
to assure you of that.
PBH: What are your differences?
MZ: The EPLF has a much more difficult situation than we do. Many of our
differences result from that, and we have an understanding and sympathy for
their position. In Tigray we have a united people. No more than 10% of our
people are Muslims and our Muslims are Tigreans first and Muslims only
second. That is not true in Eritrea. The population is much more divided.
The Eritrean Muslims themselves are divided. There are at least three groups
among them. They don’t see things the same way the Christians do. The EPLF
has some of them with it and its policies have been sensible — it is trying
to make the Muslims part of a united movement. But that is not possible and
the closer the EPLF comes to taking power in Eritrea the more dangerous this
issue becomes. There are serious tensions between Eritrean Christians and
Muslims in Sudan. This will become apparent in Eritrea when the Derg’s
control is gone. We do not have this problem among Tigrean refugees. They
all stick together – the Christians do not resent the Muslims and the
Muslims do not feel oppressed by the Christians.
PBH: And separatism – how do you see this issue in comparison with the attitude of Eritreans?
MZ: The EPLF has the problem that the population hates the Derg so much that
it has all become separatist. The population wants independence to be
declared as soon as the EPLF takes Asmara. Isaias understands some of the
difficulties of this because he has thought a lot about it in the past year.
But he has terrible pressures from his people. It is a difficult issue for
Paul B. Henz: Are the Eritrean highland Christians as strongly in favour of an immediate declaration of independence as Muslims?
Meles Zenawi: There are different opinions on this, but we think that the whole
population wants independence. They may not understand what it means. These
people were once strongly in favour of unity with Ethiopia. The Shoan Amharas
destroyed that feeling. The highlanders are getting more impatient than the
leadership of the EPLF. Isaias sees problems in independence and does not
want to rush and create difficulties for himself, but he doesn’t have full
control over this issue.
PBH: What would be your preferences?
MZ: We look at this from the viewpoints of the interests of Tigray first,
and then Ethiopia as a whole. We would like to see Eritrea continuing to
have a relationship with Ethiopia. We know that Tigray needs access to the
sea, and the only way is through Eritrea. Whether Eritrea is part of
Ethiopia or independent, we need this access and, therefore, must have close
ties. There are many Tigrayans in Eritrea. They are concerned. They don’t
want to be treated as foreigners there. There has always been close
connections between Tigray and Eritrea for the highland people are all the
same. They have the same history. We are worried about Eritrea because we
are not sure that differences among different groups can be kept under
control. Everything could be destroyed there if people begin fighting each
other. When the EPLF takes over Asmara, they will have a difficult burrito,
because they have to keep the people together. Some of the Muslims will
favour separatism but there is no strength in unity among them on this issue.
The ELF has no active strength in Eritrea now, but it still exists in Sudan
and there are many Muslims who sympathize with it.
PBH: I have the impression that the situation in respect to Asmara is
similar to that with Gondar – the Derg’s ability to hold out there is
steadily eroding. Eventually the city will fall to the EPLF. Perhaps before
that happens the Derg forces there will work out some sort of deal with the EPLF. Do you think this is likely?
MZ: You know that during the coup attempt last May we were in contact with
the Derg forces in Asmara and offered a ceasefire and collaboration, just as
the Eritreans did. We thought we could work out a truce and lay the basis
for a new relationship in the region. We could have done that with the
people with whom we made contact. But elements loyal to Mengistu got the
upper hand. They thought Mengistu could do wonderful things for them. He
probably made all sorts of promises of promotion to them. We think these
elements still control Asmara and we have not seen evidence that their
control is weakening yet. No one has tried to contact us. The EPLF is moving
up the escarpment. If they take Ghinda and Embatcala, they can bring up
their heavy artillery – – which they captured from the Russians two years
ago – – and strike at Asmara airport. That will be a serious blow against
Derg forces and will shorten the time they can hold out.
PBH: But what next? Conditions of life in Asmara are already said to be difficult – no electricity, cilantro water, no fuel for civilian transportation, no fuel for cooking. Surely something will have to give way?
MZ: We don’t know. We would like to see everybody get together and set up a
provisional government so that this kind of situation can be avoided.
PBH: Would you expect the EPLF to participate in a provisional government in Addis Ababa?
MZ: We don’t know. We think they could play a constructive role. We would
really like to see Eritrea retain a relationship to Ethiopia, but we don’t
know if Isaias can work out the situation to make this possible. Our own
position is very delicate. We have to have good relations with Eritreans, so
we recognize their right to self-determination, going as far as independence
if they want it. We endorse their proposal for a referendum because we don’t
think there is any other solution for the situation that has developed. But
we really hope that Eritrea can remain part of a federated Ethiopia. I agree
with what you have written about the advantages for the Eritreans
Compiled by Tsegezab Gebregergis.