An interview of the Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi by Eritrean media about the country’s economy and relations with Egypt, Eritrea
Quotes from Interview
“Nasser (Ex Egyptian President) went out of his way to recruit non-Arabs into the Arab League simply because they were in close proximity to Ethiopia”
“they (Egyptians) do not need to stop us because we are doing their job….these are dams that they ought to finance, at least partly, because they will benefit from them.”
The last ten years have been “the golden years of Ethiopia”
“there is clearly light at the end of the tunnel and it is visible to every Ethiopian. And you don’t have to come to Addis to see it; you could see it in Washington.”
Ethiopian Egyptian relationship has been deceiving on the surface because, deep inside, both countries were mutually suspicious of each other—two major issues have been the Eritrean revolution and, hydropolitcs: the Nile water. You have now embarked on an ambitious power generating (not irrigation) project and it is making the Egyptians uneasy. You said that the projects would protect both Egypt and Sudan (in fact you said they should partially fund the projects). If that is the case, how do you explain the Egyptian reaction? Or is it the Egyptian wish to keep the 1929 agreement intact? Why would they object to Ethiopia generating power from the Nile?
Meles: You know the advantage of being in my position is you get to access information that is not necessarily publicly available. And the first thing that I learned that these Nile issues, debate on distribution of The Nile issue, was really a bogus issue. It was really a bogus issue because if you were to treat the Nile basin–and the most sensitive part of the Nile basin is the so-called eastern Nile, the Nile that goes from Ethiopia to Sudan and Egypt– because 85% of the water that goes to Aswan comes from Ethiopia. This part of the water, Nile, which is supposed to have shortage of water, doesn’t have shortage of water; it only has shortage of money. Ethiopia is structured to be the power generating center of the Nile, geographically. Sudan is, geographically, created to be the main agricultural producer of this region. Only the delta part of Egypt is supposed to produce goods, agricultural goods. And so if you use the Nile water in a rational manner, there will not be any shortage of water. The fact is, for example, that if you built dams in Ethiopia and removed Jebel Awliya from Sudan, it is useless; it generates 17 mega watts of electricity but exposes Nile water to evaporation in unheard of proportion. So you don’t need the regulation of Jebel Awliaya because the water would have been regulated here. And reduce the operating level of Aswan Dam, you would have enough water to irrigate more than a million hectares in Ethiopia; and 4 to 5 billion cubic meters of additional water for the Sudan, and Sudan can use the water better than anybody else. The Egyptians themselves have a water conservation project which will end in 2017. And their plan is to save 8 billion cubic meters of additional water. Now, unless they want to take this water and let it evaporate in the desert, they don’t have land that requires 8 billion cubic meter of water. So it is not really about water, it is about politics and power.
The problem, as I see it, is the politics of the Egyptian elite: there is a bit of racism behind it, and there is a bit of colonial inheritance behind it. Colonial clerks tend to be more colonially inclined in their attitudes than their masters and the Egyptians have been, to some extent, clerks of British colonialism in Sudan. And so they inherited this British theory of the Nile serving Liverpool via Egypt. Egypt growing cotton for Liverpool. And finally, the Nile has been this drug that has been used to hook the Egyptian people for external enemies and justify this gargantuan state, Egyptian state which is there to protect the Egyptians vis-a-vis the Abd from the South. So it has been a political instrument more than anything else. And the fact that the Egyptian edifice is beginning to crack now, is allowing alternative opinions amongst Egyptians to creep through the cracks… and these opinions are: why should we quarrel over some natural resource that belongs to us, let’s see if there is a rational win-win alternative…this is unheard of, but it is beginning to creep even into the Egyptian media, so I am very encouraged by it.
Do you intend to develop irrigation projects using the Nile in the future? And how would you balance the natural rights of lower Nile countries and your country’s right to exploit the Nile water resources?
Meles: The fact is that the Egyptians could sustain this irrational policy for a number of reasons. First, the geopolitical position was such that they could prevent Ethiopia from accessing grants, loans and credits for projects on the Nile. They have completely shut off our access to credit whether it is from World Bank, or Brazil or China or Europe or the USA. And so they were assured, given the poverty level in Ethiopia, that Ethiopia will not be investing anything on the Nile, of substance. That was the key instrument. The other instrument they had was that Ethiopia itself was unstable and was not going to focus on development and it was surrounded by hostile government. That is why [Gemal Abdel] Nasser went out of his way to recruit non-Arabs into the Arab League simply because they were in close proximity to Ethiopia—Somalia is a case in point. Now we have reached a stage where some of these assumptions are no longer valid. We are now able to do something significant. We first started with minor projects on the Tekeze [River], Lake Tana. Now we are in a position to be able to finance, on our own, the biggest dam that can be built on the Nile, in Ethiopia. We believe that this is going to dismantle much illusion amongst the Egyptians. We believe that this is going to convince them that they cannot stop us. We believe that this is going to convince them that they do not need to stop us because we are doing their job. The dams we build, we are unable to use 100% of their service, because much of the service is downstream-inevitably, unavoidably. So we will show them in practice, that where we build dams, these are not intended against them. In fact, these are dams that they ought to finance, at least partly, because they will benefit from them. So once we break this taboo, I believe the path will be opened for a rational engagement between ourselves and the Egyptians. By the way, on balance, the Sudanese have taken a rational position on the Nile. On the surface they seem to be twins on their positions on the Nile; that is far from the truth.
Eritrea is considered a Nile basin country, what is the strategic leverage that Eritrea has to influence Nile politics?
Meles: Eritrea is a marginal player on the Nile; it is part of the Nile riparian countries primarily because of the Tekeze River. As you know the Tekeze River or the Atbara River in the Sudan carries about 9 million cubic meter of water. There are one or two minor rivers from Eritrea that flow to the Tekeze and maybe contribute about 0.1% or so of the Tekeze which is itself part of the Nile basin. Every stream counts. That is why, technically, Eritrea is a riparian country but it is not in the meetings of the ten riparian countries of the Nile. This is not by design but because your president is not infatuated with international organizations of any sort.
The head of the Eritrean regime had close relations and coordination with Egypt on Somalis’ and Sudanese politics. He also had good relations with Gaddafi and benefited from him financially. Now, Mubarek is gone and Gaddafi is on the edge of the cliff. How do you think this would affect the Eritrean regime and how would that effect the stalemate between Eritrea and Ethiopia?
Meles: The thing is that Isaias needed the support from these parties, to do not just their bidding, but his own internal drive. So this was a marriage of convenience. This was not Egypt and Kaddafi hiring out Isaias. These [are] two groups coming together on the basis of a common agenda. Egypt providing some of the diplomatic clout, some of the training and assistance; Kaddafi providing the finance and Qatar also providing the finance. Now, what the current environment suggests is that this external support is no longer available. But that doesn’t mean Isaias is going to change his color; he will seek alternative sources of financing—and by the looks of it, he is likely to look at possible mining resources within Eritrea to fill in the gaps that will be left by the discontinuation of support from abroad.
According to the Eritrean regime, your government is on the verge of collapse and they mention defections and military operations by your opponents in North Ethiopia. How true is this?
Meles: According to the Eritrean regime, we have been on the verge of collapse, for what…ten years now! And these ten years happen to be, in the eyes of a neutral observer, the golden years of Ethiopia. We have been growing at a double digit rate for seven, eight years now. The country is stable from end to end. Obviously we have our own challenges; we are still a very poor country. Seven years of growth does not mean much when you start from the bottom of the heap. But there is clearly light at the end of the tunnel and it is visible to every Ethiopian. And you don’t have to come to Addis to see it; you could see it in Washington. Ten years ago, none of the meetings that we would call for would be attended by any significant number of people. The other day, in spite of massive campaign by the Diaspora opposition and the Eritrean regime, we had thousands upon thousands of Ethiopians attending our meeting and deciding to buy bonds for the construction of the dam on the Nile. So, it is a very stable government and that is what every major country that has interest in the region would tell you. I think this [claim of imminent demise] is how they keep the illusion of succeeding in their agenda of regime change in Ethiopia.
You have Libyan investment in Ethiopia. One of them is Libyaoil: Is it true that Libyaoil is owned by one of Kadaddfi’s sons? If that is true, wouldn’t [it] be a gesture for Ethiopia to hand over the assets to the transitional Libyan administration? How about the Libyan embassy in Ethiopia—what is its position, still with Gaddafi? And how much of your oil comes from Libya and how has the supply been affected?
Meles: I understand the embassy, at least formally, is siding with Kaddafi. The Libyan government has bought off Shell Ethiopia and it is now OilLibya. That is the only investment I know of the Libyan government or Kaddafi—it is very difficult to distinguish between the Libyan government and Kaddafi. I don’t know where Gaddafi private starts or where the Libyan government property ends. Now, the way we operate here in Ethiopia is to follow first international law—Security Council has said this property is sanction on Libya that applies to Ethiopia. Secondly, there is AU—sometimes we agree within them sometimes we do not agree with them. But even when we do not agree with them, we do not believe in publicly second guessing them. This, we think, is part of the due that we have to pay for the fact that we host the AU. So at this stage we have not recognized the national council in Benghazi, we wait for the AU to do so. Even in the case of, for example, Somaliland where we engage with the authorities like a sovereign authority, in everything except name. We refrained from recognizing them, and we have told the Somaliland authorities, they have got to get the African Union supporting them before we can recognize them. Again, in the case of [Alassana] Ouattara, in Ivory Coast. He is the internationally recognized president and he wanted to change his embassy here and we recognize him like the AU he is the internationally recognized leader, but we asked the AU if they would give us clearance, because he will also be the ambassador not only to Ethiopia but also to the AU. The AU told us to hold up for a moment, hopefully now they will give us a clearance. The way we operate here is such that we don’t take initiatives in recognizing states especially in Africa.
Over the last few weeks, you made statements regarding Eritrea and there were also statements from the Ethiopian ministry of foreign affairs. Is anything extraordinary happening at the border area, troop movements, preparation for an attack…or anything of that nature?
Meles: It is not so much about a tense border situation; it is about the fact that we have reached a stage where our previous policy of passive defense does not work, it cannot work anymore. In the past, our policy was to try and follow the terrorists that Isaias was sending across the border and try neutralizing them rather than responding at the source. That was fine for two reasons: first their target ground opposition and terrorism was government and government institutions, specifically, military and security establishment and other government entities. These are what they call “hard targets”, you can harden them and protect them. You can never be 100% fullproof. If some terrorist slips through a crack you can take it from there and move on because these are government targets. In recent months, the target has been shifted. The recent crop of terrorists that Isaias sent across the border were targeting things such as Fil-Waha [hot springs in Addis, which is a tourist destination] , Mercato [shopping district], taxis, buses—these are what they call “soft targets”. The instructions that they were given when they were being trained around Asseb in Dankalia region, was to change Addis into Baghdad. Now, when you have such soft target, the only way you can protect the soft targets is at the source. So, we now have to tell the Eritrean regime, if you carry outrageous acts in Ethiopia, not only the terrorists that you send, but you yourself, you are going to pay. And our response is going to be proportional. As I was saying in parliament the other day, if they shoot a bullet at us, we shoot a bullet back at them. If this forces them to stop the destabilization activity, all the better for everybody. If they maintain the current state of undeclared war and do not escalate it, we will maintain a response that is appropriate to it, we will not escalate it. If they escalate it to a war and a full scale invasion of Ethiopia, we will do what we always said we will do in the past because this will be a second certified invasion of Ethiopia where the proportionate response to it would be to make sure that there would not be a third one. So there is a shift in direction, it doesn’t automatically mean that there is going to be war –it all depends on how Isaias responds. [If it is] by escalation and invasion of Ethiopia, then we will have war. If he responds by de-escalating, then there won’t be one.
Last week I was in Djibouti and I visited the port facilities, the container storage, car storage, oil tank farms and dry cargo facilities. I also visited Bilbela, a town that seems to thrive on business from the Ethiopian drivers and the general Ethiopia-Djibouti business and the transport trucks that pass through it. I also saw thousands of Ethiopian trucks in that area. My question is: how much business is Djibouti getting from Eritrea? And if what happened ten years ago didn’t happen, how much of that business do you estimate would have been the share of Eritrean ports? And, if the political situation in Eritrea changed and there was a liberal, business friendly government there, how much of this do you think Eritrea would regain…I mean, including Massawa, which is more convenient to the northern part of Ethiopia.
Meles: Quite a lot. The current prospects in Ethiopia now are such that even if we had Eritrean ports as key ports, we will still be needing Djibouti. So, while we have not given up on the hope of normalization between these two countries, Eritrea and Ethiopia, nevertheless, we are convinced that even with normalization, Asseb and Massawa, and a few other ports like Tio, will just not be enough. So we are investing heavily in Djibouti. We are going to build a new railway from Addis to Djibouti. We are going to build a new railway system from the north to Tajura—a new port will be built in Tajura [old Djibouti port]. In the short run, all of that business, 80% of that business would have gone to Asseb and a small percentage would have gone to Massawa, but now it is completely diverted to Djibouti.
Can you give me some figures, the value of this business?
Meles: I do not have exact figures at hand, but I will be surprised if the net income of Djibouti were to be less than half a billion dollar or so.
Do you think that this business is lost forever by the Eritrean ports or Eritrea would be able to regain these lost opportunities under normal situation?
Meles: It is going to regain it precisely because the demand of the Ethiopian economy is going to go beyond the capacity of Tajura and Djibouti to take care of the requirements of Ethiopia. For example we are beginning to develop the potassium resources in the Afar region of Ethiopia—that is millions of tons per year that needs to be transported. Technically, the closest port to this is not even Asseb, it is Tio. You could develop it into a big port. So under normal situation, Eritrea could regain most of these businesses and develop new businesses as well.