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close this bookThe Courier N 145 - May - June 1994- Dossier : European Union: the Way forward - Country Report: Ethiopia (EC Courier, 1994, 104 p.)
close this folderCountry report
close this folderEthiopia: Emerging from a long Dark Age
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentPresident Meles Zenawi
View the documentAn interview with opposition leader Dr Beyene Petros
View the documentReaping the peace dividend
View the documentMotivating the peasant
View the documentReviving private business and industry
View the documentFreedom of the press - A contribution to the democratic process
View the documentProfile
View the documentEU-Ethiopia Cooperation: the largest support programme in the ACP

President Meles Zenawi

Democracy and development have to come from the grass roots

Meles Zenawi, chairman of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, was elected head of state in July 1991 at the national conference of political organisations and ethnic groups which established Ethiopia's Transitional Government. A Tigrean from the north of the country, he was one of the leaders of the armed uprising which had overthrown the Mengistu regime two months earlier. The President talked to The Courier about his government's basic thinking and its record in office.

· Mr President, your party came into power in Ethiopia after a long struggle and many sacrifices. Which of the lessons or philosophies of that time before 1991 are you now applying in government?

- Confidence in the ordinary peasant; confidence in the rationality of the ordinary Ethiopian; full trust in the wisdom of the ordinary Ethiopian and basing all our actions on the desires of the ordinary man. That has been the central theme of our approach to politics and developments as a whole.

· How do you apply this in practice?

- Well, the first thing that we have tried to do is to devolve power to the grass roots, the regionalisation policy. We devolved power not just to the various regions but also to the districts and the villages, and we have confidence that when power is devolved to the grass roots, on the one hand, democracy becomes meaningful to the ordinary Ethiopian and, on the other hand, the ordinary Ethiopian is empowered. And when the ordinary Ethiopian is empowered, we feel confident that the country will move in the right direction.

· How do the ordinary people to whom you are making this appeal react? Given the background history that they come from, are they perhaps inclined to think that anyone in authority has an ulterior motive or is not one hundred percent to be trusted?

- That indeed is normally the case when the ordinary Ethiopian is confronted with some change. Fortunately in our case we are not strangers to the ordinary peasant. We based our struggle on the countryside and we depended on their support for survival. It is because we got their support that we were able to overcome the biggest army in black Africa. And so a relationship of trust had already been established between our movement and the people in the countryside, at least in a very large part of the country. There are some areas where our movement was not actively engaged up to almost the very last part of the war, and in those areas it takes time to overcome the natural scepticism of the peasantry. Nonetheless, because we had already established the relationship of trust earlier on in a very large part of the country, and because we had the experience in dealing with the population in the countryside, we did not find that part of our programme all that difficult. Perhaps convincing the population in the urban areas in a similar manner was slightly more complicated, in our circumstances.

· What made the transitional government opt for a free-market economic system 7 Are you being coerced into it by the international and bilateral donors and lenders?

- In many countries where a structural adjustment programme is undertaken, it is assumed that it is imposed by the IMF and the World Bank. So far we have not done anything in terms of our economic reform programme that we are not completely comfortable with Whether the IMF and the World Bank have given us more leeway than other countries, I do not know, but in our case so far we have not taken a single action that the World Bank suggested and we did not like. All the actions that we have taken are actions that we are completely convinced are rational and important for our economy.

· How did you consult the people on the economic policy to arrive at this confidence?

- Most of the fundamentals in terms of policies affecting the countryside had already been established during the struggle. And so it did not require that much debate and discussion to convince the people in the countryside. The important change in terms of the countryside after the demise of the Derg regime is devaluation and that helps the peasants, especially those who export products. So it tallied with our approach of basing our actions on the desires and wishes of the majority of our population, which happens to be the peasants.

The problem in the urban areas is slightly different because there is the issue of retrenchment, both of government workers and of workers in state enterprises. There is the issue of privatisation, which affects employees. In this regard we have been cautious, and we are approaching it on a step-by-step basis. We concentrated on making sure that our factories and establishments operated at full capacity before we started the process of retrenchment. We are now approaching full capacity utilisation. In the meantime we hope that the economy will pick up and new job opportunities will be created, so the impact of retrenchment will be minimised. But in some instances we had to take some rather drastic actions of completely liquidating some state enterprises, including state farms. Most of the state farms that we have so far liquidated were liquidated by redistributing the land to the peasants. That again tallies with the desires of the peasants. It does not necessarily tally with those of the employees of the state farms. So we have had some resistance on the part of those retrenched employees. Perhaps that is the price that we have to pay. Nonetheless the impact has not been as bad as people had predicted. Usually when these types of programmes are implemented you do not see an immediate pick-up in terms of economic development. In our case our economy shot up by about 7.6 % in the first year of the reform, so that cushioned to a large extent the negative consequences of such reforms in the urban areas.

· In the urban areas, where the government's policy of encouraging the emergence of private sector business and industry will primarily apply, I suppose, businessmen and women c/aim that there are still too many restrictions, time consuming procedures, money-wasting delays by the banks and the public administration. Some of them say that you encourage them in theory but in practice the government is not yet creating the right framework for them to operate in freely. What do you say to this?

- Well, I think practice has to speak for itself. The economic reports that we - the government and our partners in development - all have indicate that there is a very sharp increase in private activity in the economy. Now it is perhaps to be expected that there should be some leftovers - after all, it is only one year and a half since we started the programme. It takes a lot of time to streamline the bureaucracy, to promulgate the necessary laws. Only three days ago we adopted a new law allowing local investors to invest in insurance and banking business. Now this is just a law, and it will take time before we have private banks and private insurance here. So there is this natural difference between desire and the capacity to implement one's wishes.

On the other hand, in the past 17 years the private sector that we had, such as it was, was based on rent-seeking activities. Now these opportunities are beginning to dwindle. Therefore I can expect some of the so-called private sector of the past 17 years to be worried about what we are trying to do now and to be quick in complaining. So there is both an inevitable and perhaps understandable need for time and, on the other hand, an understandable readiness on the part of those who are involved in rent-seeking activities to complain when they realise that the reform programmes might not encourage their previous activities - on the contrary, they might undercut the whole livelihood of a significant sector of the so-called private sector we have here. It is mainly a newly emerging sector rather than a continuation of the past.

· Something that sticks out like a sore thumb from the free-market economy is the system of state ownership of land which you inherited from the previous regime. Why have you perpetuated that system?

- Let me start with the political reasons. In the past, before 1974, that is before the land reform, land to the south of Addis Ababa was owned by northern landlords. The whole population of the south in the countryside were serfs. The land reform was extremely popular in the south in 1974 and people have to differentiate between the land reform and the policy of collectivisation and so on that followed it. The later policy was very unpopular. That does not mean the land reform itself was unpopular, because it released something like 70% of our population from serfdom. These people still remember the past and they feel that if people were allowed to sell and buy land, they would soon be dispossessed and they would soon go back, in effect, to the pre-1974 situation. So anybody who wants to allow land to be sold and bought in the south must be prepared to suppress that big majority of the population. Now that might be possible for an urban-based movement. For us it is neither possible nor desirable.

Then we have the social damage. We have a pauperised peasantry. The economy in urban areas has not yet fully picked up. The moment we allowed land to be sold and bought, a very significant section of the population in rural areas would descend on the towns, having sold their land, and that would create an explosive social condition that we cannot in any way handle. So in effect, not allowing land to be sold and bought is serving as a sort of social security system.

And then we have the economic damage. Economically what we are suggesting is that land should not be bought and sold but they can rent it. They can hire labour, which was not possible in the past. They are free to produce whatever they want, they are free to sell it at whatever price they can fetch, they will be able to inherit land and so on. So the state ownership of land simply means that you cannot buy and sell it. Almost everything else you can do. And, because of that, the negative effects of state ownership of land or the consequences that are associated with it, like the peasants not taking proper care of their land, do not apply in our case because they can pass it on to the next generation, they can rent it. All they cannot do is sell it.

And then we need to develop large commercial farmers, private farmers. There are two options for doing that. One is dispossessing the peasants of their land: that is not the best way. The other option is breaking new land, and we have more than enough of that. So we can also satisfy our economic requirements by allowing the commercial farms to break new land and the peasants to be fully attached to their own land, because, apart from not being able to sell it, they can do everything else with that land. And so we think there is a very convincing political, social and economic reason for what we are doing.

· The rural population lacks a great many social facilities that other countries take for granted. I am thinking of primary education, health care, equal opportunities for men and women - I know these causes are very dear to your heart. How are you going to start doing something about it?

- We are going to try to do something about it by allowing the peasants to do something about it. For that we need to empower them politically, to allow them to make their own decisions about developments. Now the major asset they have is labour. They can be employed to build roads, they can contribute to the building of clinics, schools and so on. That is the primary weapon we have. That alone will not be enough. They will need technical assistance. They will need a certain amount of financial assistance. That is for us to provide to the best of our capacity. That capacity is not all that big at this stage. But for what it is worth, our focus is on the countryside. We have made it very clear in our development strategy, which we are presenting to the World Bank, that economic and social development in Ethiopia will be rural-based development. Develop the rural areas and then the urban areas will benefit from developing this huge rural sea in which these urban islands are situated.

· There are, of course, political interests in Ethiopia other than those represented in the transitional government. Are you afraid that the gap between the government and the opposition parties is becoming dangerously wide?

- In a certain sense it has always been dangerously wide with some elements of the opposition. As you can see, the type of reform we are trying to implement is in Ethiopian terms extremely radical, the devolution of power after a century of assimilation and centralisation. It is a fundamental break with the past. In these types of fundamental breaks with the past, we are bound to trample on some toes by the very fact of the reform. And sometimes these trampled toes react in an irrational manner. So there are those beneficiaries of the previous system who have not yet reconciled themselves to the facts of life as they are defined now. They know they cannot change this through the ballot box because we have got some 85 % of the population in the rural areas. They know they cannot change that through the bullet because they have already tried it and they were defeated. And in any case, be it through ballots or bullets, it is the peasants who decide in this country. And so now they are trying a third approach,that of conscripting forces in the international community and trying to utilise possible pressures from the international community to try to regain some of their lost positions. And so they start by boycotting the process and accusing us of not being all-inclusive. Now, if you boycott, by definition it will not be all inclusive, so you are engaged in a self fulfilling prophecy. Then they walk this tightrope between obeying the laws and engaging in criminal activity, thereby provoking a reaction from the government and then they can claim that they are being harassed, that they are being imprisoned and so on and so forth. That is the approach and it is not good for the development of a responsible opposition.

Nonetheless, I do not think it threatens either stability or the process of democratisation in this country. In terms of stability, this country will be stable so long as the rural areas are stable. If the rural areas are unstable, whatever happens in the urban areas, this country will not be stable. Now we are dead sure that the rural areas are stable and will continue to remain stable, and so it does not cause a real threat in terms of stability. In terms of democratisation, for us the critical things are the devolution of power and the building of institutions. We have developed power, which means we have made democracy relevant to the ordinary Ethiopian and that guarantees democracy in this country. One of the failures of democracy in Africa has been that it has been limited to the educated few, and the ordinary man did not differentiate between a dictator and a democrat. To all intents and purposes they were just as stupid, they were just as irrelevant, they were just as hostile to him. Now, we have devolved power. They are going to test it, to learn to appreciate it and they will not let it go. So democratisation as a whole is safe.

And we are also building institutions. For the first time in the history of Ethiopia people are now free to talk, free to express their opinion, free to criticise the government. Just a few years ago people were not even free to talk freely within their homes, just in case a child might overhear and report it. That is a major achievement as far as we are concerned.

· Your government allowed Eritrea to secede. What will happen if other regions want to follow Eritrea's example?

- They will tee free to do so, but I do not think it will happen.

· Why not?

- Because the situation in Eritrea is slightly different from the situation in Ethiopia. In Eritrea the process started 30 years ago. There was a 30-year war which had its own consequences in terms of the opinion of the ordinary people. We took pre-emptive action in Ethiopia before things got out of control. If we had waited for a few more years, we would have had Yugosiavia - but we opened up. Now people are free to use their own language and administer their own areas, this devolution of power has released the tension that was there. Now people are talking about development. When you start talking about development, you start talking about a wider economy, a bigger market and you cannot have bigger markets by dividing up states. That, we believe, even the peasant will understand.

· Is the food shortage in Ethiopia now a chronic state or have you a policy for tackling that?

- That is a chronic state. Once again, we want to have development that is rural-based, we start from the rural areas, we start by feeding ourselves, we start by feeding our urban areas, and to do that we have to start by developing the rural areas. So our total orientation in strategy for economic development is to start by developing the rural areas, meaning agriculture. The shortfall in our grain production is structural, it increases and decreases from time to time depending on the weather, but there is always a shortfall. And that shows how chronic the problem is. It requires the introduction of appropriate new technologies, the wide spread use of agricultural inputs and so on, and that takes time and money. Nonetheless we believe we have the right policy and the right strategy. It is only a matter of time.

· One of Ethiopia's largest partners in development cooperation is the European Union. Do you find it a satisfactory partner, and, in particular, do you and the European Union agree on the priorities for development in this country?

- On the whole, we agree on the strategy for development. The only thing I find difficult to understand, in view of the general efficiency of the European countries, is the delays that one faces in terms of dealing with the EU establishment. Every document has to be translated, I think, into nine or ten languages, every country has to make comments. So the disbursement of assistance is not as fast and flexible as it could be. Otherwise, as you say, the European Union happens to be our biggest partner in development and we are satisfied with the general conditions of that partnership. This problem is not peculiar to Ethiopia, I think, and I am sure many of the European leaders themselves feel frustrated.

· You have elections coming up in June. The foreign donors and lenders want the transitional government to succeed be cause they are very apprehensive of the effects in Ethiopia and in the wider region, if you fail. Do you share those worries?

- Well, I share the worries in terms of recognising what the impact of failure is going to mean. I do not necessarily share their apprehension in the sense of feeling that it is going to be a failure. I am sure it is going to be a success. Interview by R.R.