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Eritrea: Afewerki, “The intention of Meles was to place time bombs in all the regions”

Interview of President Isaias Afewerki by ERITV

The year 2020 had been a challenging year, with the Corona Pandemic in the early part of the year and the military clashes instigated by the TPLF later in the year. In the first week of November 2020, the TPLF launched a large and unexpected attack which has resulted in the removal of the TPLF from power. What will be the effects of this in Ethiopia and how will it affect the region, especially the peace process between Eritrea and Ethiopia.

PIA- If we are to look at recent events in Ethiopia, especially since the reforms began, we see that Prime Minster Abiy’s desire to have peace and a good relationship with Eritrea can be considered as a turning point. It is imperative that we must try to examine in some depth the TPLF’s rational and motive behind its unexpected and sudden attack in November. This will go some way  to clarify the reasons behind their decision.

When the peace deal was announced in 2018, prevailing popular and general sentiment was that peace was achievable. The hope was that the state of peace had reached a new level. With the hope came the expectation of leading a peaceful life and there were great anticipation for economic development in the region. This is not to say that prior to 2018 there was no aspiration for peace and development, but that is an altogether different matter with its own issues which had complicated matters. The peace process [of 2018] was essentially a declaration that the game the TPLF had been playing in Ethiopia was over. As a result, the past two years were years of turmoil within the TPLF. The possibility of peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia, the establishing of good relations between the two and the positive impact that it could have on the two countries, caused a great deal of anxiety within the TPLF and its associates.

Therefore, they chose to prepare for war in direct contradiction to the prevailing atmosphere for the desire for peace that was evident to see. The TPLF having started its  preparations for war, increased its pace and carried on at a break neck speed. On our part we were observing these preparations. The announcement by PM Abiy that he had accepted the Eritrea Ethiopia Boundary Commission decision with out any preconditions and Eritrea’s subsequent acceptance of the PM’s call for peace on June 20 2018, became a source of anxiety for  the TPLF, making it uneasy.

The TPLF had held the border issue hostage and had tried to use it as its trump card. This created a huge political challenge for us. To us the border issue was an issue that had been already decided in court and it would be a matter of time before it would be resolved on the ground. Hence our decision not to focus on the border issue, setting it aside for the time being and choosing to focus on what we considered to be more important and of greater priority at the time, which was the extremely concerning and worrying prevailing situation in Ethiopia. We were of the view that we should support the efforts that were aimed at bringing positive change in Ethiopia, and see that they were not thrown off from the right path, before raising the border issue which has already been decided and did not need further discussions.

Our main concern was to work for a lasting peace and we had decided to patiently observe developments, without losing our focus. On our part we had increased our efforts to enhance and further develop the climate for peace. However, while we were for peace on the other hand, we were seeing preparations being made for war, attempts to create obstacles to the peace process and a concerted and continuous attempt to create stumbling blocks for peace and good relationship between the two countries. It was not just us who were aware of these covert military preparations, the Ethiopian Federal Government was also following these developments.

PM Abiy was proposing many well intentioned and pleasing proposals. On our part we told him that what he was proposing was indeed very good, but our past experience has taught has that we should not rush into such things before carefully considering the matter especially in light of what we were observing.

In a move that reafirmed our intentions to create good relations and further develop the blossoming peace and in the hope that we could harness the goodwill that existed,  we took practical steps and opened the border with Ethiopia at Bure, Zalambesa and Om Hajer.

PM Abiy had continuously urged me to meet with Debrestion [TPLF leader] to resolve our differences, but I told him that I did not need an intermediary to speak to Debretsion. However, since I was observing things that I was not happy with, I explained that there was no need for haste and that we should work towards further securing the peace instead. In the meantime the TPLF chose to stand against the peace process, choosing instead to continue with its military preparations, and conducting a propaganda campaign intended to create divison and conflict. When we opened the, Zalambesa border, due to what I was observing about the actions of the TPLF, I did not have much appetite to meet them [TPLF] then, deciding to meet them at a later date.

At Om Hajer, I did not want to make excuses not to meet with the TPLF so I decided to meet with them. We had an opportunity to meet briefly for a minute or two as we had a busy schedule. I had only one message to them, even that I was not sure if it was my place to say so. Having debated with myself whether or not it was necessary to mention the matter, I decided that it was better to mention the subject now to avoid any regrets in the future and I did not want to lose the opportunity to ask as PM Abiy was pressing me on the matter. When I asked Debretsion why they were preparing for war, he replied, it won’t happen. I had asked what ‘it won’t happen’ meant, but it was not made clear. At the time, I saw my role as a messenger, to pass on the message to the TPLF that war was not a viable option and that they need to stop thinking about making war. There was no point in holding their people hostage, claiming that they were going to be invaded from the south by the Ethiopian government and by Eritrea from the north.

It was after that we decided that we should study the matter in greater detail and begin to draw up possible scenarios and our responses to these secnarios. In the end on 3rd November [2020] an event happened that no one could have reasonably foreseen or predicted. I want to put on record for the future, that despite us following events closely, monitoring the military preparations and the campaign intended to create points of conflict, and having considered all possible outcomes, nothing could have prepared us for the reckless attack that was launched. If anyone was to tell me now that what had happened in November could have been predicted, I will have to ask by what kind of miracle will you be able to see such a scenario developing?

When you look back at what had been planned, you will be truly amazed. The way the regional forces and the federal forces were organised and interacted is a big issue by itself. The Ethiopian Army Northern Command was about 30 to 32 thousand strong. Of these about a third were Tigrayans. Before the military action was taken, they [the TPLF] conducted elections and tried to claim that the Ethiopian Federal government no longer had legitimacy. This could be considered to be the first part of their game plan. The elections were conducted and everyone saw the fanfare surrounding the event. The question at the time was where all this was leading to. It turns out this was supposed to clear the way for the attack which was launched, an attack in my view was tantamount to madness.

The ultimate aim of the plan was to destroy the Ethiopian Northern Command, which was supposed to protect the borders and the sovereignty of Ethiopia, by either killing, capturing as many as you can and then declare that what remained of Northern Command had joined forces with the TPLF, to then march on the capital Addis Ababa to take power and along the way if it works out, to change the government in Asmara. To enter a conflict with such unrealistic aims is a miscalculation. Most conflicts are a result of gross miscalculations, a gamble that has gone wrong. No one thought that we would witness a miscalculation on such a grand scale.What is really surprising and what I consider to be historic personally, is that the turning point came when remnants of the Ethiopian army, a significant portion, were able to defend themselves and thwart the plans.

It is now about 3 and half months since these things happened and the Northern Ethiopian Army personnel can speak more about the developments in the region and their experiences. But on our part we did not think that the situation could escalate so rapidly and get out of hand so quickly. None of us anticipated the level of reckless irresponsibility, and desperation that drove them [the TPLF] to do what they did.Events of November have to been seen in the perspective of the developments seen in the past two years. We need to ask how they [TPLF] ended up taking such a reckless and destructive decision. Although looking at the past two years is important, we should not be limited to the past 2 years only. This is a culmination of the consequence of the politics that was been practiced within Ethiopia for the past 30 years and is not something new that happened overnight. As our aim is to find a lasting solution, we have to have a good sound understanding about the cause of the current state of affairs if we are to find a solution.

In my view all what has happened recently is as a direct consequence of what I consider as ‘Time bomb politics’. What does ‘Time bomb politics’ mean, it is a system where potential problems are buried until such time it is necessary to detonate them.

Going back to 1994, based on the good relationship we had with the TPLF and the ongoing discussion about issues that cropped up which we ended up either disagreeing or agreeing with depending on the nature of the issue. One of the relevant discussions with regards to recent events is the meeting I had in 1994 with the late Meles Zenawi [Ethiopian leader & head of the TPLF]. In 1994 he told me that he was coming to see me as he had a matter he wished to discuss. He brought with him a copy of the draft Ethiopian constitution and told me that not many people had seen it, but he wanted me to give him my opinion on the proposed constitution.

I read it several times and highlighted some of the issues of concern. Having read the content several times, I was overcome with a sense of foreboding, I could see the potential serious dangers embedded in the proposals. It was not just the article 39 [ the right to ceded] that was of concern, but the entire draft constitution gave an indication as to where things were going to head to.

When I met him again I shared my thoughts and told him that this constitution is not one that befits the people of Ethiopia and is not worthy of the people. By any measure the constitution was not fit for purpose, for Ethiopia or for any other nation. He told me that he had expected me to react the way I did and raise the points I did. He went on to say that he only showed me the copy as a courtesy and as far as he was  concerned this constitution was the only one that will work for them [TPLF].

The intention of Meles was to place time bombs in all the regions — simmering issues. If all went well for the TPLF then well and good, the bombs remain buried. But, if for some reason things took a turn for the worse and they [TPLF] lost  their power and influence, then they were prepared to detonate these political time bombs as and when required, to regain their power. The principle behind the formation of the regions and the way they were administered was not so that they would work to bring about one strong nation, the intention was to serve the interests of the TPLF clique. How is it possible to develop a nation and move forward with such a mentality?

If we look back on the past 20-25years of the politics of Ethiopia, we see that the political culture that has been developed is one based on pitting one ethnic group against another and cause enmity between the groups. Division and strife had been sowed at all levels and this culture of fomenting discord, hatred, strife is the thinking behind the principle cause for what we are seeing today.    What is the overall picture of Ethiopia today, not just the one in Tigray? A great host of very concerning practices have been encouraged to develop in the country. If in the future we are to avoid such events as witnessed in November, if we are to live in peace as neighbours respecting one another and helping one another, such practices should not have any place in our politics.

We have seen the same pattern or trend emerge elsewhere, be it Somalia, Iraq, Libya, Syria and what was recently attempted in Sudan. This trend is to establish clan/ethnic based systems which are primarily controlled by war lords. This will cause the disintegration of the country.What we have seen in Ethiopia in the past 20 or so years is no different.We have had similar experience in the past but we have learnt from it and are determined that it will not to be repeated. We will always work against divisive politics.Our foreign policy is primarily focused on bringing about peace and development, in addition to identifying issues that will try to derail our path. Our intention is to bring about tangible growth and we do not have any intention to involve ourselves in a relationship for the sake of PR consumption.

(Associated Medias) – All rights are reserved