By Abebe Gellaw –
Washington DC (ESAT)–America’s top diplomat for Africa under George H.W. Bush has said that the hegemonic minority rule of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) is difficult to sustain as Ethiopians are demanding freedom and democracy. Former US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Ambassador Cohen, played a key role in Ethiopia’s transition from the military junta of Mengistu Hailemariam to the minority rule of Meles Zenawi in 1991.
In an exclusive interview with ESAT, Ambassador Cohen noted that the hegemony and authoritarian rule of the TPLF is a fact that exists in Ethiopia. He noted that Ethiopians should never give up on democracy and they need to continue putting pressure of the Meles regime until democracy eventually comes to Ethiopia.
In the aftermath of the violent election-related crackdowns in 2005 that claimed the lives of nearly 200
Amb. Herman Cohen, former Assistant Secretary of State for Affairs
civilians, Ambassador Cohen had told the Voice of America that Prime Minister Meles proved to be a failure.
“Mr. Meles and his TPLF party fought to overthrow a very dictatorial and tyrannical regime. Everything that Prime Minister Meles said at that time indicated that he was a true believer in the democratic process. But over 10 to 12 years, he has proved to be a disappointment…. They are condemned to rule the country as a minority and that is very dangerous for stability,” he said.
Ambassador Cohen pointed out that US diplomatic efforts in 1991 were primarily focused on saving Addis Ababa from destruction. “The TPLF was at the gates of Addis. We wanted to make sure that the war ended with what we called a soft landing in Addis and there should be no destruction….We didn’t say takeover the government. We said take over Addis,” he said.
Ambassador Cohen also indicated that he tried to engage Meles and press him to implement genuine political and economic changes. He revealed that Meles had once told him that the reason why he would not implement land reform was because of his distrust for Amharas.
“He [Meles] told me that the federal system would work so that each region governs its own affairs. But it didn’t happen that way. And I questioned him about land ownership. I was promoting allowing the farmers to have ownership of the land. He said that was not good because the Amharas would come and take over and buy all the land; and these people [the farmers] would return to be serfs like they were under the Emperor,” according to Ambassador Cohen.
The former diplomat said that after hearing such rhetoric it became clear to him that Meles was going to “impose the same type of authoritarian regime that Ethiopians has always had.”
Asked why the US is still supporting the Meles regime, Ambassador Cohen explained that after President Bush lost the election to President Clinton the later was “seduced by Meles” as he talked the kind of language that Clinton wanted to hear. “He spoke the language that Clinton liked to hear. We want free enterprise, we want democracy and so the Clintons gave him the benefit of the doubt.” He also indicated that Ethiopia’s position as a strategic ally has been another factor why the US still maintains closer ties to the Meles regime.
Ambassador Cohen also revealed that the US government had also given priority for the airlifting of Ethiopian Jews, also known as Felashas. During the last hours of the military junta, the government of Israel paid $35 million as ransom, which was deposited in the government’s account in New York. The former diplomat said that the money was not embezzled by Derg officials, contrary to popular belief.
Ambassador Cohen also admitted that the May 1991 London Peace Conference, which has been recorded as an America-brokered peace process in history, did not happen as it did not go far beyond a consultative meeting he held with EPLF representatives led by Isaias Afeworki and Meles Zenawi’s TPLF delegation, as well as OLF that had a minor role, at the Berkeley Hotel. It also emerged that the so-called “London Peace Conference” of May 27, 1991 under America’s mediation never happened.
Asked why it was necessary to hold a peace conference if there was no negotiations, Ambassador Cohen said: “We thought it was good for public consumption and to show that everyone was sitting around the same table having discussions. The British were there and we wanted to show that this was a true peace effort and that we were not doing everything in secret.”
In his book Intervening in Africa, Ambassador Cohen candidly wrote: “The peace conference began the morning of 27 May  in the conference room provided by the British Foreign Office. I opened the meeting with a statement urging the parties to work out a transition to a democratic form of government and to maintain a single economy of Ethiopia and Eritrea…After my statement, the three parties decided to continue on their own without a mediator…They repaired to a private room for their own discussions, which produced a short public statement. The statement said that a decision has been made to hold an all-parties conference in Addis Ababa no later than 1 July, at which time a transitional government would be debated and launched.
ESAT also enquired why Ambassador Cohen read the statement in front of the international media despite the fact that he was not part of it. “I read the statement [because] I did not have any problems with it. They told me the reason they wanted me to read it was that it would give it more credibility with the international community if the American government would announce it. So I felt that if it would promote true peaceful outcome, I should do that,” Ambassador Cohen said.
ESAT raised a range of issues with Ambassador Cohen related to Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa including US foreign policy toward Ethiopia in the context of gross human rights violations.