The US media CBS-News has been running a series titled ‘The world’s enduring dictators’ since mid-May – intended to profile 31 ‘dictators’ by presenting one at a time, according to the length of time they been in power. So far, CBS presented 24 leaders. [I put the word dictator in quotation because CBS used a vague criteria(link) that left out even leaders of China and Cuba.]

The latest and 24th profile is none but of Meles Zenawi, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia.

How did Meles Zenawi end up in CBS’s list of  ‘The world’s enduring dictators’? CBS provides a very brief résumé of Meles Zenawi’s , which consists accurate, debatable and errant statements, including irrelevant links.

Yet, I wish to limit my comment to the two points which CBS stated as Meles Zenawi’s ‘most despotic acts.’

1/ CBS claimed:

While Eritrea was officially blamed for starting its infamous war with Ethiopia from 1998 to 2000, Zenawi did little to prevent the escalation of what many described as a pointless conflict that left at least 70,000 dead on both sides and cost two of the world’s poorest countries hundreds of millions of dollars.

True, it was a mistake to go to war, though I supported it then. But Meles Zenawi is hardly the person to be blamed for that. It is a public knowledge that he insisted on resolving the border dispute through legal means – an unpopular position, backed by only one member of the ruling party, EPRDF, leadership. In fact, it was this position of Meles Zenawi that subjected him to a smear campaign questioning his patriotism during the intra-party crisis in 2002 that brought him to the verge of losing his job. This is an account corroborated in the recent book by Seye Abraha, former Defense Minister now opposition figure, who directly accused Meles Zenawi for ‘dragging his foots’ during the war even after his position was defeated by majority vote.

Perhaps, CBS is referring to Ethiopia’s position on the implementation the Ethio-Eritrea border commission ruling, as that is the story on the news item linked in the above quoted statement. Still in that case, Meles Zenawi moved, and had it approved in parliament, the unpopular ‘Five point Peace proposal’. A proposal which concedes to the border commission rulings ‘in principle’ but insists on ‘a discussion for its implementation’ – a position widely acclaimed by the international community. In fact, Meles Zenawi is still ‘suspected’ of preferring to comply with the contested the so called virtual demarcation of the border commission, in a country where annexing the Eritrean port Assab is loudly contemplated.

One may justifiably argue that no matter what his personal views may be, Meles Zenawi takes the blame as long as he didn’t resign. But, resigning is a measure rarely leaders take and that doesn’t earn him the verdict he ‘did little to prevent the escalation‘ of the war.

2/ CBS’s also stated: 

Many claimed there was a clear victory for opposition politicians in 2005, but the ruling party said it won before results were announced, and it has maintained power since.

Though the ruling party was the first to claim win without waiting for the election board to announce the results, the opposition parties soon followed. In fact, they went as far as saying ‘no one voted for EPRDF, not even the candidates themselves.’ Yet, the blame may still lie at the ruling party, given its status as a governing party, as it should not have set a bad example rather exercise restraint.

But where did the statement ‘Many claimed there was a clear victory for opposition politicians in 2005’ come from? The link on the sentence is to a recent post on CNN – which is an interview with an Ethiopian journalist Dawit Kebede not an election analysis. In fact, CNN inserted the statement as a side comment without citing any source.

CBS didn’t have to endorse the reports from the Ethiopian election board or African Union Observers in its profile of a ‘dictator’. Yet, it could have checked at the reports by the Carter Center observers mission, led by former US President Jimmy Carter, which criticized the election process yet affirmed the legitimacy of the outcome.

In fact, the claim that ‘the opposition had a clear victory’ is NOT supported even by Mrs. Ana Gomez, who headed the European election observation mission in 2005, and who is at odds with Zenawi’s government so far as to publicly endorse groups that intend to change government through violence. In her speech on May 2010 in Washington D.C., at a meeting organized by Ginbot 7, a group that promotes violent struggle and led by former leader of CUD(Kiniit), a major opposition party in 2005; Mrs. Ana Gomez claimed: ‘the ruling party disturbed the vote counting process … thus it was not clear who won … and we can never know who had won.’

Though Ana Gomez’s statement suffice to show CBS’s statement has no basis whatsoever, one may cite various western scholars, who consider Meles Zenawi as a ‘dictator’, yet believe the ruling party won or must have won the 2005 election. In fact, that is obvious when one notes that the opposition didn’t field candidates in about a quarter of the constituencies – not to mention the difference between the ruling and opposition parties in terms of finance, organizational structure, party discipline, and the like.

As a concluding note, I would like to add that this brief post is not intended to whitewash Meles Zenawi, as he shares the blame for the state of Human Rights in the county that is far from ideal. But the blame should be based on concrete faults, which there are many.


You may read CBS’s account of the 24 ‘dictators’, it presented so far, by the links below:

Hassanal Bolkiah, Brunei
Muammar Qaddafi, Libya
Qaboos bin Said, Oman
Ali Abdallah Saleh, Yemen
Jose Eduardo dos Santos, Angola
Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe
Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, Equatorial Guinea
Paul Biya, Cameroon
Yoweri Museveni, Uganda
Blaise Campaore, Burkina Faso
Mswati III, Swaziland
Sayyid Ali Khamenei, Iran
Omar Bashir, Sudan
Idriss Deby, Chad
Nursultan A. Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan
Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan
Emomali Rahmon, Tajikistan
Than Shwe, Myanmar (Burma)
Isaias Afewerki, Eritrea
Kim Jong-il, North Korea
Yahya Jammeh, The Gambia
Aleksander Lukashenko, Belarus
Hamad bin Khalifa Al Than, Qatar
Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia

Daniel Berhane

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