Meles Zenawi: Ethiopia's pragmatic philosopher-king or cruel despot?

(By: Dr Adekeye Adebajo)

* Ethiopian leader’s critics condemn his political repression, but none can doubt he has steered pragmatic course to GDP growth.

Meles Zenawi, the cerebral ruler of Ethiopia for the last 21 years, is a man with many reputations. Celebrated by donors as a visionary philosopher-king who has brought development to his impoverished country of 75 million people, his domestic critics have condemned him as an iron-fisted dictator.

Meles, now 57, came to power in 1991 after his Tigray People’s Liberation Front waged a successful 30-year war, alongside the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, that toppled the dictatorship of the Soviet-backed Mengistu Haile Mariam.

The new leader strongly supported Eritrea’s independence in 1993, but within five years the former allies were fighting a bloody conflict that lasted between 1998 and 2000 and resulted in nearly 100,000 deaths.

Matters were not all peaceful at home either. In 2005, when the opposition won 23 seats in parliamentary elections, the regime reacted harshly, killing 200 protestors and locking up 30,000 opponents. Some were later tried for treason.

Five years later, continued repression – including a clampdown on the media and foreign-funded NGOs, as well as a draconian anti-terrorism bill – combined with a divided opposition to ensure that his ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front won 99.6% of votes. More opposition arrests followed these polls.

Meles’ personal popularity is, however, hard to gauge in a country in which the press and civil society are closely monitored. He has pledged to step down in 2015, but broke a similar promise in 2010.

While in power, Meles has pursued a pragmatic course in a coffee-dominated economy, 30% of which is still propped-up by foreign aid. Ethiopia has seen impressive annual growth of about 9% over the last decade, with the number of rural schools and clinics increasing and child mortality dropping.

Yet critics point out that villagers have been forcibly relocated to make way for foreign investors, and that widespread poverty and food insecurity are still prevalent.

Meles has raised his international profile by representing Africa on the global stage, such as at the G8 and G20. He has maintained close ties with the US, with Washington benefitting from Addis Ababa’s experience and intelligence in fighting Islamist networks.

Meles supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and has allowed Washington to send drones into Somalia from its territory. Ethiopia itself sent troops into Somalia to fight anti-American Islamists between 2006 and 2009, and forms the backbone of the UN peacekeeping mission in Sudan’s volatile Abyei region.

Addis Ababa is also the largest African recipient of British aid. Meles has, however, avoided dependence on the west by obtaining Chinese assistance for building roads, railways, and dams, and championing a Chinese "model" of development.

Meles has dominated domestic politics to the extent that a power vacuum on his departure seems certain. No other political figure has the stature to hold together the fractious ruling coalition. His deputy, since 2010, is Hailemariam Desalegn, an engineer who also serves as foreign minister. It is, however, unlikely that this succession will be smooth and much political uncertainty lies ahead.

Meles has ruled Ethiopia without rival and, ultimately, will be remembered as a pragmatic autocrat.


* Originally published on The Guardian, on Aug. 9, 2012, titled “Meles Zenawi: Ethiopia’s pragmatic philosopher-king or cruel despot?”, authored by Dr Adekeye Adebajo, who is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution in Cape Town, South Africa, and author of The Curse of Berlin: Africa After the Cold War (Hurst, 2010).


Update: The Guardian posted the following corrections:

Corrections and clarifications, Friday 10 August 2012 19.08 BST

* An article about the Ethiopian prime minister, Meles Zenawi, who has not been seen in public since June, said his Tigray People’s Liberation Front had waged a successful 30-year war that toppled the dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991. The TPLF was not formed until 1975, although the Eritrean independence war can be dated from 1961. The article also said the opposition won 23 seats in disputed parliamentary elections in 2005. It won 23 in Addis Ababa, and more than 170 overall (Pragmatic autocrat who has close ties with the US, 9 August, page 22).

* Ethiopian prime Meles Zenawi not seen for seven weeks was amended because the original said Meles had not been seen in public since a G8 summit in Mexico in June. That was a G20 summit.


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