Ethiopia and the ‘Meles Doctrine’ of National Security

[Remarks by Alex de Waal on the occasion of the first anniversary commemoration of the death of Meles Zenawi, Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, August 20, 2013.]

It is a privilege to be here today, to honour the memory of the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.

I first had the opportunity to meet Meles during the liberation struggle in the mountains of Tigray, in 1988. Among my main memories from that visit are very sore feet and sleeplessness. Part of the secret of success in guerrilla warfare is, I believe, going without sleep. And I trust that the path at the Meles Zenawi Foundation’s garden, built to instruct visitors about his life, will be less arduous than those stony hillside tracks.PM Meles Zenawi

Another memory was the exceptionally high level of intellectual engagement of the TPLF leadership. I travelled each night on the back of a truck, that was like a travelling seminar. The TPLF leaders made the case that war, and victory in war, was primarily an intellectual exercise. Once the task had been thoroughly analyzed and properly understood, accomplishing it was the simpler part.

Comrade Meles was also capable of articulating the most complicated analysis into just a handful of sentences, telegraphic and precise.

Meles Zenawi was well-known for his theorization of the democratic developmental state. But his thinking was broader, and was consistently all-of-a-piece and joined up. Let me speak for a few moments about his contribution to Ethiopia’s national security and foreign policy, not as a practitioner but as an intellectual leader.

He defined the first objective of Ethiopia’s national security, not as having a strong national defence force—however important that may be—but as human security for Ethiopians. The centerpiece of what we might call the “Meles Zenawi doctrine” of national security was promoting and defending national economic development. For without the conquest of poverty, Ethiopia would remain weak and vulnerable, no matter how many tanks and helicopter gunships it might be able to deploy.

This led to a strategic engagement with neighbouring countries, with Africa, and with the globe. Meles emphasized the economic and infrastructural integration of Ethiopia with all of its neighbours, especially in terms of transport, communications, and energy. He saw African integration and unity, and the strengthening of pan-African institutions, as imperative. And he saw the opportunities and challenges of globalization. Meles argued that Ethiopia needed careful and creative study of its relations with every country—examining the best forms of integration with the neighbours, and the best forms of development partnership that each developed country had to offer.

Meles’s analysis of foreign relations was informed by a deep sense of history and the structural determinants of politics. I recall going to see him in March 2011, barely a fortnight after the overthrow of the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. I was expecting a discussion about Sudan, but he opened with a question: “What is happening in Tunisia and Egypt, is it 1989 or 1848?” He was referring to the popular uprisings that overthrow Communism in eastern Europe, and to the “springtime of the people” in the mid-19th century, in which there was a brief moment of democratic hope, before the liberals took fright and sided with the forces of repression, leading to a protracted authoritarian crackdown—but not before the spirit of revolution had been kindled across Europe.

Meles answered his own question: the Arab Spring was more like 1848. He foresaw that in Egypt, the liberal revolutionaries would not be able to sustain their breakthrough, and that the future of the country would be contested between the military establishment and the Islamists. And he predicted that, whatever government was in power, it would soon face the problem of the unrealized aspirations—principally the economic aspirations—of the Egyptian people. Hence it would try to externalize its problems. Constrained by the Americans from threatening Israel, he foresaw that Egypt would raise the issue of the Nile Waters and might seek to confront Ethiopia.

Meles’s diplomacy around the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam therefore included pro-actively engaging with the downstream nations to allay their legitimate concerns over the Nile Waters. He believed in a future of cooperation with Egypt, not confrontation. He was sure that the issue of the Nile waters could be resolved with a win-win formula.

This is a fine example of what I would like to see as Meles’s guiding principle of intellectual leadership. According to this principle, you must define and master an issue, or it will master you.

The second pillar of Meles’s security doctrine was national pride. He condemned what he called “jingoism on an empty stomach,” and insisted that Ethiopia’s proud tradition of nationalism should be conjoined to the pursuit of Ethiopia’s own national development strategy.

And national pride should begin with Ethiopia defining its own development goals and strategies, and in turn its own security policies. Rather than approaching national security “from the outside in”—accepting others’ frameworks for what Ethiopia is and what it should do—he insisted that Ethiopians must take the lead in defining the world they want.

The final pillar of the national security policy is the reality of globalization. On the one hand, Meles saw the enormous challenge that globalization posed to Ethiopia, and especially its development strategy. On the other hand, globalization opened new opportunities.

Notably, the most important consequence of the rise of China was not that it presented a new model for development and foreign relations, but that the simple fact that there was a new global power opened up a new space for seeking genuine African solutions. During the Cold War, African countries could choose capitalism or socialism, neither model appropriate for the continent’s needs. The unipolar world that followed the end of the Cold War gave developing countries no choice, obliging unorthodox thinkers such as Meles to hunker down and bide their time. What China had done for Africa was, as it were, to neutralize the magnetic field that aligned all countries’ policies with the so-called Washington Consensus, allowing them, for the first time, to think about how to do things in their own way, for their own interests.

And indeed Meles proceeded precisely to do that: to plot a truly independent, nationally-focused development and security path for Ethiopia.

As a scholar rather than a politician, I see such intellectual contributions as the defining feature of the late Prime Minister’s legacy. I trust that the Meles Zenawi Foundation will pay particular attention to nurturing the spirit of independent, rigorous and fearless thinking, which was the hallmark of the late Comrade Meles Zenawi.

This was what characterized him during the struggle in the field, and the struggle in the palace.


Content gathered and compiled from online and offline media by Hornaffairs staff based on relevance and interest to the Horn of Africa.

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