Ethiopia’s late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi appeared at a climate change conference in Dec. 2009, in Copenhagen, Denmark. Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/ Getty Images.
When he died in a Belgian hospital on Monday at 57, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi left behind a country indelibly shaped by his life and career. The next few weeks of assessments and obituaries will determine how the past few years will be leveraged against the preceding 30.
Meles lived one of those lives to which Americans tend to pay little attention, but end up having tremendous consequences for this country. He fought a guerrilla war against one of the worst regimes in Africa during the closing years of the Cold War, the Derg regime of Haile Mengistu Mariam. Mengistu was backed on the battlefield by Fidel Castro and elements of the Cuban Army, and brought tremendous turmoil and suffering to Ethiopia after he overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie.
Meles took a historically pivotal country, at an important geographical crossroads of Africa, and created the modern state.
I admit it is a little hard to remember just how precarious the situation in the Horn of Africa was during the mid-1970s. Soviet-aligned coup leaders were in charge in fragile Somalia; giant, multi-ethnic Ethiopia; and just across the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, South Yemen.
Not far away sat revolutionary sugar daddy Libya, where Muammar Gadhafi was ready to shower future rebels with petrodollars. Ethiopia itself was torn by widespread unrest, with major ethnic groups wanting to pull away from Addis Ababa and form their own states. It was a mess, closely watched in Moscow and Washington, and disastrous for the people of the Horn of Africa.
When I told former U.S. Agency for International Development director and senior diplomat Andrew Natsios I wanted to talk to him about Meles, he was unrestrained in his praise, “I think he’s one of the ablest leaders in Africa.”
Ambassador Natsios continued, “Meles is one of the five smartest leaders on the continent.” Which is saying something, since Africa has more than 50 sovereign countries.
But I realized as the veteran diplomat went on that everything he said was in present tense. Had he heard the news about Meles? He had not, and was shocked. The ambassador had known the Ethiopian leader for 20 years,
“That’s terrible!” he said, “There could be chaos in Ethiopia now. Meles was the one who held it together. And this could really destabilize Sudan.”
Natsios told me the Ethiopian prime minister had been a regional leader in trying to bring peace to giant Sudan, and had the ear of the leader Omar al-Bashir. Former South African president Thabo Mbeki is the African Union’s special envoy to Khartoum, but Natsios said, “They’re not listening to Mbeki. They trust Meles, on both sides. Several of the senior leaders in South Sudan are very close to Ethiopians. And Meles somehow had al-Bashir’s confidence.”
The American aid and development expert was shocked and saddened by Meles’ death. He maintains that the Ethiopian leader had made mistakes in his time in power, but was not, as some called him, a typical African autocrat.
He said the former guerrilla leader evolved while in office, listened to advice, and would have retired after the completion of a few final development initiatives begun under his leadership. Meles, said Natsios, while a far-left social democrat, was at the same time a staunch American ally, and a tremendous asset in the fight against international terrorism.
Chris Fomonyoh of the National Democratic Institute in Washington is not so sure. “Meles was very effective at curbing extremism in the Horn, curbing extremist forces like al-Shabab and others. Infrastructure was being developed. Gains were made to rebuild the country. So the West was probably giving him a pass when it came to democracy strengthening. It was a pity he didn’t combine both attributes.”
Fomonyoh concedes the choices are not easy ones in crisis regions like the Horn of Africa. “I can see the dilemma of agencies like USAID or for Western governments in general, when they are dealing with a country as important as Ethiopia.
“African leaders take advantage of strategic location of their countries, or the big challenges their country would pose if instability were to occur, and rather than create an opportunity, they would rather use that position to try to carve out a personal advantage for themselves.”
Under Meles’ leadership Ethiopia has created a modern system of land and business ownership rights, a road network, hydro-electric projects to bring power to places that have never had it, and moved to end the cyclical famines in a region of unreliable rains.
He had also suppressed opposition political groups, and jailed and harassed reporters. He fought a devastating war with former comrade-in-arms Isaias Afwerki after Eritrea, long a part of Ethiopia, attacked over a border dispute. The two countries eventually brokered a peace, but for two internationally-admired leaders of very poor countries to spend so much blood and treasure over such inconsequential gains looks like a shocking waste.
“He was a fine gentleman, with a mixed record,” says Fomunyoh, “In the area of human rights, he was very tight-fisted, to put it mildly. And it was getting worse as time went on. He was closing political space. It was shrinking with each passing year he extended his stay in power.”
While Natsios concedes the suppression was a problem, he insists on balancing the human rights record with the undoubted progress made during Meles’ tenure. Fomunyoh concurs, especially when assessing Ethiopia’s role in Africa. “It has been the most stable country in the Horn of Africa. It has been a firewall to extremist elements in neighboring countries. Ethiopia became an anchor for the Horn of Africa, and that explains why developing countries feel need to engage Ethiopia.
“The next Ethiopian leader should try to build on positive achievements of Meles, and at the same time be more forward-leaning, more open in terms of political engagement so that internally, a crisis doesn’t evolve.”
Amnesty International is calling for a “reset” in the U.S.-Ethiopian relationship. Adotei Akwei, an Africa expert who serves Amnesty as managing director for government relations, says, “Zenawi’s successor, along with the Ethiopian government and the international community, must use this opportunity to change the course of the country, ushering in an era of greater respect and accountability.
“Similarly, the United States must seize this opportunity to recalibrate its relationship with Ethiopia and help to build strong, accountable institutions and respect for the rule of law, lest risk consigning itself to a relationship with yet another ‘strongman’ and depend on the luck of the draw over his longevity.”