Obituary – The late PM Meles Zenawi

A hero?A dictator? A peacemaker or a warmonger?

Learning about Ethiopia’s late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is mystifying but it was hard to avoid

Tsedale Lemma

For the average bystander trying to understand just what sort of a leader Ethiopia’s late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was is mystifying. He was loved by many but at the same time dreaded; feared but at the same time respected; idolized but at the same time loathed; a warmonger but at the same time a peace maker. He hated neoliberalism but he was a darling of a neoliberal west; he presided over a country with the most draconian civil society laws, but he left behind a country that is one of the largest donors’ money recipients. He was everything many would wish to be and nothing many would like to remotely look alike. 

The tricky thing in all these is for a towering figure he was in any event – in or outside of the country – one can hardly manage to be a bystander when it comes to him. At home, he was unavoidable; a one man warrior who presided over and made rules and decisions with all their consequences for more than 80 million people. Abroad, he was a person who stood not only for his country but for the whole continent “not only due to the size of his country but the size of his ideas,” as President Jacob Zuma of South Africa spoke at his state funeral ceremony.

 No evangelist of a human right

The late premier left his studies as a young man and clutched a gun that would accompany him for the next 17 enduring years. And when he first walked into a position that would house him for the coming 21 years, he was only 36 and had the curiosity that says the sky would be the only limit he would have had to deal with to turn everything around. He inherited a chaotic nation at physical war with itself and ideological war with the rest of the world; a dysfunctional bureaucracy and an isolated foreign policy.

A month after he marched into the Menelik Palace, a historic gathering of his party members and others from 27 different opposition groups came together and agreed on a transitional charter that would change Ethiopia forever. Later on it would become the constitution of the land that would create two cardinal transformations:  a federated Ethiopia and a free economy.

Although his policy of a federated Ethiopia brought a much needed relief in its approach that effectively dealt with decades-old unresolved issues of nationalities and nations’ rights, it was a mixed bag in that while it solved many critical ethnic minority issues it stumbled upon a prickly territory of ethnic-based federalism that remains, until today, a bone of contention and a cause for some terrifying ethnic clashes between minorities in some pockets of the country. Despite the biting backlash of ethnic politicking, however, he was able to hold the nation together and celebrate a yearly Nations, Nationalities and People’s Day whereby every nations and nationalities mingle together to celebrate their unity in diversity. Something of a dreamlike get-together just 21 years ago.

When the late PM Meles came out of the jungle and walked into the leading political scene in Ethiopia of 21 years ago only a few thought he was the man that would take to help the country he just took over stay in the map. But he proved his naysayers wrong and he not only stayed for the following 21 years but ruled it using a unique mixed potion of democracy and autocracy.

It was during his reign both as the President and later the Prime Minister that opposition political parties were free to be born, but not so to grow; a free media became easy to establish but the country produced the largest number of journalists in exile; academic freedom was guaranteed but academicians are gargled. In 2005 one of the freely contested elections in the history of the country left 193 people dead in its aftermath; thousands were rounded up in jails and some 200 opposition party members, human rights activists and journalists jailed and tried for treason. A melodramatic legal process and a mediation led by Ethiopian respected elders saw the arrested pardoned but so far the country is unable to enjoy a freer media and strong opposition party groups.

When once asked by Time reporter about the use of force by his army to suppress dissent, he said “sometimes, when we disagree, we say so with perhaps a little extra force in it. That might be misunderstood,” and he frankly admitted “we may not have been the most evangelical of human rights advocates in the world, but we are not stupid either.”

His ruling party EPRDF has recruited millions of diehard supporters throughout the country, who, more often than not, take justice into their own hands and make life for ordinary Ethiopians unbearable. When unleashed in to the streets of Addis Ababa and other towns throughout the country for various reasons (albeit occasionally), the country’s army, the police and members of its intelligence network intimidate millions of Ethiopians; and the justice system is short of a judicial sincerity. But it was during his reign that an independent judiciary, a less militarized state and unequivocal rights of citizens came into the open air for all to enjoy.


Meles Zenawi - World Economic Forum on Africa 2010

Nor of economic growth

Currently his government’s initial free economy mantra that turns into a policy of a developmental state looks like a somehow disfigured Chinese style economic model that uses a mixture of a vibrant private economy with an imposing presence of party affiliated businesses and a heavy state investment that held a tight grip on key enterprises. But unlike China, the state hasn’t even allowed a so-called private business to lay hands on the country’s telecom. Nonetheless, by various economic estimates, his policy helped the country to generate an average (if disputed) of a 10% annual growth over the past eight consecutive years, making the country the world’s third fastest growing economy, according to the Economist’s Intelligence Unit 2012 report. “No country in the world is able to manage such an impressive economic growth for eight consecutive years,” the late PM told the national parliament once. Many countries in the word share his view.

Although the privatization agency helped privatize hundreds of state owned enterprises, the state still controls not only telecom but other key enterprises such as electricity and the national carrier, Ethiopian Airlines. During this year’s World Economic Forum on Africa, held in May in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in what must have come as a silly argument to private billionaires investing in telecom throughout Africa and were sitting next to him, the late premier stood his ground when he said the time was not ripe to let go of the telecom industry.

Ethiopia’s business bureaucracy is intolerable in many ways than one’s imagination. Private businesses are often victims of a nationwide mediocre and complicated administrative jam and red tape; the country’s taxation system has crippled many businesses for the erratic amount of tax it levies and for its time consuming and inefficient way of handling a thriving private businesses. The late premier was neither an evangelist of a free economy.

But a mixture of heavy state investment coupled with donors’ funding, Chinese operated cash pumps and party affiliated companies uplifted millions of Ethiopians out of poverty by way of infrastructure development and job creation. Although one can always argue about the issues of quality, the county has more roads now than any time in history; health stations and universities have quadrupled; its export market has boomed; and primary education enrollment showed an impressive leapfrog. In the areas of food self-sufficiency the country has now less people on the annual emergency food assistance index than in the past two decades, and millions of farmers throughout the country in general and in Amhara and Tigray regions in particular have done a remarkable job of soil conservation as thousands of farmers are now able to bring their produce to nearby markets. The country’s five year growth and transformation plan was labeled by many over ambitious but no one could say it was undoable.

Free but not so much free

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir (R) welcomes Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi (L) upon his arrival at Khartoum on September 16, 2011.

The civil service have expanded significantly both in size and style over the past 21 years and are free to design and implement policies; but most are notorious for their endless bureaucracy; each ministry and government office act like a small government of their own; but it was during this period that government officials and civil service offices became freely accessible to ordinary Ethiopians. It was also during this period that every civil servant was obliged to study a program called Business Process Reengineering (BPR), which claimed the creation of a fast and corruption free civil service. But many of them are yet to show the people what exactly BPR means in practical terms.

It is an ordinary routine to see police officers questioning the authority of the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS); for the Customs Authority to question the authority of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; for the Telecommunication Corporation to question the authority of Electric Power Corporation on matters all of them need to work in unison. Police officers in charge of security at the late PM Meles’s state funeral wouldn’t let a group of journalists with an ID issued by NISS to attend the ceremony. After a lot of negotiations and phone calls, the police finally allowed the journalists to access the ceremony. But what one of them said on the spot was a routine standard in many other cases: “I don’t care about your badge.” And yet it was during the past 21 years that national income from revenues have tripled; more telecom lines were issued; electrification reached remote areas; and unarmed police officers started patrolling streets at daytime making millions of Ethiopians feel secure. 

The late premier talked of establishing a unique democratic developmental state untried elsewhere and had crushed everything on his way. He refused to heed established norms of a donor-recipient relationship; he fought bitterly with those who place freedom and respect for human rights above everything else and talked of his dreams to feed every Ethiopian three meals a day first; he dreamed to see every kid in school, to see every farmer out of poverty, to see agriculture led economy thriving, and to see everyone get access to primary health provision. To make sure his unique potion of a developmental state policy goes down well with the people he governed, he had an administration employing techniques beyond the acceptable range by many standards.

Larger than a continent

If he was a one man warrior at home, abroad the late PM Meles was a regional police and a peace and security underwriter; a model for a well spent donors’ tax payers’ money; an architect of a solution for a daunting continental affairs and the only one ICC indicted Al Bashir and guerrilla- fighter-turned-president Salva Kirr could listen to so both restrain themselves from unleashing terror against their own people.

As luck would have it, neighboring Somalia descended upon self-destructive civil war just a year before he came into power. He knew he would have had to deal with Somalia if any of his dreams to make Ethiopia the regional powerhouse it is now were to come true. So he busied himself engaging Somali warlords and sent his troops twice to fight with Al-Qaeda linked militants. Not everyone agreed with his decision; not even his own parliamentarians, with whom he never cared consulting first during his army’s first military intervention in Somali in 2006; but perhaps by the time his untimely death was announced not everyone expected Somalia, a country that is the worst enemy of itself, would prepare to host the first presidential democratic elections in its two decades history of anarchy and of bloodshed.

He personally oversaw the transformation of the stillborn Intergovernmental Authority on Drought and Development (IGADD) to the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD).  He “made IGAD deliver”, as Susan Rice said during his state funeral on Sunday Sep. 2nd. But he also made IGAD look beyond the recurring famine and drought in the horn and made it become a political arm; one that sanctions states when they fray.

Sudan and South Sudan have held the world by the edge of its nerve since the later declared its independence from the former. But both heeded to him and agreed his troops, under the auspices of the UN, to become the only peacekeeping personnel in the contested Abiye region.  The peace processes in Darfur, Rwanda, Liberia and DRC, to mention some, have his fingerprints on them.

Together with Thabo Mbeki, former president of South Africa, who called him “the giant Meles Zenawi”, and a few other visionary statesmen of the continent, he oversaw the transformation of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), which was an organization both democratically elected and coup leaders of the continent enjoyed memberships at the same time, to the new African Union (AU) that no longer tolerates membership of countries whose leaders came to power through a coup and have killed their countrymen in the process. He was one of the architects of the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD), an AU strategic framework for pan-African socio-economic development. Although NEPAD has been a huge disappointment to many people in the continent and its donors who expected it to be more efficient for the money spent, its continued presence is a good thing for Africa.

Fellow African leaders liked his grasp of international affairs; his authoritative straightforwardness and his negotiation skills and have settled on him to represent the continent in the climate change negotiations. It was perhaps this ruthlessly straightforward nature of him that made more leaders of African nations flew in to Addis Ababa to attend the state funeral accorded to him. In their speeches delivered at the ceremony held at Meskel Square they all showed the many ways the late PM Meles was going to be missed than wished for good riddance.

Unfortunately, after 21 years of trial and error – some of which by a sheer cruelty and others by political design – by the time he passed away on August 20, 2012, aged 57, his cardinal transformation policies at home and his regional policing experiment abroad remained a work in progress. He didn’t have the chance to vindicate himself, as he was so sure he would, on the sainthood of his unique potion of a developmental state policy; nor did he get the chance to see what would come off Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan next.

For better or worse, he is no more and the Ethiopia he fashioned for two decades will never be the same; and that, again, is for better or worse.

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