Wednesday, September 3, 2014

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Meles Zenawi: Ruthless Visionary

Repressive and undemocratic, brilliant and determined, Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa will not see another Meles anytime soon.
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Meles Zenawi (centre) at a UN meeting in 2010 next to UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon (right) and Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg of Norway (left). Photograph by Norwegian Prime Minister's Office.

Meles Zenawi, the late prime minister of Ethiopia, will be much missed as his ever expanding nation (now 85 million and heading to 120 million in 2025) faces a future laced with equal measures of promise and unnerving uncertainty.

Meles was among the smartest of sub-Saharan Africa’s leaders. Unlike so many of his confreres, he had a strong and broad vision of how Ethiopia, once among the poorest and least educated of Africa’s states, could prosper and provide better outcomes for its peoples.

Meles also knew that Ethiopia was not yet a nation, only a congeries of people united for a long time under the Amharic monarchy and Amharic Communist despotism and now forcibly glued together and conquered by Meles and his Tigrayan minority. Because Ethiopia is not yet a knitted together nation, with its disparate peoples and their disparate faiths capable of pursuing separatist agendas, Meles believed strongly that he had to be relentlessly centralising in his authoritarianism and forceful in his repression of dissidents while boosting educational opportunity and seeking the kinds of economic growth that would uplift the entire enterprise.

For strategic reasons he therefore welcomed Chinese overtures and praised Chinese enterprise and initiative at every turn. He turned to the Chinese to build big dams on the Omo River despite massive local and global environmental protests. Ethiopia desperately needs the energy. He was also determined the interrupt the flow of the Blue Nile River with a giant Grand Renaissance Dam despite deep concerns in Egypt and the Sudan. Whether that project will proceed under his successors is not yet known.

After Meles

Without Meles and his drive, the Grand Renaissance Dam and dozens of other projects may falter for lack of funding or lack of initiative. Likewise, no-one but Meles could have responded with alacrity when the US and the UN requested troops to keep the warring southern and northern Sudanese apart. His troops are also critically active in pushing back Islamists in Somalia, as they were in 2006 and 2007 at the request of the US.

The Horn of Africa will be more fragile and more subject to volatile adventurism without Meles’ willingness to try to keep the peace. Militant Islamists in Somalia and perhaps his antagonists in Eritrea might also be emboldened.

At home, too, where he rigged two elections and was repressive against his opponents and all non-Tigrayans who refused to toe the official political line, a democratic space may develop. But the Tigrayan generals who fought with him against the Marxist Amhara before 1991 may refuse to tolerate any dissipation of their control. Nor might they and Meles’ successors give more room to maneuver to the Oromo, Somali, or Muslims who may wish to gain a stronger ‘voice’ within post-Meles Ethiopia.

An intelligent autocrat

When I spoke with Meles a few years ago for several hours in his hideaway office in State House, he was much more forthcoming than the other autocrats in Africa whom I have interviewed over the years. He was prepared to entertain hostile questions and to answer them. For example, he attempted persuasively to rationalise the falsification of the 2005 general election in Ethiopia and the subsequent jailing of nearly all of his opponents. He spun (as in “spin doctor”) much more effectively than any of his all-powerful peers.

Meles also understood that someone like me had a legitimate interest in some of the terrible things that he was doing to his people and to those who believed in the democratic process. Yet he never bristled, never cut the interview short. Nor did he, as others might have done, attempt to deflect me onto his undoubted successes – such as the economic development of rapidly growing Ethiopia. Instead, he successfully tried to impress me with his general intelligence, his leadership skills, his ability to see around corners and protect the Horn of Africa against malevolence, and his careful balancing of the US and China in ways to benefit his regime and his country.

Ethiopia will not readily see his like anytime soon.

Amendment 29/8/12: The term "Galla" was used once in the article as a synonym for Oromo. This term has now been removed as it is derogatory. Think Africa Press apologises for any offence caused.

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Comments

In an otherwise fair piece, though damning Meles with faint praise, Rotberg gratuitously & mistakenly continues the misrepresentation of the Amhara as the root of all misfortune in Ethiopia & needs to do a little reading up on this subject - just about anything by Dr. Pankhurst would be a good place to start.  Another mistake: no one calls the Oromo 'Galla' anymore, not in this century.  The Derg was composed of representatives of all the major ethnicities, Amhara to be sure, but also Gurage, Tigrinya and Oromo - Menghistu, the murderer-in-chief, was/is Oromo.  The blame & the pain was spread widely, amongst all Ethiopia's peoples.  Meles did do a good job of getting the country moving in a good direction though his ethnic federalism, designed to keep the Tigrinya minority in control, could result in future difficulties and should be abandoned. 

1.This characterisation of blaming the Amhara for the problem of the country is an absolute nonsense and very irresponsible.  Myopic communists of the 70s and Tigryans have pushed this line of attack. Sure enough the monarchs might  have mainly of Amhara descent but their conception of power hasn't always been based on ethnicity. If the Amharas were wicked people to have led the country till say 40 years ago by writ or otherwise, what do you make of the minority apartheid the US government so unashamedly supports. 2. May be it is easy to weigh on and glorify a cold blooded tyrant  just after having a few hours of coffee chat. It takes to be at the receiving end of Meles' rule to really  tell who Meles is. 3. You don't get to call the Oromos 'Galla' any more. If you want to write about Ethiopia, read a bit more than Meles has told you. 

For a Harvard professor, too many silly mistakes that show that Mr. Rotberg only has a superficial understanding of Ethiopia and Ethiopian politics.  Using the term "Galla" is like some European editorlizing about US politics and using the term "Negro" to refer to African-Americans. In addition, Amharic is a language.  The Amhara's are an ethnic/lingustic group.  My advice....stick to what you know.

Ethiopians people were not under colonialist in history and they don't go to erase their ancient history
Meles zenawi was supported by donors to succeed what the previous governments failed to do for economic growths.Ethiopians not officially,oil producer.The economic growth takes place among the looters while the nations remain poor and more suffering takes place than the previous government.
Meles was hanged on scam politics so called ethnic federalism which Ethiopians can't tolerate it
The unitary state enforced to drink a poison politics so called ethnic federalism.the previous dictator mengistu was not Amhara tribe , he was from the south west Ethiopia from small and unknown tribe.
The conflict in Ethiopia was due to the dictatorial misrule not due to ethnic conflict Meles Zenawi did all enforcement against the Ethiopian people interest by the power of money , many billion dollars were wast to enforce the will of nations , more than 4 million divorce takes place to achieve ethnic federalism which it was equivalent to worst racism . But the nations still resistant to political scam