“There was probably no leader on the African continent who exemplified the conflict between the American government’s interests and its highest ideals better than Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia,” writes the New York Times’s Jeffrey Gettleman:
Meles, who died on Monday after more than 20 years in power, played the American battle against terrorism brilliantly, painting Ethiopia, a country with a long and storied Christian history, as being on the front lines against Islamist extremism. He extracted prized intelligence, serious diplomatic support and millions of dollars in aid from the United States in exchange for his cooperation against militants in the volatile Horn of Africa. …But he was notoriously repressive, undermining President Obama’s maxim that “Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.”
“Whether one was a friend or critic of Mr. Meles,” said Johnnie Carson, the State Department’s assistant secretary for African affairs, “the consensus around Africa is that Africa has lost one of its greatest intellectual leaders.” But, he added, there is “no question there was a need for greater democratization” and “yes, more work needs to be done in that area.”
Prior to his death, the dearth of information about Meles’s ill-health showed “just how fragile our political institutions are,” said Birtukan Mideksa (above), a former judge and opposition leader who was twice imprisoned by Meles for three years.
“But when I heard the news, I also felt sad because I wanted him to leave a better legacy. Unfortunately he didn’t use the opportunities he had to lead the country into more inclusive and democratic and political systems.”
Some opposition activists are calling for Mideksa (left) to return from the US, where she had a Reagan-Fascell Fellowship at the National Endowment for Democracy, in order to take advantage of the transition.
“Although Mr. Meles appointed Hailemariam [Desalegne, the acting prime minister] his political heir, the new leader has no popular support base of his own and will be surrounded by seasoned operatives who were loyal to Mr. Meles,” the Wall Street Journal reports:
His level of backing among the military and intelligence communities is unclear. Elections for a new prime minister aren’t expected until 2015, said Bereket Simon, Ethiopia’s communications minister. The country’s recent history of violence-marred votes raises the prospect of a rocky political period ahead…. The succession stakes are high for Washington. Mr. Meles proved an effective yet prickly ally of the U.S., one of Ethiopia’s largest donors. During his time in power, Mr. Meles sought an end to conflicts in Sudan and Somalia, and remained a staunch backer of counterterrorism efforts in East Africa.
“He’s managed to do what no other African strongman has done,” said Jakkie Cilliers, executive director for the Institute for Security Studies, a think tank in Pretoria. “He was the living embodiment of the developmental state.”
After deposing former Marxist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam’s military junta, Meles “quickly backed away from his self-described ‘intellectual communist views’ and became what the Ethiopian and foreign news media described as a ‘mellowed Marxist’ pragmatic in courting Western donors,” the Washington Post reports:
Meles was hailed as part of a “new breed” of African leaders who would enforce term limits and allow political opposition and civil society to flourish.
“I would love to be the African leader that steps down, that overthrows this idea of a Big Man ruler. I don’t want to stay in office forever,” he told The Washington Post in the aftermath of Ethiopia’s May 2005 election, when 193 political protesters and seven police officers were killed during street demonstrations.
That week, top leaders of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy, the opposition party that had made significant gains during the election, were imprisoned along with an estimated 30,000 people in a vast crackdown. Meles defended the arrests in the interview. “It was insurrection, and in my view that’s treason,” he said. “Democracy is about having the rule of law.”
Even his critics acknowledged that Mr. Meles oversaw some of the fastest growth in sub-Saharan Africa, including the construction of roads and bridges, built in part with extensive foreign investment and the long-term leasing of large tracts of farmland to China and India, said John Harbeson, an African studies lecturer at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
At the same time, “there has been significant displacement of rural populations,” Harbeson said.
“His journey from idealistic, shaggy-haired bush fighter who brought down one of the region’s most repressive regimes after years of guerrilla warfare, to a continental strongman was strewn with paradoxes,” the FT reports:
He was a Marxist who courted foreign investment; a liberation fighter who cracked down on marginalised peoples crying out for their own freedom and an intellectual who brooked little debate at home. In the west, he was admired for delivering development and economic growth while marshalling security; at home he suppressed dissent and mastered party political control of the economy with autocratic vim.
Although his Marxist-Leninist inclinations dissipated with time, the chain-smoking former bush fighter never abandoned them entirely: he drew on revolutionary traditions of ruthless discipline and argued strongly against neo-liberal models for development. Influenced by South Korea and Taiwan, he termed his ideal state “democratic developmentalism”. He nurtured strong relations with China, India, Turkey and Saudi Arabia in search of investment in infrastructure and agriculture while at the same time courting western donors.
Under his 21-year rule, Ethiopia has experienced startling economic growth relative to previous years, with a doubling of per capita gross domestic product. In 2001 he won over the World Bank’s then chief economist Joseph Stiglitz who said he rated him more highly than many an international economic bureaucrat.
Meles’s passing could prompt political turmoil within a country at the heart of a volatile region, said Charles Stith, director of Boston University’s African Presidential Archives and Research Center and a former U.S. ambassador to Tanzania.
“His death is a reminder that leaders who long to stay in office often stay too long to allow the growth of the necessary institutional infrastructure that allows states to sustain themselves,” Stith said.
“Political observers predict fierce competition for the job, and one said he doubted that Hailemariam could win over subordinates, including military and intelligence leaders,” Kirubel Tadesse reports from Addis Ababa.
“First, as he never exercised real power at a national level, there is little established fear and respect about him,” said Jawar Mohammed, an Ethiopian political analyst. “Second, most of his subordinates are going to be individuals with longer experience and personal stature than him, which means they will overshadow him.”
Former president Negasso Gidada, now head of the opposition Unity for Democracy and Justice movement, said he hoped the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front would arrange a peaceful transition.
“We urge the EPRDF to change for the good the political, democratic and human rights situation in the country,” he said.
But the transition is likely to be complicated by the fact that the ruling party is stronger than government institutions, raising the likelihood of political instability, said Leslie Lefkow, Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for Africa.
“There are a number of worrying scenarios, I think, particularly in the medium term,” she said. “I think it’s a crucial moment for Ethiopia’s partners — the U.S. and E.U. and other international donors who provide a large amount of funding — to set out their concerns that reform and human rights reform is a crucial plank of the country moving forward.”
But the transition also provides an opportunity for external actors to press for democratic reform, she says.
“If donors are shrewd, they will use the opportunity that this presents to push a much stronger and bolder human rights stance and need for reform,” she said.
The FT outlines WHO’S WHO IN THE TRANSITION:
Hailemariam Desalegne, the acting prime minister, has already stood in for Meles during his two-month absence. Analysts note he successfully juggled both the leadership and his job as foreign minister. Sceptics question if a southerner – Mr Hailemariam hails from the minority Wolyita group – will be accepted by the ruling northern Tigrayan elite. Meles had started to groom him as successor as part of a plan to phase out the TPLF old guard, but that may not be enough to secure more widespread support. He is known as an able, if uncharismatic, technocrat.
First Lady Azeb Mesfin has solid revolutionary pedigree. Tigrayan, wealthy and already a member of parliament, she fought in the bush with Meles. Most critically, she is a member of the Tigrayan party’s elite committee. Without her husband’s support, it is unclear how much weight she will carry.
Health minister Dr Tewodros Adhanom was close to Meles and is a favourite of the US, who appreciate his urbane manner, foreign education and record in office. His work in the health ministry has contributed to Ethiopia making progress towards the UN’s donor-backed Millennium Development Goals.
A veteran fighter, Sebhat Nega is the last remaining founder member of the TPLF. He had been sidelined by Meles in recent years and ousted from the party’s executive committee. But he remains a key figure in Addis Ababa and has spoken out against corruption. He is seen as too old to take the reins himself but is still seen as a kingmaker.