Assessing the Legacy of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi

Meles Zenawi, who has died at the age of 57, presided over a tumultuous period in Ethiopian history. As the rebel leader of the Tirgrayan People’s Liberation Front, he was instrumental in helping bring an end to Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam’s feared Derg regime. After assuming power in 1991, he went on to deliver an unprecedented period of economic growth and development to his country. Economic growth topped 10 percent for eight straight years, thanks to investments in smallholder agriculture and large-scale infrastructure projects, notably hydroelectric power. Meles governed in an unapologetically authoritarian manner. When a short-lived democratic opening led to large gains by opposition parties in the 2005 elections, the door was firmly closed. Approximately 200 people were killed in the violence that followed, and opposition supporters were rounded up in their thousands, many of them ending up on trial for treason. The 2010 elections were a return to normality; Meles’s ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), won all but two seats in Ethiopia’s 547-seat lower house, polling more than 99 percent of the vote in the process.

The prime minister’s supporters argued that tight control was necessary in order to dissuade Ethiopia’s many internal and external enemies from undermining the regime. They had a point. Ethiopia is an incredibly diverse country fractured along ethnic, regional, and religious lines, with legitimate security concerns to contend with. As a leader hailing from one of the smaller ethnic groups, the Tigray, Meles had to keep a lid on claims by some of the larger groups—particularly the Oromo and the Amhara—that they should have a bigger share of power. He managed the tensions by forming a network of ethnically based political parties in Ethiopia’s main regions, all of them semiautonomous in theory but entirely subservient to the EPRDF in reality. He concentrated power in the center, while simultaneously extending state control down to the village level. Some of his opponents turned violent. The Oromo Liberation Front and the Ogaden National Liberation Front posed a genuine threat at times during his rule but were ultimately weakened through co-option and brutal counterinsurgency tactics that, in the eastern Ogaden region, even led to allegations of genocide from regime opponents.

Externally, Meles had to make the best of Ethiopia’s unpromising location in arguably the most conflicted neighborhood in the world. He was pitched into a catastrophic border war with his northern neighbor, Eritrea, from 1998 to 2000 in which up to 100,000 people died. Meles’s conduct of that war aroused opposition at home, leading to an inevitable purge of EPRDF leaders in 2001. His reluctance to abide by the international ruling that ended the Eritrean conflict helped create a poisonous atmosphere that to this day has undermined regional security. Somalia was a constant menace to Meles, who was goaded into an ill-considered invasion of the country in 2006 in order to eliminate the Islamists who held the balance of power in the south of the country. The invasion, and the brutal occupation that followed it, galvanized support for al Shabaab and further undermined Ethiopian security in the process. Elsewhere, Meles played a more constructive role, hosting the African Union–led negotiations that followed the separation of Sudan into two countries in 2011. His peacekeepers have played a prominent role in the UN operations in Darfur and Abyei.

In continental terms, Meles was a political giant in an era when Africa often lacked charismatic leadership. Formidably intelligent and articulate, he became the unofficial spokesman for Africa and was often the “go-to” man favored by Western leaders seeking a reliable interlocutor on the continent. Meles was a frequent guest at G8 and G20 summits and led the continent’s climate change negotiations. Ethiopia became a donor darling, valued by the United States and the United Kingdom, among others, for its ability to spend development funds in a transparent, effective, manner. He further burnished his credentials by positioning himself as an invaluable security partner to the West, a bulwark against Islamic extremism and instability in the region. Ethiopian landing strips were made available to U.S. drones for surveillance missions throughout the region. His reputation as a person the West could deal with blinded many leaders to his faults. Bill Clinton’s pronouncement, in 1998, that he was one of a “new generation” of African leaders was allowed to stand for too long. The United States found itself facing a policy dilemma as its stated priorities of promoting democracy and good governance in Africa bumped up against Meles’s value as a security and development partner.

As a man, Meles won respect for his austere lifestyle, his personal integrity, and his indefatigable commitment to developing his country. During a visit to Washington, D.C., in May, he spoke of his plans to step down in advance of the 2015 elections but dismissed notions of a quiet retirement. Instead, he said he would like to spend time teaching at his leadership academy or set up a policy think tank.

His opponents, meanwhile, denounced him a tyrant. Certainly, his legacy will be tarnished by his intolerance of criticism, his willingness to label legitimate opponents as terrorists, and his harsh crackdowns on the independent media, which has largely departed the country.

Meles’s broader legacy will ultimately be determined by what happens now that he has gone. His considerable achievements in delivering economic growth and development risk being undermined by his failure to put in place a viable succession plan. His unwillingness to lay the foundation for the growth of a more mature, representative political system in Ethiopia has increased the odds of a messy, unstable transition. If history is taken as a precedent, the prospects for stability are not good. Political transitions in Ethiopia have been incredibly violent in the past. The biggest risk to stability comes from within the ruling elite, where there will be rival claims on the leadership of the EPRDF coalition. Oromo and Amhara claimants believe it is their turn and will be reluctant to back down. For the time being, Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, a southerner from another minority ethnic group, will take charge. The second potential source of instability will come from outside the ruling elite. By criminalizing political dissent, Meles unwittingly forced opponents of the EPRDF to adopt more extreme positions, leading some to advocate for the overthrow of the current system. They will view Meles’s departure as an opportunity. It remains to be seen whether they can organize themselves into an effective movement after spending so many years in the political wilderness.

Beyond the politics, Ethiopia is in better shape than ever before. New roads, hospitals, and power plants are beginning to deliver real benefits to ordinary people. But Ethiopia remains very poor. Inflation is worryingly high and rising food prices remain a potential source of social protest and instability. With 90 million people, Ethiopia has the second-largest population in sub-Saharan Africa. Economic growth has been impressive during the past decade, but whether it can keep pace with population growth is an open question.

Meles’s successor will face enormous challenges in keeping Ethiopia on a path toward development while managing its many social and political fissures. The next few months will be critical in ensuring stability. Beyond that, the elections in 2015 assume even greater importance in defining the course that Ethiopia will take for many years to come.

Richard Downie is a fellow and deputy director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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© 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Richard Downie