Reflections on Ethiopia's Former Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi
September 5, 2012
J. Stephen Morrison
Senior Vice President & Director, Global Health Policy Center at CSIS
Former Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's sad, premature death at 57 on August 20 marks the end of a striking era in Ethiopia's history. How are we to understand his legacy and what his passing may portend for Ethiopia's future?
I approach these questions from a personal bent. I first met Meles Zenawi on Easter Sunday in 1989 in a dingy Columbia Heights row house; he was visiting Washington, D.C. to open a dialogue with the Bush administration and Congress (where I worked at the time) over the ever more likely victory by the insurgent movement he led, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). That initial long conversation, two years before the EPRDF’s decisive defeat of the Mengistu regime, was followed by several others: as he ascended to power in the transition years of the early 1990s, when I resided in Addis; and later in the following years. My final exchange with Zenawi occurred during an extended March 2011 discussion of Ethiopian development strategy, U.S.-Ethiopian bilateral relations, and Horn regional security.
At the time of his death, Zenawi was the only remaining credible former insurgent leader/intellectual to effectively transition from a combatant past to become a self-avowed state-builder in conflict-riven East Africa. Other heads of state who aspired to fit within that bracket – Eritrea's Afewerki, Uganda's Museveni, Rwanda's Kagame – have variously squandered their luster and reputations. In Zenawi's case, his credibility stubbornly and curiously lived on to the end. That is in spite of the heavy reputational damage incurred during the violent confrontations surrounding the 2005 Ethiopian elections – when the Ethiopian government’s panicked and repressive actions left hundreds of opposition dead; thousands imprisoned; and draconian legislation that curbed opposition parties, unions, the media, human rights groups and other non-governmental bodies.
For two decades, Zenawi navigated – confidently at most times, unsteadily at others – Ethiopia's considerable promise and turbulence. During that period, Ethiopians benefited from relative stability, accelerated economic growth, renewed hope, and heightened international prestige. Simultaneously, Ethiopians lived through periodic darkness – a hardened autocracy, a vicious war with Eritrea that has yet to be definitely resolved, high inflation, ruling party corruption, and excessive state power.
How then did he retain credibility?
No one questioned his integrity, competence, and commitment above all else to Ethiopia – especially its impoverished majority peasantry, the EPRDF's social base. While he was no ascète, he certainly came close.
Zenawi convinced his countrymen and the international community, for the first time, to believe that Ethiopia could seriously begin to escape its dire poverty and dependency. He aggressively defined and drove forward his vision of a 'development state'– a mad dash of state-led investments in peasant and commercial agriculture, education, health, power, roads and communication. He insisted upon performance and accountability. And he achieved impressive results: over 10% annual economic growth in the past decade; national poverty reduced by one-third; the onset of agricultural exports in a country wracked in the past by devastating famine; significantly improved health conditions; and a broadened, grudging admiration among even his toughest domestic critics. He also forged a remarkable assembly of external supporters who contributed in aggregate an estimated $4 billion per year: the World Bank has committed $3.4 billion from 2011-2014; the U.S. Government’s annual assistance is roughly $1 billion; the Chinese have invested in huge infrastructure developments; and both the UK and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria have made Ethiopia a high global priority.
Zenawi also made Ethiopia a surprisingly effective force for good internationally. He moved Ethiopia to the forefront of regionally-led efforts to secure peace and stability in the Sudans and Somalia. He became a strong and credible voice in deliberations over how to achieve greater development results and strengthen accountability, transform Africa's lagging agriculture, address climate change intelligently, and define the next phase of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). For the United States, he was a reliable ally in the strategic battle in the Horn against Al Qaeda affiliates.
Since Meles Zenawi’s passing, numerous articles have appeared that are quite critical of his legacy, especially his harsh turn away from the EPRDF’s early halting experimentation in democratic practice. There is much truth in these reports. Still I, and I expect many others, regret that Meles Zenawi did not live long enough to carry forward the generational transfer of power that he was overseeing and to test the possibility of renewed democratic reform that might appeal to a new generation of citizens. I never sensed that he had grown cynical; he never categorically concluded that Ethiopia’s internal politics were so dysfunctional as to offer no option but dead-end autocracy.
The picture now of course is uncertain, and potentially dangerous. Whoever succeeds Meles Zenawi in the leader's chair will have the benefits of his achievements but without his personal reputation, gravitas and brilliance. That new leadership will also have to cope with the negative realities created during his tenure: the urgent need to escape Ethiopia’s present autocracy and breathe new life into Ethiopia's governance through an orderly, non-violent process.
Meles Zenawi will be missed in Ethiopia and beyond. His departure leaves behind a void in Ethiopia and significantly adds to the already woeful leadership deficit in Africa.