Meles Zenawi - where did it all go wrong?

A profile of the former guerilla leader turned tyrant, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who died today after 21 years in power. The article first appeared in 2006, as part of our World beater series by Richard Swift.

Throughout his life, Meles Zenawi has been a versatile fellow. He was once a medical student, then a guerrilla leader and now moves in the upper echelons of Africa’s political class as Ethiopia’s leader. His politics have adapted along with his shifting fortunes.

He once led the TPLF (the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front) whose politics were inspired in the late 1970s by Enver Hoxha and his Albanian ‘road to socialism’. With the brutal _Dergue_ of Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam in power in Addis Ababa and enjoying Soviet support, the Left opposition needed to get their credentials where they could. The joke at the time was that if the TPLF overthrew Mengistu they would immediately take down the posters of Marx and Lenin in government offices and put up bigger ones.

From the viewpoint of 2006, Meles can now look back on his personal political path and realize that he has been in power for longer than the ruthless Colonel – who still enjoys the hospitality of his fellow dictator Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. Marx and Lenin have been long since replaced with photos of Zenawi himself, as is common in government offices around Africa. A better reflection of Ethiopian policy than the dynamic duo of the Left might be huge pictures of Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, marking Meles’ transformation into an African emblem of neoliberal parsimony.

Until quite recently Zenawi’s stock in Western circles was very high indeed. Third Way politicians like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair lionized Meles as part of a ‘new generation of leaders for Africa’. He was even made a key figure in Tony Blair’s Commission on Africa in 2005. Here, after all, was a sophisticated, urbane man, willing to listen respectfully to all the Western cant about open markets, privatization and structural adjustment. He was also a no-nonsense politician who provided political stability. What more could you want?

Sure, there were some doubts when Zenawi entered into a bloodletting border dispute over a couple of kilometres of rock with his distant relative Isaias Afwerki, President of Eritrea, which cost poverty-stricken Eritreans and Ethiopians about 70,000 lives between 1998 and 2000. But nobody is perfect.

However, following widespread protest after the election ‘victory’ of Zenawi’s EPDRF in May 2005 (their third victory in a row), Western politicians began scrambling for cover. In the lead-up to the vote an unusual amount of political space had allowed the opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy to run a campaign that won it widespread support, particularly in Addis and the other main cities. Democracy is okay to showcase – but nobody said anything about losing power. The Government simply ignored the result and more than 80 protesters were shot dead. The number of political prisoners is in the hundreds – some say thousands. Ethiopia now competes with Eritrea as the country in sub-Saharan Africa with the largest number of journalists in jail. The independent press in both countries has either ceased to exist or sunk into the marsh of self-censorship. Ana Gomes who led the European Union’s observer mission to the May vote concluded that: ‘We have in Ethiopia a ruling class adept at using politically correct rhetoric, pretending they want democracy’.

So what happened? It seems Meles believed for a moment that his popularity was so great that he could risk a little showcase democracy. Alas! Ethiopia is not the easiest country to govern, even with the best of intentions. It is fraught with severe poverty and (mostly rural) starvation in a cauldron of regional/ethnic tensions.

Traditionally the Amharic people have held an almost imperial domination over other restive groups, including the Tigrayans and the large Oromo population in the South. Zenawi’s notion of a kind of ethnic federalism was not a bad one. He did allow Eritrea its hard-won independence, despite domestic opposition. But his model has proved to be long on the rhetoric of self-determination while in practice allowing a series of regional allies to maintain an often kleptomaniac control.

One could sympathize with Meles’ attempt to weather the treacherous crosscurrents of Ethiopian political life if there were some clear social goal. But what has happened to Zenawi in Ethiopia and Afwerki in Eritrea is an African tragedy writ large. Huge sacrifices were made by the idealistic supporters of both, during years of struggle. Many are now bitter and resentful.

Coming to power through force of arms can be a poisoned chalice. The success of the struggle is all too often connected to the success of the leadership in maintaining control. Enemies remain essential. Military thinking substitutes for politics. Dissent becomes treason. Ideals morph into the prerogatives of power.

According to one seasoned analyst (quoted anonymously from Addis): ‘Meles is simply an authoritarian. The idea that there is a “new breed” (of leaders) is nonsense concocted by journalists and Addis Ababa’s attachés. The West is naive and has no interest in African politics.’

It is this last point that is most disturbing. The Clintons and Blairs of this world are certainly interested in photo-ops that suggest they are ‘doing something’, but they care little about the complexities of Africa. In their search for ‘partners’ here – as elsewhere in the world – they aren’t particular about their bedfellows.