News of Ethiopia

An Abrupt End of an Era

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi dies. The struggle for stability and power begins.

by Barry Hillenbrand (Debre Marcos 1963–1965)

Meles Zenawi

Nothing so perfectly characterizes the life of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi as the emotions, ambiguity, confusion and mystery that surrounded his death on August 19th. Meles was a complex man. The reaction to the news of his death in a Brussels hospital was just as complex.

Mourners in Mekelle

He was openly mourned by wailing crowds in Addis and many other cities and towns across Ethiopia, especially in the north of the country and in the Tigray community. He was the man who brought down the hated regime of the brutal Derg in 1991 and ushered in a period of relative — if uneven and imperfect — prosperity, political stability, and economic growth. He did good for Ethiopia, especially for those within his party and his ethnic group.

But elsewhere in these same towns and villages, in a far less public manner, the death of the man many called the dictator was welcomed. Fewer people in the Amhara and Oromo community shed tears. In many parts of the large expatriate community of Ethiopians in Europe and North America, Meles’ death was greeted with relief and occasionally with joy. He was the man, they said, who clamped down on political freedom, suppressed free speech, muzzled the press and sent many Ethiopians into a forced exile. He ruined the country.

And, of course, there was the mystery surrounding the circumstances of his death. For several months, it was widely reported — but never confirmed — that Meles, 57, had been ailing. He completely disappeared from view about two months ago, but the government, in the way of autocratic regimes, blithely assured all questioners that the Prime Minister was well and just resting. His death, when announced by the government with a kind of North Korean transparency, took place “abroad” and from a “sudden infection.” His body was flown back from Belgium.

Abruptly changing leaders is always a risky, and for Ethiopia, an unfamiliar business. Since Haile Selassie was crowned emperor in 1930, Ethiopia has had only three rulers: the Emperor who was deposed in 1974, the hated Minguistu Haile Mariam (1974–1991) who headed the Communist junta of the Derg, and Meles (1991–2012). Yet despite considerable nervousness, the period immediately after Meles’ death has been quiet and peaceful. The announcement of Meles’ death also declared that

Hailemariam Dessalegn

Hailemariam Dessalegn, 47, the relatively obscure deputy prime minister and foreign minister, was next in line and would immediately become acting Prime Minister. He would be confirmed as Prime Minister by Parliament in a day or two, the statement said. No problem. Yet the vote was soon postponed to allow, it was said, those deputies attending the funeral of Abuna Paulos, the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Church who died a few days before Meles, to return to their duties. Or perhaps the delay was designed to get the political élite of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, Meles’ party, time to decide whether Hailemariam, a non-Tigrayen from the South who trained as an engineer in Finland and did not fight with the guerrilla movement, was really the man to lead the nation until the next promised election in 2015. But it is hard to believe that a party as disciplined did, as the TPLF (think the Stalinist/Albanian model) did not prepare for this transition once Meles took ill. But then again it is difficult to believe that there is not intense internal struggle within the party now that its dominant figure is gone. And for those opposed to Meles and his TPLF, this may be the time to move.
Meles will leave a big hole both in Ethiopia’s political life and in international affairs.

Meles, born in Adwa, dropped out of medical school to join the rebellion against the Derg. In 1991 when rebel forces entered Addis, Meles at the age of 36, found himself leading the new government. Meles was smart and well read. He earned a correspondence degree in economics from the UK’s prestigious Open University after becoming Prime Minister. Despite all those years in the mountains, he was an intellectual. But as the world learned from the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, intellectual revolutionaries can be dangerous.

Minister Meles had definite ideas about governance and development. To deal with Ethiopia’s many ethnic groups he rearranged the country into ethic regions giving them extensive self-governing powers, even the right to secede, although none has dared take that drastic step. Some critics believe this multi-ethnic policy — a kind of ethnic federalism — has been a disaster emphasizing the ethic differences, rather than smoothing them over in an attempt to build a single nation. By playing the various groups against each other, Meles was able to leverage political power to his minority Tigray people to control the nation. Amharas and Oromos were frozen out.

He also had firm ideas about economic development. He encouraged foreign investment, built export industries like cut flowers, expanded infrastructure including an ambitious road network, increased the number of schools (although not the quality of teachers), and encouraged private business which had, of course, been forbidden under the previous communist regime. From 2000 to 2010, GDP grew on an average of 8.5 per cent a year. Food supplies increased to nearly self sufficiency. The British Department for International Development reported that since 1991 the Meles party has “consolidated a capable government that is demonstrably committed to addressing poverty with an impressive record of pro-poor spending, sound financial management and a strong commitment to fighting corruption.” That cannot be said of many African governments.

Meles himself was an unsmiling, wonky bureaucrat, not a kleptomaniac, not a self-indulgent megalomaniac. He lived a modest life style with no villas in France, no flashy collection of cars in Britain. For this, and his keen mind and considerable personal charm, he became the darling of Western leaders desperate for good news from Africa. Bill Clinton praised Meles as the leader of a new generation of African leaders. Meles was a regular invitee to represent Africa at G8 meetings, most recently at Camp David. As a development guru, Meles talked the talk and even did some of the walk right.

Overlooked by Western leaders was Meles’ appalling human rights record. He was a charmer in Geneva and London. He was a stern, even brutal, autocrat at home. In 2005, Meles decided to fight an open election. The campaign and balloting were largely free and honestly conducted. A coalition of Opposition parties scored impressive results. They swept all 22 seats in the city council in Addis, including the mayor’s office, and won nearly 45% of the seats in Parliament. Meles was shocked and the Opposition giddy. Both sides overplayed their hands. The Opposition claimed the election had been rigged and refused to take their seats in Parliament. They claimed they had won a majority. Instead, they took to the street with protest marches. Meles cracked down hard. More than 200 people were killed in the riots that followed. He arrested opposition leaders and put them on trial for treason. They were, naturally, convicted and tossed in prison — later to be released after signing documents repenting. Many went into exile. Some still languish in prison.

When elections came around again in 2010 Meles was not about to be surprised and defeated at the polls again. Using strong-arm tactics of patronage and brutal coercion, he won a stunning victory at the polls securing an astonishing 99% of the seats in Parliament. He silenced the press, arresting journalists and trying them for terrorism. Recently the journalist Eskinder Nega and 23 others were convicted of terrorism. His crime: suggesting that someday an Arab Spring might come to Ethiopia. He was sentenced to 18 years in prison. Opposition leaders were again arrested. Speaking out against the government was a risky business, which could land people in jail or starve a region of government development funds. Some critics say food aid was withheld from regions hostile to Meles’ policies. Don’t expect a new road or a new college in your district if someone — including the voters — has been opposing the government. Many in Ethiopia resented Meles, but were silenced when they spoke out. The government literally owns all the print presses capable of printing newspapers. Meles’ strong-armed tactics were loudly criticized by human rights groups abroad. But they worked for him. “Authoritarian developmentalism,” his supporters called it.

Meles was respected by his peers in Africa. The African Union, which is based in Addis Ababa and just moved into a new $200 million headquarters building that Meles convinced the Chinese to pay for, issued a statement saying that “the death of Prime Minister Meles has robbed Africa of one of its greatest sons.” Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said, “Meles Zenawi was an economic transformer; he was a strong intellectual leader for the continent.”

The Somalis and Eritreans were not as gracious, of course. Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a bloody and costly war in 1999, a craven misjudgment by Meles. Eritrea remains a fierce opponent even though renewed fighting seems unlikely. Ethiopia has sent troops into Somalia several times in vain attempts to end the anarchy that has ruled for decades. Meles’ willingness to join with Washington in its fight against the Islamists of al-Shabab has won him friends in America. The U.S. uses bases in Ethiopia to launch attacks, including drone strikes, in the Horn of Africa. And Meles had been rewarded with aid and support for his steadfastness to the anti-terrorism cause. Less than a week after Meles’ death, President Obama was on the phone with Hailemariam.

For all of Meles’ accomplishments, Ethiopia remains a desperately poor country, less poor than when he came to power, but still desperately poor. Whoever attempts to take Meles’ place — whether it is Hailemariam or some other party operative from the shadows the TLP — he or she (yes, Meles did much for women’s rights during his time) will have a big task awaiting. Meles made a beginning. Lots more remain to be done beginning with, for example, respecting human and political rights.

10 responses to “News of Ethiopia

  1. Trudy Russ Rosenblum

    A well written balanced account. Trudy Russ
    Rosenblum. PCV 1973-1975

    • Trudy,

      We served together 73-75 and I have worked in and around Ethiopia since –doing field research in several places and having generations of good colleagues and students. I was last there for 6 months, arriving a few days after Meles’ death and staying until last February. I agree that Barry’s is a well written and researched account. I met people who felt genuine grief and others (in the diaspora) who felt the grief was not genuine. It was and it wasn’t. And many more who simply tried to go on with the struggles of daily life as students, university faculty, and farmers in an economy that grows strangely.

      I congratulate Barry, since I am usually quite skeptical about the inherent biases of diaspora politics and party loyalties. I observed the 2005 elections for a Norwegian Human Rights group (I was in Gojjam, Ziway, and Aliu Amba for that), and Barry’s account of it is the most accurate I have seen.

      By the way, my wife Sandi remembers you from training. We send our greetings. Amazing experience.

      Jim McCann
      RPCV Burie, 73-75

      • Hey Jim, Yes I remember you and I remember Sandy too. I believe Sandy and I shared a room together on our first day in country at the Plaza Hotel. Hi to Sandy. Hope you both are doing well.

  2. An excellent, intelligent and well balanced article Meles accomplished many good things but was increasingly corrupted by a power that became increasingly absolute. Bing Taylor, PCV Makelle 1967-69

  3. Barry. You wear your bias on your sleeve. The Ethiopian-Eritrean War was hardly a “craven misjudgement” by Meles. It was just another tragic defeat in Eritrea’s litany of taking on all its neighbors in border squabbles. The result, Eritrea languishes in abject poverty while Ethiopia moves ahead in a stready march to a better economy. Perhaps Meles just used his Chinese friends as a model. My test is economic development and I suspect that was Meles’ too.

  4. Leo, your short message makes you sound like you are justifying Meles’ brutality in the name of economic gains–? Would you please clarify?

  5. very good

  6. I served in Ethiopia (Eritrea was still in the union) from 1963 – 65. The country was an absolute monarchy and the Amharas ruled. Now we have an authoritarian state where the Tigreans rule. Meanwhile the poor are still ignored and dissidents continue to be thrown in jail. Ethnic politics at its worst – it rivals that of its neighbor (South Sudan) whose refugee students I taught when I served in Gore.

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