Some thoughts on Meles Zenawi’s legacy in Ethiopia

Although Meles Zenawi died in mid-August, he’s still very much an active presence in Ethiopia — so much that he still eclipses his successor, prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn.

Not to be flip, but I know a personality cult when I see one — and no matter where you go in Ethiopia, Meles follows.

He looks down from large signs, not just in the capital of Addis Ababa, but far beyond throughout the Amharic and Tigray hinterlands of northern Ethiopia as well.  He’s also on dashboards of vehicles, and he graces storefronts, the stalls in labyrinthine markets and insurance companies, not to mention government offices and museums..  In downtown Addis, near the Hilton, there’s an entire wall featuring a dozen or so larger-than life panels picturing Meles.

You’d be forgiven if you thought Meles was actually still in charge, although there are more than enough memorial displays, too, to let you know Ethiopia’s still in a sort of mourning:

In the ten days I spent in northern and central Ethiopia, I found much in the country — 85 million people and growing fast — and its people to give me hope about the country’s future, but I also saw a lot of room for institutional improvement — in education and literacy, in transportation and infrastructure, in providing services to improve health and lessen poverty, and also in building more robust democratic institutions and better regional relations.

In the same way, I found that if you dig underneath the surface of it all, many Ethiopians have an equally conflicted view of Meles’s legacy.

On one hand, Meles restored stability and a share of prosperity to Ethiopia after the tragically basket-case policies of the socialist ‘Derg,’ the military junta that controlled Ethiopia from 1974 to 1991.  It’s impossible to state how much damage the Derg did under former Ethiopian leader Mengistu Haile Mariam (who remains alive and in exile in Zimbabwe).  The collectivist inefficiencies that exacerbated the 1984-85 drought that, for an entire generation of Americans, made Ethiopia synonymous with famine and death, are alone enough to condemn the Derg, to say nothing of its repressive authoritarianism.

Meles, the leader of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (the TPLF, ሕዝባዊ ወያኔ ሓርነት ትግራይ,) that ultimately overthrew the Derg, ultimately normalized the TPLF as the most powerful among a handful of ethnic-based factions within the wider Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF, or የኢትዮጵያ ሕዝቦች አብዮታዊ ዲሞክራሲያዊ ግንባር) that now dominates a de facto one-party political system in Ethiopia.  In that sense, the EPRDF, like the Chinese Communist Party, has been a stabilizing factor by allowing Meles to consolidate and build state institutions, and that has undoubtedly resulted in greater prosperity and a more capable central government.  In a country where the two transfers of power of the past century were accompanied by bloodshed and violence, the succession of Meles’s deputy prime minister, Hailemariam, has so far been peaceful and uneventful, which is itself a testament to the stability that Meles brought to Ethiopia.

Meles, too, benefitted from U.S. military and economic aid resulting from his stalwart support of U.S. anti-terror policies — indeed, Meles became one of the United States’s most reliable African allies.  In particular, Meles launched a military campaign against the fundamentalist Islamic forces that took control of Somalia in 2006, much to the delight of — and benefit of — the United States, which worried that Somalia would spiral into a (safer) haven for piracy and radical Islamic terrorists.  Although the Ethiopian campaign in Somalia wasn’t quite a complete success (Ethiopians never fully controlled all of Somalia), it’s certain that the Ethiopian effort wore down Somalia’s fundamentalist forces and its homegrown radical terrorist group, al Shabaab.

But the ‘stability’ that Meles created must be counterbalanced against the human rights abuses of his administration and the lack of civil liberties, freedom of speech and freedom of the press (Freedom House ranks Ethiopia as ‘not free’ in its 2012 report, down from ‘partly free’ as recently as 2010).

Furthermore, Ethiopians made clear to me in many conversations that their benchmark for a prosperous and stable Ethiopia is no longer whether their country is now better off than during the Derg.  Rather, two decades on, the benchmarks are Ethiopia’s many neighbors throughout sub-Saharan Africa, such as Ghana, Senegal, Nigeria, South Africa, Botswana — and it’s not clear that Ethiopia is keeping up. 

Although GDP growth has surged in Ethiopia — especially in the past decade, with an average growth of around 10.6% over the past eight years — GDP growth has slowed from a peak of 13.57% in 2004 to just 7.3% in 2011, and may slow even more in 2012.  Ethiopia’s economy remains far from an efficient free-market paradise.

The country is certainly not keeping up in terms of democracy — the 2005 elections, which followed a robust campaign season, were widely seen as unfree and unfair, with the result rigged in favor of the EPRDF and against a largely united opposition coalition.  Protestors in Addis Ababa following the 2005 election were dispersed with sometimes lethal force — 42 people are reported to have been killed in clashes between activists and police, and over 60,000 protestors were arrested.  The leader of the 2005 opposition coalition, Hailu Shawul, was himself imprisoned, and the follow-up 2010 elections were seen as no more than show elections designed to rubber-stamp the continuity of the EPRDF’s power.

It remains to be seen if the 2015 elections will be any better than either the rigged 2005 elections or the pro forma 2010 elections.

Ultimately, though, Meles’s biggest failure has been Eritrea — the one-time Italian colony and one-time Ethiopian province that extends across much of the wide coastline along the Horn of Africa.

Eritrea successfully became independent from Ethiopia in 1993 following a long war against the Derg and Haile Sellasie’s imperial army before it.  Eritrea gained its independence with Meles’s blessing — Meles’s TPLF was in many ways based on Isaias Afewerki’s Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, and the two found common cause in the 1980s in their joint opposition to the Derg.  The Tigray ethnic group to which Meles belonged is essentially the same ethnic group that populates much of Eritrea — Meles’s mother is Eritrean, for example, and the lines between the Tigray in Ethiopia and Eritrea are more blurred than either side pretends.  So hopes ran high that Meles, as the first modern Tigray leader of Ethiopia, would succeed in healing the longtime Ethiopian-Eritrean wounds.

But the reality is that Meles presided over the opposite — an entirely unnecessary exacerbation of tensions that culminated in the 1998-2000 war that began over control of the dusty border town of Badme.  Although both Meles and Isaias share the blame for the war, it doesn’t absolve Meles of his own responsibility for the failure in political discourse that led to bloodshed, and that has resulted in destabilizingly poor relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea ever since.

Meles’s Eritrean policy for the past decade has been to the detriment of both countries.  Eritrea’s natural hinterland for exports and services is obviously Ethiopia, where 60% of its exports once flowed.  Ethiopia, for its part, has been forced to look to Djibouti to the south for access to the sea.

So while Ethiopia continues to publicly mourn Meles — and, after all, he was the undisputed leader of Ethiopia for over two decades and Ethiopians can point to much progress over those two decades — it seems clear that Ethiopians will demand more of their leaders in the post-Meles era.

Photo credits to Kevin Lees — various locations in Addis Ababa, November 2012.

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