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25 July 2014 17:48 (South Africa)
Opinionista Kevin Bloom

The legacy of Meles Zenawi: What might have been

  • Kevin Bloom
Never during the post-independence era, aside perhaps for Thabo Mbeki, had Africa seen a leader with the intellectual force and economic vision of Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi. His model of development through state-driven infrastructure spend made his country the fastest-growing non-oil economy on the continent, and he was a master at playing the West off against China. Sadly, his autocratic tendencies will forever taint his legacy. Can Africa learn from his passing and get the balance right? 

In February this year, a few days after I’d written a news article for this website under the header “The AU summit: A rare ring of truth”, Janice Winter, a journalist with an Oxford degree in international development, decided to set me straight by penning a rebuttal entitled “Meles Zenawi: Where the truth lies”. Foolishly, I fired back the same week with a rebuttal to her rebuttal, cleverly (or so I thought) calling it “The Ethiopia of Ms Winter’s discontent”. 

Now that Meles has passed—he died on Monday in a Brussels hospital at the age of 57—it’s only right that I come clean. And my confession is this: while I was aware back then that in highlighting the Ethiopian prime minister’s positive attributes I’d be under-emphasising his dark side, I had just returned from a trip to the country during which I’d conducted interviews and research on his economic policies (for a forthcoming book on China’s influence in Africa), and my impressions had been such that I considered the angle justified in a column of necessarily compromised length.

Beyond that, I felt my decision was buttressed by Joseph Stiglitz’s much-cited 2007 op-ed in the New York Times, wherein the Nobel-winning economist had applauded Ethiopia’s annual growth rate of 10%, attributing the remarkable incline to Meles alone. Although Stiglitz did refer in his piece to the “controversial” elections of 2005, conceding that Meles had jailed opposition members and journalists who’d demonstrated against the government, he went on to note that shortly after the incident 30 opposition members had been given amnesty and released. 

Stiglitz also wrote the following: “Meles’s overthrow of Mengistu not only ended the Red Terror, but also centuries of domination by the Amharas. Power was devolved toward the regions, and a most unusual constitutional provision, giving regions rights to withdraw, ensured that the centre would not abuse its powers.”

Of course, as the weeks of follow-up research would show me, it had always been highly unlikely that this constitutional provision would be tested via a referendum—and indeed, not only did Meles die without putting the clause into practice, he routinely and defiantly abused the powers of “the centre”. 

During his lifetime, in his speeches and papers, Meles may have praised the tenets of democracy and inclusive governance—he may have even called his economic model “democratic developmentalism”—but it was obvious from his actions that the man was not a democrat. Undeniably, his standard response to journalists who were critical of his regime was to imprison them, and his economy, although it had been somewhat liberalised, was anything but open. After all, to do big business in Meles’s Ethiopia, connections to his office were crucial, and foreign investors were shut out of most key sectors, including banking.

The most damning stain on Meles’s legacy, however, will remain the extent of his crackdown on those election demonstrations in 2005—a crackdown that Siglitz neglected to fully acknowledge in his New York Times piece. To be clear about the scale of it: at least 193 people were killed, thousands were arrested, and scores of opposition activists and journalists were detained without trial on spurious charges of treason.

As the editorial board of the Washington Post observed after the prime minister’s death this week: “Mr. Meles’s desire to protect his political ‘system’ grew more and more repressive. Under the guise of national security, the parliament passed legislation between 2007 and 2009 to stifle dissent. According to Amnesty International, an anti-terrorism law ‘effectively criminalises freedom of expression.’ The State Department’s 2011 human rights report notes that the government arrested more than 100 people between March and September, including opposition political figures, activists, journalists, and bloggers.”

So, as a journalist who’s supposed to believe in media freedom—and who knew, prior to visiting Ethiopia, that Meles had more journalists in prison than any African head of state—what was it that impressed me about the prime minister? How could I, according to Ms Winter and a number of incensed Ethiopian journalists-in-exile, have gotten him so wrong?

On one level, it has to be reiterated that Meles, despite his authoritarian bent, did do much good for his country. His intellectual force was legendary, and, according to the writer and Africanist Alex de Waal (currently executive director of the World Peace Foundation) and the Ethiopian diplomat Abdul Mohammed (chief of staff for the African Union High Level Implementation Panel on Sudan), in his very first press conference as prime minister he declared that he would consider his government a success if Ethiopians were able to eat three meals a day.

“All his national policies were framed around the conquest of poverty,” the duo wrote on Wednesday. “Unconvinced by the prescriptions of the IMF and the World Bank, he held back on accepting international loans until his conditions were met...  Throughout the next two decades, he was uniquely ready to engage in sustained debate with policy makers, diplomats and scholars from around the world.”   

It was this commitment to the vision of Ethiopian and African development, a vision manifest in his 10% growth rate (as ratified by the IMF itself), that I witnessed first-hand during Meles’s speech at the inauguration of the new African Union headquarters in January. What intrigued me most were his scathing references, throughout the speech, to The Economist magazine. Known to be high on his reading list—Meles had both an MBA and a master’s degree in economics—he blamed the magazine for espousing the same market fundamentalist principles that had once crippled the economies of Africa.  

First, citing the infamous “Hopeless Continent” cover line that ran in The Economist in 2000, Meles attributed the lost decades of the late twentieth century to failed African leaderships and the misdirected interventionist measures of the West. “We were given medicines,” he said, “that were worse than the disease.” Then, building up to the “Africa Rising” theme that ran in the magazine in 2011, he spoke of an unprecedented investment surge and “access to new powers of finance and growth.” 

As was typical of Meles, the speech was profound and engaging, a rousing monologue peppered with his trademark dry wit, and its message was as strong as it was unambiguous: Africa, for the first time in almost 50 years, was beginning to make its own decisions.

But given the presence behind him on the stage of China’s senior political adviser Jia Qinglin—and taking into account the $200 million Chinese donation that had just paid for these new AU headquarters—there was an even more significant cover line to mark the hypothesis, and it was by a quirk of fate the one that appeared in The Economist of that very week. “The rise of state capitalism,” the magazine declared, from the front page of its 21 January 2012 edition. 

The corresponding text, which argued that China no longer viewed state-directed companies as a means to the end of liberal capitalism but rather as an end in themselves, noted that a growing number of developing nations were beginning to agree with the policymakers in Beijing. What the report didn’t note was that Ethiopia, with an economy growing even faster than China’s, had long been one of them. 

In February 2012, the opening of a $600-million cement factory underlined in a profound way Meles’s partiality to the Chinese model of growth through infrastructural spend. Located 70 km northwest of Addis Ababa, the factory has a yearly capacity of 2.5 million metric tons and is funded by, amongst others, Saudi Arabian/Ethiopian billionaire Sheikh Mohammed al-Amoudi, the European Investment Bank, the African Development Bank, the Development Bank of Ethiopia, and the International Finance Corporation. Built by China National Building Materials Co., the project is an archetypal Meles initiative—a meeting of West and East in a context that is distinctly African.

And this brings up the second reason that I couldn’t help but admire the man. Often referred to as Africa’s wiliest head of state, Meles became an adept at playing the West off against China. The former needed him as a stabilising force in a region routinely rendered volatile by Somalia and Sudan, and the latter saw in him a likeminded “strong man”—a supreme leader of an effective one-party state (in the 2010 elections, Meles’s party, the EPRDF, took 99.6% of the vote)—with whom they could do some very good business.

The $4 billion that Meles received in development aid each year was a direct result of this political nous, and was linked, many said, to his country being constantly named as the fastest-growing non-oil economy on the continent. Question was, did his brand of donor-driven industrial development translate into disposable income for ordinary Ethiopians?

With a population of 85 million and a projected national income of $38.5 billion, Ethiopia is still one of the poorest countries in the world. Rampant inflation was always going to be the principal side-effect of Meles’s infrastructure projects—it had been running for a while at around 50%, although in March 2012 dropped to a nine-month low of 32.5%. In Addis Ababa, while the populace can now commute on highways built by Chinese contractors with Chinese loans, the bulk still live in tin shantytowns, and the cost of living leaves little prospect for upward mobility.

Perhaps understandably, Ethiopia’s many political exiles cited such statistics to pop the myth of Meles’s genius. And yet, within the country, there existed a genuine respect for the leader—if not exactly “love”. On Tuesday, I was moved by a posting on Facebook of a young man named Hallelujah Lulie, who, when I spoke to him in his office at the Institute for Security Studies in Addis, had been eloquent and forthright on the subject of Meles’s autocratic methods.

“Meles is no more,” wrote Hallelujah, “but the radical transformation he made to the state, citizenship and polity will continue to define the political and public life of the nation for decades to come. He was a visionary and competent leader who stood up against injustice as a young man, unfortunately his democracy and justice project failed. He and his government made some stubborn decisions with lasting consequences. Meles was no democrat, but he surely raised the bar for the top post. Though imposed, the economic vision he had for the nation changed the country and has [the] power to transform the nation. I can’t hide my sadness and shock.”

A photograph a few lines above the post showed Meles in deep conversation, in the main hall of the new AU headquarters in January, with none other than Thabo Mbeki. Hallelujah’s caption? “This was the last time I saw Meles, conversing with his dear friend of [the] same calibre…” 

Another case, unfortunately, of what might have been. DM

Read more:

  • “On the Ground: Joseph Stiglitz in Ethiopia,” in the NYT
  • “The unfulfilled promise of Meles Zenawi,” in the Washington Post
  • “Meles Zenawi and Ethiopia’s Grand Experiment,” in the New York Times
  • Kevin Bloom
KevinBloomBW

Kevin Bloom has written for a wide array of South African and international publications, including Granta, the UK Times and the Guardian, and is an Honorary Writing Fellow at the University of Iowa, having completed the fall residency of the International Writing Program in 2011. Kevin’s first book, Ways of Staying, won the 2010 South African Literary Award for literary journalism, and was shortlisted for the Alan Paton Award. He is currently working on a book about a changing Africa.

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