End of a strongman

Print edition : September 21, 2012

Meles Zenawi withhis wife, Azeb Mesfin, arriving for an African Union summit in Addis Ababa on January 30, 2011. Zenawi was incommunicado for most of this year and even missed the A.U. summit in his country this July.-SAMSON HAILEYESUS/AP

The death of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi (1955-2012) brings to an end a chapter in the contemporary history of the Horn of Africa.

THE death of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, announced on August 20, brings to an end an interesting chapter in the contemporary history of the Horn of Africa. Zenawi was incommunicado for most of this year; he even skipped important events such as the African Union summit in July, which his country hosted. The nature of his prolonged illness has not been disclosed.

Zenawi was cast in the mould of traditional African strongmen; he brooked no dissent during his long years in power. Born on May 8, 1955, he came to power after a bloody civil war 21 years ago, becoming the youngest head of state in Africa at the time. The man he replaced was Mengistu Haile Mariam, whose military-dominated government had tried to introduce socialism in a country that was dominated by feudal elements and ethnic rivalries. Mengistu had played a key role in the overthrow of the pro-Western monarch, Emperor Haile Selassie. Under Mengistu, Ethiopia was in the forefront of the countries supporting the liberation movements in Africa. Ethiopia at the time was a staunch ally of the Soviet bloc.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West targeted the Ethiopian government for regime change. The United States and its allies decided to support the two main guerilla groupings leading the fight against the central government based in Addis Ababa: the Tigrayan Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front (EPLF). Interestingly, the two groups at the time had an avowed Marxist agenda, which was actually to the left of Mengistu. Zenawi was critical of both the Soviet Union and China and was an avowed supporter of the hard-line Albanian communist party of Enver Hoxha. But Washington seemed confident that it would be able to manage the transition from Mengistu to its satisfaction. The two guerilla groups that had worked closely in the struggle to overthrow Mengistu had an understanding that the country would be partitioned and that the long-running Eritrean demand for freedom would be respected. Mengistu was totally against the partitioning of the country.

Soon after Zenawi became President in 1991 (he became Prime Minister in 1995), the people of Eritrea were allowed to hold a referendum in which they duly voted for secession. Eritrea became independent, taking with it the entire coastline and the seaports that once belonged to a united Ethiopia. For most of the 1990s, both Ethiopia and the newly independent Eritrea competed with each other to be the major strategic ally of the U.S. in the region, dumping their earlier anti-Western rhetoric by the wayside. Within years, it was the more astute Zenawi who had become the chosen one of the West in the region.

Biggest recipient of aid

Relations between the two soon became unfriendly for a variety of reasons, including border disputes and economic matters. Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a brutal war between 1998 and 2000. A measure of Zenawis clout with the West in particular and the international community in general can be gauged from the fact that poverty-stricken Eritrea is today under international sanctions, while Ethiopia continues to be one of the biggest recipients of international aid. The country receives $4 billion in aid every year. The major charge against Eritrea is that its government is supporting the Al Shabab militia in Somalia, which is fighting Ethiopian troops occupying the country.

Zenawi had played a key role in ensuring that the moderate Islamic Courts Union (ICU) was ousted from power after it had briefly united war-ravaged Somalia in 2006. At the behest of the U.S., Zenawi sent the Ethiopian army into Mogadishu. Somalia is once again caught up in the vortex of a civil war. The ouster of the ICU led to the emergence of the more militant Al Shabab, which until last year was controlling most of the country, including parts of the capital. U.S. air cover, coupled with the help of the Ethiopian armed forces, has pushed out Al Shabab from the big cities, but the group remains defiant and is trying to push its fight into Ethiopia. U.S. military drones, which wreaked havoc over Somalia, are stationed in Ethiopia.

The sizable Muslim population in Ethiopia has also started organising against the central government in Addis Ababa. Among the groups that are currently engaged in small-scale hostilities are the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), which was formed in 1973, and the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), which has been militarily clashing with the Ethiopian government since 2007. Zenawi, taking a leaf out of the constitution of the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics (USSR), grandiosely proclaimed at the time of taking power that all the ethnic nationalities that made the mosaic of Ethiopia had the right to self-determination and even the right to secede. But after the secession of Eritrea, Zenawi only paid lip service to this concept and in reality cracked the whip against movements such as the OLF and the ONLF. During Zenawis long rule, larger ethnic groups such as the Amhara and the Oromos felt sidelined. Until Zenawi came onto the scene, the Amhara had monopolised power at the centre.

Despite the U.S alleged priority of spreading multiparty democracy in Africa, its major allies have been authoritarian rulers like Zenawi. The opposition and the media were severely curtailed by Zenawi.

2005 elections stolen

Many Ethiopians believe that the 2005 elections, in which the political coalition led by Zenawi the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) faced a tough challenge from the opposition, were stolen. The TPLF remains at the core of the ruling coalition, with a tight-knit group around Zenawi, consisting mainly of close colleagues from the Tigray region, running the show. The powerful armed forces are dominated by the Tigrayans, who constitute only 8 per cent of the countrys 82 million people.

On the day the votes were to be tallied in the 2005 elections, the government declared a state of emergency, outlawing public gatherings and arresting scores of opposition leaders and activists. When the results were announced, the government claimed a sweeping majority. The best and the brightest have been persecuted, prosecuted, brutalised and silenced by the dictator, an exiled opposition leader observed. After 2005, most of the opposition leadership was either jailed or went into exile. More than 200 people were killed and 30,000 arrested in the protests that erupted after the election results were announced. In the 2010 elections, the EPRDF won with more than 99 per cent of the votes.

Zenawi had received accolades from the international community for his handling of the countrys economy. Ethiopias average gross domestic product (GDP) growth in the past decade was between 8 and 10 per cent, making it comparable to Chinas. Zenawis close relations with the West ensured that his country remained among the top 10 recipients of humanitarian aid in the world.

Ensuring food security was a top priority for the Zenawi government. Zenawi had committed himself to ending the countrys dependence on food aid. But one of his policies aimed at making the country self-sufficient in food, that of leasing large tracts of land to foreign companies, including Indian-owned ones, generated domestic and international controversy. Almost half of the land in Gambela province bordering South Sudan has been leased out to foreign companies, causing the displacement of thousands of people. The government claimed that large-scale land-leasing policies would bring in millions of dollars in investment that would also create jobs and improve domestic agricultural expertise.

Some of the benefits of economic growth trickled down to the grass-roots level. The share of Ethiopians living in extreme poverty has fallen from 45 per cent to 30 per cent since Zenawi came to power. The countrys road network has improved, and more than 15,000 rural health clinics have been opened. But widespread malnutrition and poverty are still very much a reality in Ethiopia. A report by Human Rights Watch details the discriminatory way in which development money was spent. The biggest gainers were the Tigrayans and other smaller ethnic groups that constitute the main support base of the ruling EPRDF.

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