Meles Zenawi: in his own words – By Peter Gill

Meles retained the respect of international leaders as he sought to raise his country out of poverty and aid dependency.

In the rush to judgement on the record and the legacy of Meles Zenawi as Ethiopia’s leader for the past two decades, the man himself has barely left the shadows.  Yes, he achieved record economic growth for his country, and yes, he was a force for stability and an ally in the West’s “˜war on terror,’ and no, he was certainly not a liberal democrat.

He was also a much more attractive and significant figure than these achievements and positions suggest.   His work rate was punishing enough to have cost him his health (he was only 57) and his political predominance owed as much to an extraordinary intellect as to his control over the apparatus of party and state.  Reflecting his country’s tradition of independence and its inclination to keep foreigners in their place, he articulated a vision of an Africa where the West no longer ruled the world.

Educational attainment is no indicator of political capacity, but Meles’ academic exploits were exceptional. At 19 he dropped out of his medical degree in Addis Ababa to become a guerrilla fighter.  Seventeen years later he took up his studies again (and insisted most of his young cabinet do the same) through the Open University, and got one the best business degrees they have ever awarded.  He went on to a master’s degree at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, an undertaking inconveniently interrupted by the war with Eritrea.

His thesis, appropriately, was on the functioning of African economies.  As he explained to me, it “˜was primarily intended for our own local consumption to see if our policies could stand up to the rigour of some academic scrutiny.’  He got his Master’s in 2004.

Meles famously had no small talk.   Chris Mullin, as a junior Foreign Office Minister, tells how he was ushered into his office after a dramatic flight across the country from the Red Sea coast.  “˜Spectacular country, Prime Minister,’ ventured Mullin, to break the ice.  Meles smiled and said nothing.  “˜It must be very difficult to govern,’ offered Mullin in desperation.  “˜Spectacularly difficult,’ replied Meles.  They then got down to business.

What he lacked in small talk he made up for in willingness to debate and argue, more enthusiastically with foreigners than with Ethiopians.  In researching my book “˜Famine and Foreigners: Ethiopia since Live Aid‘ I trailed Meles to a series of “˜Farmers’ Festivals’ where he would give up a day to listen to speeches and hand out prizes.  I heard him lecture on African development to several hundred economists, foreigners and Ethiopians, and then take questions for more than two hours.

It was after one of these occasions that I got my introduction.  I told him who I was, what I was doing and said I wanted to conduct extensive interviews with him.  He beamed good-naturedly.  “˜I would be honoured,’ he said in as subtle a lack of formal commitment as I have ever received as a journalist.  In the event I saw him for a total of four hours, and was free to tackle all the awkward  questions, from Ethiopia’s image around the world to democracy and human rights and his plans to hand over power.

Here are some of the more surprising and challenging observations that Meles made to me.  They help account perhaps for the regard in which he was held by fellow leaders in Africa and beyond:

On the shame and embarrassment of his country’s association with hunger and starvation:

“˜Humiliation can be a very powerful motivation for action and therefore I don’t hate the fact that we get humiliated every day so long as it’s based on facts.  If we feel we deserve to be treated like honourable citizens of the world, then we have to remove that source of shame.’

On the failure to respond effectively to the 2008 famine in southern Ethiopia:

“˜That was a failure on our part.  We were late in recognising we had an emergency on our hands.   We did not know that a crisis was brewing in these specific areas until emaciated children began to appear.’

On how western aid agencies were also to blame:

“˜They did not respond quickly.  They didn’t have the means to respond quickly.  But they were exaggerating, and it appears to us that they were deliberately exaggerating.  My own interpretation is because they have to shock and awe the international community to get money.’

On the 2015 deadline for realizing the main Millennium Development Goal:

“˜As far as halving poverty is concerned, we will achieve it.  I have no doubt about it.  I believe by 2025 we will be a middle income country with a per capita income of at least $1,000 a year and at around that time, slightly before perhaps, we will be completely free of aid of any variety.’

On the merits and limitations of democracy:

“˜We believe that democracy, good governance and transparency and fighting corruption are good objectives for every country, particularly for developing countries.  Where we had our differences with the so-called neoliberal paradigm is first on the perception that this can be imposed from outside.  We do not believe that is possible.  Internalization of accountability is central to democratisation.  The state has to be accountable to the citizens, and not some embassy or foreign actor.’

On the pressure from western aid donors to adopt free market economics:

“˜Our argument has been that the neoliberal model does not work in Africa.  In developed countries it is a perfectly legitimate alternative (or it was – it needs serious modifications now).  In the case of under-developed economies without the push of the state, an effective developmental state, it is very unlikely that the markets that do exist are going to function efficiently and push the country forward.’

On the restrictions imposed on foreign-funded Non Government Organisations:

“˜These NGOs were initially seen as an antidote to what was seen as the main problem in Africa – the bloated state.  This was supposed to be an alternative.  You reduce the role of the state, including your social services, and you encourage NGOs to provide as much of the public services as possible.  In the end we argue that the NGOs have turned out to be alternative networks of patronage.  NGOs have not provided an alternative good governance network.’

On his wish to step down from power:

“˜It’s not just about Meles.  It’s about the old generation of leadership, the armed struggle leadership.  There is consensus that the leadership has to go.  Sometime during the next term [2010 – 2015] the whole leadership has to go.’

Meles’ work was not quite done.  It is still unclear how far the transition to a new, younger leadership has progressed.  It is still less clear whether sufficiently strong party and state institutions are in place to withstand the shock of his departure and the challenges that the new hierarchy will face.  The ultimate objective, he told me in 2009, had always been for the ruling party to make itself redundant.  Was that still the aim?  “˜If it doesn’t do that, it has failed absolutely – miserably failed in its objective.’

Peter Gill is the author of Famine and Foreigners: Ethiopia since Live Aid, published in paperback this year by Oxford University Press.

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21 thoughts on “Meles Zenawi: in his own words – By Peter Gill

  1. Pingback: Meles Zenawi: In His Own Words | Reinventing Peace

  2. These man crush eulogies to Meles are fine, but it seems Peter Gill has not done his homework and is only presenting one side of the picture:

    Notice the contradiction in the first three responses: ‘It is shameful to need food aid. The government did not notice the famine of 2008. The aid agencies did not respond quickly enough, but they also exaggerate.’ These are the ramblings of a psychopath. Any aid worker can tell you how Ethiopia routinely prevents nutritional surveys, doctors the results and denies any occurrence of famine until it hits Western TV screens, and then, reluctantly, accepts help.

    The sentence on democracy is meaningless nonsense in the face of a 99% victory in the polls, tens of thousands of political prisoners and the elimination of the free press and the total lack of any independent institutions, including the courts.

    The MDG figures are self-reported and not to be trusted.

    Gill should read Amnesty International’s thorough report on the effects of the restrictions on NGOs. It has nothing to do with patronage, it’s designed to eliminate all critical civil society, and has been very successful at doing that.

    Meles may have said that he wanted to make the ruling redundant. But you cannot report that statement without pointing out that he has destroyed every other political party in Ethiopia and locked up many of the leaders.

    Why are these journalists who met Meles as a rebel unable to report the facts that contradict their rosy view of the ‘intellectually brilliant’ freedom fighter? Man Crush?

  3. I was pleased to be accused by Ben Rawlence of having a ‘man crush’ on Meles. That must be a phrase reserved for those of us who come down from NGO towers and test their conclusions with people who have the tricky job of running countries.

    This is not Ben’s style. For him, Meles’ observations are ‘the ramblings of a psychopath.’ He should have a word with his boss Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, who has just written about Meles for the Los Angeles Times.

    ‘Stunningly smart, strategic, practical, he cared about his country and, by all appearances, resisted the kind of graft and corruption that has plagued many African nations.’ More than that: ‘When I fired questions at him, he answered quickly and decisively, never conceding a point but always remaining calm.’

    Another ‘man crush,’ Ben? Or is it just a bit of balance and fairness, and a flicker of respect for a significant life led?

  4. Thank you for responding Peter. It was a significant life, and I concur with all that Ken Roth says including the rest of the article which details Meles appalling human rights record. Meles tortuous logic on aid is indeed the ramblings of someone unable to see his own contradictions. And indeed, in his entire lack of empathy for his victims, he fits a classic definition of a psychopath.

    Ken Roth was impressed, rightly, with Meles’ acumen and talent. He was not impressed, rightly, with locking up tens of thousands of people, forcibly displacing hundreds of thousands to make way for land grabs and other state development projects, war crimes in Somalia and Ogaden and the manipulation of development aid to entrench the ruling party’s total grip on power.

    Running countries is difficult. It does not follow that it has to be done illegally and brutally and in violation of Ethiopia’s own constitution and international laws.

    Quoting Meles is easy. Doing months of tough on the ground fieldwork (which many journalists were unable to do due to tight restrictions on the press) over the last four years to get at the real story of how billions in aid have been misused and thousand of people locked up, beaten, murdered, raped and forced off their land in the name of ‘development’ is, by contrast, hard. Human Rights Watch has gotten kicked out of the country for its pains.

    And good journalism requires, as you point out, balance and fairness, and total disclosure of the facts on the record about his rule. In that light, you can report what Meles claimed he was trying to do, but it behoves the quoter to also point out the well documented reality. Seen against the backdrop of hyperinflation, massive capital and population flight, skyrocketing food insecurity, and repression on an almost Chinese scale, Meles’ words do indeed appear to reflect a man living in a parallel universe.

    It is a testament to his charisma and brilliance that so many sensible journalists and Western leaders were taken in.

  5. It would have been more educative if questions pertaining to internal and Ethiopia’s war with Eritrea and Somalia could have been explored. How much of the GDP goes towards financing the war and goes towards the defense budget? Did he envisage settling his differences with Eritrea during his lifetime? How about the Ogaden conflict and the question of OLF in the south????

  6. I appreciate your rejoinder, Ben, just as I appreciate the quality of HRW’s reports on Ethiopia. I do, however, question the wholly negative picture you insist on presenting of Meles himself.

    It may make it easier for you to sustain your case to cast him as a double-dyed dictator – an incoherent psychopath without qualities, apparently – but that does no justice either to history or to circumstance, let alone to the man himself.

    I may, or may not, have spent as many months on the ground as you have, and I certainly lacked HRW’s resources, but I too have researched in all corners of Ethiopia, as well interviewing those despised ministers and officials, and I emerged with a much more complex and varied picture than you seek to paint.

    I acknowledge that my book was often sympathetic to the efforts of many within government, as well as to those who stand up to it. As a result I do not sport that badge you proudly wear of being kicked out of the country.

  7. Thank you Peter. I appreciate that Meles is a complex character, and that Ethiopia’s troubled history under the EPRDF is not wholly negative, it cannot be. There are more roads, there are more clinics. In this I suppose we can agree.

    But in presenting and understanding a complex nuanced picture of the country and Meles’ legacy, we cannot rely on his own assessment which, I maintain, was far divorced from the reality on the ground. My contention remains that his own words unadorned with context are misleading.

    For the proper balance between the positives and the negatives, we must rely on facts, outcomes, genuine statistics. Not simply on what the protagonists claimed they were trying to do. Ethiopia’s MDG figures and economic stats are acknowledged even by DFID (off the record) as being unreliable. There undoubtedly has been some economic growth, we can see that, but how much, and how much capital flight?

    Meles may have wanted to drag his country into middle income status, but he has manifestly failed to do it. He tried to bulldoze hundreds of thousands of people off their land and auction Ethiopian land to foreign investors to do it but it was a fundamentally flawed, illegal and in the end, violent process. He tried to give loans to small businesses but ended up conditioning it all on membership of the ruling party. The same with agricultural assistance. Eloquence about development coupled with violence on the ground does not square.

    It is a shame that HRW has not been allowed back into Ethiopia to meet the authorities and to discuss these issues with the government. Many people have tried to facilitate that conversation. There is no pride in being ejected – it is simply a measure of the regime.

    My wish is to see Ethiopia properly understood in the media and in policy circles and for policy to be based on a proper understanding of the noble things that Meles and his disciplined EPRDF say they are trying to do versus the reality of how they are actually operating and how those policies are playing out on the ground: It’s one thing to congratulate him for his commitment to reducing poverty. It’s quite another to fail to investigate how your country’s hundreds of millions of pounds are paying for forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of indigenous people in Gambella, Benishangul-Gumuz, Afar, Somali and the Omo valley (as the UK and numerous other European countries are currently failing to do). And this scandal relies on too much one sided journalism. The only stories that come out of Ethiopia seem to be from the journalists that the regime brands ‘balanced’; and they should not be the ones deciding.

  8. Here we go again with the unrealistic moralizing nonsense typical of human rights activists.
    First of all, the only important things in life are human rights. Political stability, infrastructural development, education and health and sectors are absolutely irrelevant when assessing the state of a country or the legacy of a leader. The value hierarchy of these in relation to press freedom is of course a subjective issue, and seen from the perspective of spoiled, upper-class, Ivy League educated lawyer living in New York, artistic freedom is the most important thing of all, as stability and food can be taken for granted. For the inhabitants of Horn of Africa, the situation is different as you can imagine. In a region ravaged by famine and war for decades, neither stability or nor food can be taken for granted, as life in Somalia or South Sudan illustrate (Ethiopia neighbors, that is). So do not be surprised if many Ethiopians are satisfied or at least content with the Ethiopia’s growth trajectory under Meles, because WE know from past experience how much worse it can be.
    Contrary to what decades of political science research has taught us about the delicate task of liberalizing previously authoritarian societies, and the dangers that might follow of doing this in the absence of strong institutions, HR activists based in New York, such as Ben Rawlence, want us Africans to liberalize everything as soon as possible. Let me ask you a question, Ben, if we were to do what you ask, liberalize in all haste, and ethnic or religious conflict or instability of any kind were to follow, what would you do to help us? While we turn into another Somalia, you would be analyzing the situation from your penthouse in Manhattan.

    We know that liberal democracy is good, we also know that the current state of affairs is not ideal (we don’t need you to teach us that), but please understand we have never been as peaceful and well-off as we are now, and we (who pay the price of conflict and instability) don’t really wanna risk that, pal!

  9. Peter Gill has a very good research question. I also think that the book makes some interesting observations and perceptive comments here and there. It is a pity that one must try hard not to be distracted by the author’s irritatingly tedious eulogizing of Meles Zenawi’s brilliance, the will-o’-the-wisp treatment of human rights, and his post hoc ergo propter hoc comments to appreciate the book’s worth. I know journalists, even the most historically perspicacious ones like Gill, can’t resist color, but it is calamitous when color either distracts or is confused for substance. In Meles Zenawi’s case, as in Saif Gaddafi’s and Assad’s before the popular uprisings in their respective countries, a number of journalists had succumbed to the ethos of a publicist.

  10. Perhaps it would be best to stop eulogising the late President and focus on cancelling his legacy – land grabs and hydro-electic projects which are so evidently socially and environmentally unsustainable – and likely to be economic failures for Ethiopia. Compensation need be minimal given the probable illegalities (for example, corruption) involved in securing these projects. Too many blind eyes were turned towards Ethiopia in the quest for stability in the region.

  11. As far as stability and food security versus human rights are concerned, some facts:

    1. Ethiopia is less stable now as a result of a divisive ethnicisation of politics under the TPLF/EPRDF – see International Crisis Group – ‘Ethnic Federalism and its Discontents’ and the recent post-Meles paper by the same group, plus a good body of work by independent academics who are long friends of Ethiopia like Sarah Vaughan and Kjetil Tronvoll.

    2. The despots apologists and EPRDF propagandists like to say ‘food now, democracy later’. It was a favorite argument of Meles’. And liberal lefties concerned with neo-colonialism fell for it every time. It is precisely because I am not one of those people living in a penthouse in Manhattan that I can appreciate the realities and struggles of my friends in Ethiopia who do not like living under a repressive dictatorship and who rightly do not see their life choices as reflecting a hopeless choice between votes and violent meltdown or food and stability in exchange for no rights. Meles’ brutal approach delivered neither votes, food nor stability. A much higher percentage of the population rely on food aid now than they did when the EPRDF took power. The EPRDF has now strategy for how to feed its people. The big mystery is why everyone thought Meles was such a visionary when his policies were so disastrous. The achievements of his reign are the improvements in basic services and infrastructure in some areas that were all paid for with foreign cash.

    3. Ethiopia is not on a trajectory of gradual liberalisation towards democracy. Ethiopia has been going BACKWARDS in terms of repression, and liberalisation, not forwards. In 2005 there was more political space, independent newspapers and less political prisoners than now. Let me remind you: 200 dead and 40,000 locked up after the 2005 crackdown. Since then, hundreds more political prisoners locked up and tortured, journalists, opposition members and others. Newspapers closed and NGOs destroyed.

    The danger in Ethiopia is not liberalising in the absence of strong institutions. It is the threat to the very institutions posed by the EPRDF. It has systematically undermined parliament, the courts, regional governments and the press and civil society to the point where the only institution that has national reach is the ruling party. These institutions were stronger before.

    4. Human rights goes to the core of stability and accountability for delivery of food, healthcare and education. In the absence of basic freedoms, even the delivery of these public goods can serve partisan interests, as HRW showed in its 2010 report ‘Development without Freedom’. Neither HRW nor me personally is interested in telling Ethiopia how to govern itself. We are only asking the government to respect the Ethiopian constitution and the international laws that it has signed up to. As long as the EPRDF stops interfering in the judiciary, rigging elections, locking people up for no reason, forcibly removing people from their land and committing war crimes in foreign countries, it can pursue whatever development strategy it likes; that’s none of our business.

  12. I shan’t prolong this, Ben, but Gemechu really has hit a nail or two on the head here. We can respect the purity of your position at Human Rights Watch, but there’s a point where it surely conflicts with the exigencies of a messy and imperfect world. I see now that you dismiss an entire community of journalists as regime patsies on the grounds that they are allowed to go to work in Ethiopia.

    When I spoke of history, I had something longer in mind than the mixed record of the EPRDF. Meles and his party succeeded a few thousand years of dynastic isolation and a couple of decades of catastrophic Cold War conflict. What they built – imperfect and at a cost – brought an era of stability and progress, terms that HRW only ever uses with heavy and ironic inverted commas.

    My own most significant brush with contemporary Ethiopia was to have spent many weeks on the ground in the North during the famine years of 1984 and 1985. In that period at least 600,000 people lost their most basic human right to life through starvation. Food was then a weapon of war. Many were deliberately starved to death.

    Human Rights Watch has presented important evidence that the Ethiopian authorities have on recent occasions deprived their opponents of development services while rewarding loyalists. That, too, is the use of aid as a weapon. Donors should have been far more alert, and should have acted to stop it. But you have gone much further, Ben. You have come as near as dammit to arguing the case that the West should cut off their aid as a result. That I believe is profoundly wrong.

  13. Thank you Peter. I think we can agree – the tragedy of the EPRDF is that they did indeed build a fragile measure of stability and progress but one that was ultimately fundamentally flawed. When it was tested, in 2005, Meles’ rhetoric of support for democracy crumbled in the face of the messy reality of plural politics. The repression that followed should not be mistaken for stability. What you call the purist position of human rights is, apart from being morally right (there is no need for people to be beaten, detained, killed and tortured for stability to happen), also historically shown to be the best guarantor of a peaceful order through generations – the best way for securing peaceful transfer of power (viz experiences around the world since the American revolution). Without a formal opposition and a free press to air grievances and host a national debate about politics in Ethiopia discontent will likely take other forms, as well argued in the recent ICG paper. Will apologists then argue that the mass arbitrary detention of Muslim protestors or Oromos suspected of nationalist feelings is the acceptable price of stability? But that analysis aside, democracy is what the EPRDF and Meles actually signed up for, and as you quote above, actually said they believe in…

    Whether or not aid is cut off to Ethiopia is actually irrelevant to this discussion. The question is Meles legacy and whether the EPRDF has left Ethiopia better or worse off. You seem to think that on balance its better and therefore Meles can be forgiven his crimes, yes, crimes. I say that the jury is out, there has been some progress but that the commonly touted achievements must be questioned and the hidden costs of this so called stability and progress must be revealed in the light in order for a proper assessment to be made. And no, Meles and all other lawbreakers like him (including Cheney, Bush and Blair) should have their day in court. Our global civiliasation is founded on the rule of law. Call me a purist, but there is never ever any excuse or need to curtail basic human rights, that’s why they’re enshrined in the UN declaration and why nearly every country in the world has signed up to them.

    Finally, it is not up to foreigners like us to decide whether or not the price of stability has been too high or to try and fathom whether Ethiopians miss the freedom to decide their own future and are willing to sacrifice that for a promise of food. Ethiopians must decide those questions for themselves. The problem with an authoritarian state is that they can’t. As such, I believe the human rights position in insisting that the government adhere to the constitution, and that donors adhere to their own principles is the proper approach to the dilemma – to assist in moving towards a time when Ethiopians can have a national debate on equal terms once again, as they briefly did at the end of the Derg regime before Meles shut the door and took a different path.

  14. Peter I could not agree more with your very independent and free of any prejudice osition in this rather interesting debate with people who appear to advance lofty causes but are actually knowingly or otherwise openly meddling in the internal political affairs of a country. I personally do not count myself as an EPRDF sympathiser but I couldn’t help but feel humiliated when I see this sort of open interference and biased political position taken by people meant to be above politics. Human Rights Watch has compromised its independence by repeatedly taking sides and echoing the opposition in exile without actually doing ample finding out itself of the accusations it makes. The excuse of course is that they are not allowed to go in to investigate. The fact is they would not have been banned from working in the country if they were not proven to be interfering in the affairs of a country where they go as neutral outsiders.
    They are fed all sorts of unverifiable reports of abuse here and abuse there by so called local human rights groups some of which lets be frank were led and are linked to the governments political rivals. And that is not to mention Berhanu Nega group of self exiled opposition politicians who from their western comfort lobby the likes of Human Rights Watch and other foreign organisations thought to flex a muscle on the government. That was all too well if only some of these allegations were verifiable allegations.
    As for the independent media in Ethiopia and how press freedom has been curtailed by government heavy handedness, the truth is very different from HRW try to paint. Many of these independent journalists are again individuals allied to the opposition political groups in the country and outside. As proven time and tIme again, their stories are written to advance political agendas. There is little if any independent reporting of facts. The distortion is deliberate and intended to cause damage not to the governing party but to the entire nation. Lies are routinely published and deliberate exaggeration of facts is a common feature of the private and not the independent press in Ethiopia. Many reporters , publishers and proprietors of newspapers are either members of the defunct Derg regime structure or self confessed political activists in the service of all sorts of government opponents and outside forces who wish to exert influence on events in Ethiopia. Yes everyone should have a right to speak but a lot of these so called independent journalists and publications and proprietors do not want to be held to account for what they say. Reputations are shredded to pieces and inter-ethnic conflicts incited by shabby poor and often deliberately distorted journalism which is abound today not just in Ethiopia but even in the Diaspora where many of these have gone to continue these standard of work without having to be held accountable by the rule of law.
    So a lecture like that by HRW just doesn’t go down well among many people outside the government let alone the government itself.

  15. it is in’s deed interesting debate going on i myself share my brothers
    Gemechu’s idea in some extent but one should know developement with the cost of human right violation can not be development, afterall the development should be in favor of the human themselves, our late PM is some one we love to hate, and some of the development came under his leadership is undeniable, women’s right especially GBV laws were taken due consideration during his time, well at least till the 2009 CSA law. all in all lets wait and see what is going to happen

  16. Ben ,
    I hate to be rude, but you only confirm my prejudice against western human rights activists. First of all, there is an issue called selection bias in the social sciences. You pick and choose on variables and sources, and voila you have a narrative that supports your moral stance. The problem however is that the picture you end up with is distorted, not to mention simple (and dare I say childish).
    Where in the world do you get the data that claims Ethiopia is more dependent on food assistance today than it was in 1991? Furthermore, life expectancy, child mortality rates, roads and other infrastructures, access to education etc , on all these indicators considerable improvements have been made. Yet they are of little interest to you as they don’t support your narrative.
    And then there is point no. 1. “Ethiopia is less stable now as a result of a divisive ethnicisation of politics under the TPLF/EPRDF” and you proudly refer to an ICG report. Ethiopian history 101, ethnic politics was not invented by the TPLF. If you recall, during the Derg many factions were mobilized along ethnic lines, the Oromo, Somali, Tigray and Eritrea (THE VAST MAJORITY IN OTHER WORDS), so NO TPLF did not invent ethnic politics. Don’t believe everything just because it comes from a think tank. What grounds does the ICG have for making their claims? No primary data or surveys, just secondary data which are put together in a convenient narrative. For your information, in their last report they site Jawar Mohameds blog as a credible source on the motivations of Zenawi for choosing Hailmariam for deputy pm. Jawar is a smart guy, but how would he know what motives Zenawi had? An error an undergraduate would not commit.

    You also say that eprdf “has systematically undermined parliament, the courts, regional governments and the press and civil society to the point where the only institution that has national reach is the ruling party. These institutions were stronger before.” Yes, of course the courts were very independent and the private press vibrant during the Derg, you are absolutely right. (you must be out of your mind, mate).

    I think my biggest problem with you (and your professional kind) is your narrow focus and almost childlike approach to third world politics. For you it’s all rather easy, just liberalize and be nice to each other is the message. You simplify it all. Its not as simple as the good people vs the bad dictator, or the good opposition vs the bad government. We have had numerous political transitions in the Horn none have led to democracy. In fact, in the worst case scenario you may have a Somalia in 1992 or Ethiopia in 1974. These historical experiences (which Manhattan based lawyers never can understand), is why many Ethiopians are saying the current situation is not ideal, but we have some progress on many aspects, and we are afraid of rocking the boat.

    So Ben if you have a new, genius and practical transition-plan (that takes into account that many of the people involved in the political process are going to bad people) then we (and other countries around globe) would sincerely appreciate it. And no, simply saying that “everyone should respect the law”, does not take us very far, we sort of know that’s the ideal..

  17. Pingback: From Poverty to Power by Duncan Green » Blog Archive » Meles post mortem – hero or villain?; Charter Cities, garifunas and porn kings; back to school; African oil rush; stubborn elites; what do you think about jobs? links I liked

  18. This is an interesting debate. Though I fully concur with the points Ben is trying to make. All the points Ben has indicated are reported several places (most even do not belong to HRW); and supported with facts and with no prejudice. Most of these facts reported elsewhere are verifiable; though ignored by the likes of Peter and Gemechu and some Western Journalists. I don’t know why Peter and Gemechu try to glorify and lionize Meles; as his propaganda machine has recently tried to do after the announcement of his death. It is understandable if some Western leaders and politicians who tried to paint Meles gold in the aftermath of his death. He served their interest, at least temporarily, against the will of his people, his country and the region.
    Peter, you are not alone. We are seeing several western journalists focusing on what this authoritarian dictator has said, rather than the crimes he has committed in the last 21 years across the region. These journalists are hostages of Meles’s propagandists and victims of one side story.

  19. Gemechu,

    Your quote of Ben is typical EPRDF! He was talking about the democratization process going BACKWARDS especially since the 2005 elections. But, you delibverately extend the time frame to the Derg era.

    Your comment about the press is biased, to say the least. What is the problem if a papaer supports this or that party? In other countries, newspaers gfo as far as endorsing parties. In Ethiopia, the basic problem is that the EPRDF doesn’t want ALTERNATIVE views to be disseminated. At least morally, EPRDF is at fault. How can you accuse a journalist of writing falsehood if you don’t give them access to the truth; i.e. information about how government operates?

    Do you think we shall wait until we achieve the promised land of ‘middle income country’ before we demand respect to our human rights? Melles tried to say this, almost black-and-white, when he said there is no linkage between democracy and economic development. The problem with that is, we would like to have FREEDOM and DEVELOPMENT. The colonialists promised us development and ‘civilisation’, if you remember. If you extend this argument, there is little difference between their promise and what is happening under EPRDF.


    When you stated at the beginning that Melles “was certainly not a liberal democrat”, I thought you would point out some of the weaknesses in his system so that Hailemariam might try to rectify them. You didn’t say anything about that. Sad.

    All this talk about Melles’ brilliance is irritating. Shall we try to list the names of dictators with high IQ? The world had quite a number of them. His “brilliance” doesn’t mean he is “good” as a leader.

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