Ethiopia: navigating through the emotive, outrageous, and the subtle but dangerous narratives on the demise of Meles – By Solomon Ayele Dersso

Haile Mariam Desalegn - Ethiopia's new PM - must build on Meles Zenawi's strong national and regional legacy to maintain Ethiopia's influential position.

Ethiopia is in a state of reflection, the outcome of which is not yet clear. If it is to be substantially positive, it is worthwhile navigating the emotive, outrageous and dangerous narratives on post-Meles Ethiopia.

The death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has triggered increased attention on Ethiopia, both within Africa and globally. Running the risk of simplification, one can say that much of the discussion and debate has focused on three broad issues.

First, there is the view that his demise put Ethiopia in a dangerous course of political uncertainty and even violent contestation. A case in point was Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga’s statement that the situation may unleash ethnic violence. Many commentators opined that Meles’ demise would trigger a succession struggle within the ruling coalition. This has been premised on two considerations. The first is the belief that it was not prepared to fill the supposed vacuum left behind. There is also a widely held view that there are divisions within the party, not only along individual party lines, but also across the parties constituting the coalition and within the most influential member of the coalition – namely the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF).

Relegated from the view of most analysts is the relative strength of key institutions of the Ethiopian state. Despite some divisions and tensions within the ruling coalition, the situation is far stronger than some are willing to admit. Part of this is attributable to the succession plan that was agreed to by the members of the coalition and has been in the process of implementation since 2010. As far as the position of the PM was concerned, this was signalled with the appointment of Desalegn Hailemariam, not only as a deputy prime minister, but also significantly as Foreign Minister. This enables the new PM to easily takeover the various regional and continental issues Meles had been pursuing.

The security services including the army, the police and intelligence remain largely intact, although the lack of adherence to democratic principles and their identification with the ruling coalition is not without consequences. Similarly, the civil service, although plagued by corruption and nepotism in some sectors, remains unaffected and continues to carry out its responsibilities as before. Clearly, while the concerns over a power vacuum and potential succession crisis are understandable, they are often exaggerated.

Part of the concern for instability is linked to the discontent that the authoritarian tendencies of Meles’ regime bred within a significant part of the population. From an internal angle, this is a serious cause for concern, although the likelihood of this erupting into serious trouble merely because of the natural but sudden withdrawal of Meles is far from clear.

The other theme that has focused minds is the geo-strategically important location of Ethiopia and the role it has come to assume as a power of stability in a troubled region. Ethiopia is at the heart of what is known as the IGAD (Inter-Governmental Authority on Development) region. It is the only country that shares a border with all IGAD member states (except Uganda). Kenya and Djibouti aside, all other neighbouring countries are either in a political crisis or in a state of conflict and war. Economic transformation of Ethiopia over the last decade has deepened regional economic cooperation and interdependence. For example, Ethiopia’s dependence on Djibouti port is an important source of revenue to Djibouti, whilst she is also set to export hydro-electric power to Kenya and Sudan.  It is also the most populous country in the region and its rising economic fortunes stand to create a huge market, including for products from neighbouring countries.

Under Meles’ leadership Ethiopia took upon itself the challenge of fighting the terrorist menace in Somalia, albeit mainly as a strategy to protect itself from the spill over effects of the crisis and to deny the Eritrean regime an opportunity to use Somalia to settle old scores against Addis. Although achievements were initially limited, its efforts to defeat Al Shabaab showed some success from late 2011. This has facilitated the disbandment of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and the establishment of a new political dispensation including the adoption of a new constitution, the swearing in of a new parliament and the impending process for electing a new president. Should this process succeed, it would transform the security landscape of the region. Apart from sending Ethiopian forces to Abyei – the only UN mission composed of troops from a single country – Meles has over the years become the most influential regional leader in facilitating the negotiations in Sudan and, since July 2011, between Sudan and South Sudan. Ambassador Susan Rice famously described him as the midwife in the successful birth of the new state of South Sudan on 9 July 2011.

Opinions are divided on whether aspects of Ethiopia’s regional involvement (particularly in Somalia) have a stabilizing role. Meles has been portrayed as a US agent – carrying out the dirty work the US was not willing to do on its own. This is however an oversimplification of a complex reality and tends to deny Meles’ government any agency for its involvement in Somalia. Most importantly, it underestimates Ethiopia’s legitimate and serious security concerns. As much as the West used the convergence of these concerns with America’s war against terror for advancing their policies in the region, Meles similarly used it for advancing the interests of his own country.

It is important to note that it is not just the West that credited Meles for his role in promoting regional peace and security. Countries such as China and Russia also acknowledge, and from time to time expressed support, for this foreign policy. This can be gathered from the support that the two countries, as members of the P5 in the Security Council, expressed for Ethiopian sponsored sanctions against Eritrea for supporting Al Shabaab. African countries as diverse as South Africa, Kenya, Djibouti, Nigeria, and Rwanda have nothing but praise for the role Meles played in regional and continental politics. This role cannot be reduced to a bargain used for securing support from the West.

The other major point of discussion surrounding the death of Meles relates to his legacy. Meles is portrayed either as a villain, tyrant, and anti-Ethiopian, or as visionary, a true progressive leader, passionate advocate of the interests of the poor and even a saviour. A more nuanced and accurate view is that his rule displayed both outstanding successes and spectacular failures. His greatest achievement was in articulating, implementing and successfully defending a distinctively African development path that produces a high level of economic growth over a fairly long period of time. This is a development path that not only creates high levels of GDP growth, but also transforms the structure of the economy through public investment both in key infrastructural projects and social services such as education and health.

Ethiopia achieved GDP growth of about 10 per cent per year for almost the past decade and has for a number of years been the fastest growing non-oil economy on the continent. Enrolment of children in school increased hugely, many parts of the country have increased access to electricity and drinking water, public investment in the health sector resulted in substantial drops in maternal and child mortality rates. According to some estimates, the child mortality rate plummeted by up to 40 per cent. Significant progress has also been made in rectifying the socio-economic marginalization affecting historically disadvantaged parts of the country.

While poverty is still alive and well, its grip on the people of the country has also been significantly reduced. For the country to substantially, if not fully, conquer poverty, it needs to achieve a high level of economic growth over a prolonged period of time.

For this and for the undeniable successes his economic policies achieved, Meles earned an enviable and well-deserved international reputation and praise both in Africa and the world over. Understandably, the economic success of the country (achieved in a very constraining global environment and national economic conditions) attracted attention, particularly from within Africa, for possible emulation. Ethiopians of good will should duly recognize this.

Admittedly, the successes in the economic front have not been without limits. Corruption is increasingly becoming a serious problem. Inflation is affecting many sections of society, while the gap between the haves and the have-nots is widening. These drawbacks are further compounded by inequalities, real or perceived, in access to economic and social opportunities. A lot of work also needs to be done in addressing the structural limits of various sectors of the economy, most notably the agricultural sector.

In the political front, Meles’ rule is generally dismissed as having been a spectacular failure. This is not however entirely accurate. The major achievement in this sphere has been the introduction of a federal system of government in which minorities and historically disadvantaged groups are given political and institutional recognition. In acknowledging and giving institutional expression to the ethno-cultural diversity of the country, the federal system irreversibly redefined the national character of Ethiopia. While it suffers from serious flaws, the federal arrangement marked a major step towards rectifying the inequalities of the past. Communities and parts of the country that were historically outside of the imagination of the policy making processes of the centre have for the very first time been brought in to the fold.

On political freedoms, the track record of Meles’ government has been poor. Despite their enunciation as part of the 1995 Constitution, fundamental human rights and political freedoms of individuals have been highlighted more by their breach than observance. Particularly in dealing with dissent and opposition, the regime exhibited the tyrannical tendencies of the control freak – intolerant and at times even violently repressive.

The fact that in a country of about 75 million people of diverse political and ideological orientation his ruling coalition won 99 per cent of the seats in parliament is an illustration of the serious deficit in political pluralism. The intolerance to dissent and political opposition partly explains the bitter discontent that various members of the public express. It is also this discontent that raises the most serious questions about the political future of the country. Moving forward, this issue is clearly something with which the ruling coalition needs to reconcile itself. It is not something that should be postponed indefinitely.

From these narratives, the one which has received least attention is the views of other countries in the wider Horn and East Africa region to changes in Ethiopia. This is what I call the subtle but dangerous narrative. One such view speculates that the death of Meles changes the security balance of the region. In so doing, it unwittingly suggests that the policy approach towards Ethiopia and the region requires a shift. Some even make this point openly by emphasising that his death should be used as an opportunity by global powers to force the country into changing its regional foreign policy direction.

While this points to an implicit admission of how Ethiopia under Meles resisted pressure from such powers, it ignores that the fundamentals that informed the country’s regional foreign policy direction remain largely unchanged. Most notably, Ethiopia remains the leading country with both the political will and the military capability in taking responsibilities in the promotion of peace and security in the region.

A further view is a neo-liberal perspective bent on repudiating the development model the country pursued under Meles. By insisting that this model can only be implemented by a leader of Meles’ stature, it suggests that the Ethiopian development model should not be followed. More dangerously, this view urges countries in the West and international financial institutions to push Ethiopia into abandoning the development model articulated and pursued under Meles, replacing them with neo-liberal economic prescriptions. This is a pressure to which Ethiopia should not succumb.

Meles has admittedly been the embodiment of both the domestic and foreign policies Ethiopia has been pursuing. What he took with him are his widely recognized skills for articulating and communicating as well as implementing these polices, and also successfully selling and defending them – including to those ideologically opposed. His development programmes should, however, continue.

For example, public investment in infrastructure and social services is still needed both in reducing the structural constraints of the country’s economy and in the effort for reducing poverty. The necessary institutional, policy and structural investments for transforming the various sectors of the economy (most notably agriculture and manufacturing) should be kept and reinforced. Without a doubt, along side the continually important role that the public sector plays, increasing space should also be created for harnessing the potentials of the private sector as well.

Post-Meles government is poised to pursue these policies with as much, if not more, resolve as before. This is not only because of the positive results that these policies are achieving, but also as a tribute to him. Most importantly, the use of the public sector as a lead development agent while creating increasing space to the private sector remains to be the most realistic and best suited development path for Ethiopia and indeed other similarly positioned African countries.

The death of Meles Zenawi has put Ethiopia in a palpable state of public reflection. It is a reflection for clarity both on the good that Ethiopians of all political and ideological persuasions need to keep and defend and on the peril that they should fight against. This is the challenge those of us in the generation coming after Meles’ – the so called ‘generation that shook the mountains’ – should assume responsibility to face.

Dr Solomon A. Dersso is a senior researcher with the Peace and Security Council Report Programme at the Addis Ababa Office of the Institute for Security Studies.

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5 thoughts on “Ethiopia: navigating through the emotive, outrageous, and the subtle but dangerous narratives on the demise of Meles – By Solomon Ayele Dersso

  1. Good article but Meles Zenawi’s “spectacular failures” cannot easily be shrugged off. If we have to keep doing what he was doing simply because the ruling class worries too much about his “tributes”, then we are stuck in the past. How about the new PM starts his job by releasing all political prisoners and the victims of that infamous, ridiculous “anti-terrorism law”?
    We all know that Zenawi filled the country’s top political and economic positions with men from his own Tigaray ethnicity, the largest beneficiaries of the “economic growth”, just like Saddam Hussein and Bashir al-Assad. That should change! The new PM has a historical responsibility to make it right.

    He is venerated for now just because his ethnic party is the shaker and mover of politics in the country. Trying to hold on to this brutal dictator’s legacy is the most dangerous thing.
    He is dead now. Let us move on and make things better. Sad he died but let us take this opportunity to lead the country in the right direction. A country where every citizen will equally benefit from its progress! In that case, we can do justice to the 200 people massacred in the aftermath of election 2005 and to the ones who went through unspeakable torture and suffering for the last 21 years.

  2. It’s a perfect approach that this article took – balancing the good and the bad and directing us to a united front, where we should be right now, at such a fragile time.
    I agree with the facts stated in this article, they are true.
    This is a very critical time, where we should learn from the past, both good and bad, be united and head on to a better future. This is not a time to point fingers at one another. The position we are in, Egypt may be happier to see us crumble, so would Somalian rebels, and the current Eritrean government. If we are strong, united and focused, with a broader vision, we can make it. Otherwise, back to square one!

  3. …And I would also like to add, I support late PM Meles’ arguments against the Washington consensus and against neo-liberalism. We have tried a little bit neo-liberalism in the past, in the early 1990s and it didn’t work, our economy was going backwards, people being fired from the public sector with nothing to fall back on. Now Meles has proved everyone wrong, he was firm in insisting that we should design our own strategy with strong presence of the public sector, and accordingly our economy is growing. Not only Ethiopia but other African countries have adopted his arguments.
    I really would love for a debate to open up on this issue, rather.

  4. I basically agree what Saba said and let us have debates on that!
    The other issue to discuss is that Melese was a great leader ever Ethiopia has seen! This is indisputable fact. Naturally, this does not mean he satisfied everyone & was perfect 100%. But it is up to this next generation to rectify/improve/add up-on what he missed/did not achieve to bring it up near to perfection.
    Now, if we want to defeat poverty in the shortest possible time as he envisioned, we have to build on the foundations he left for us and move forward to our goals. At the same time we have to use lessons of N. Mandela for national reconciliation & stop scratching our heads for REVENGE, claims- counter claims that won’t help us to defeat poverty & secure our place in this ‘Hot/Horn Region of Africa’! We simply cannot afford another mess we have been through for generations. So let us talk, debate & move forward!!!!

  5. Try as he may to sound objective, Solomon could never bring himself to not pipe for Meles and the ruling minority. He does not foresee de-centering TPLF or contesting the development path Meles promoted because doing so in either case could end the dominance of the ruling minority.

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