musings on travel, international living, development aid, politics, turkey (the country more than the meat) and anything else that comes to mind...

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Meles Zenawi - the Other Obituary

Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia's long-time Prime Minister, died last night... what a relief.

To repeat the most overused contemporary political phrase... let me be clear: I don't wish death upon anyone no matter how bad. Justice? Yes. Death? That's for higher powers than me to decide.

But I must say that, on behalf of Ethiopia and my Ethiopian friends, I'm glad Meles is no longer in power. (I also realize that, by just saying that phrase, my ability to return to Ethiopia in the Meles era, which I'm assuming it still continues even after his death, is in jeopardy.)

Harry Verhoeven, an Oxford PhD, points out the (admittedly) many good parts of Meles' history in his piece in AJE entitled "Zenawi: The titan who changed Africa". Although Verhoeven does point out a few 'questionable things' (my words, not his) about Meles in the article, it is largely a glowing obituary.

To be fair...

He rescued Ethiopia from the Derg, perhaps one of the most ruthless regimes history has ever known. He ushered his country (with the help of the international community) from being in all out famine to... well... only somewhat in famine. He sat at the top as Ethiopia experienced unprecedented (yet uneven) economic growth. He was a revolutionary hero with a pan-African vision revered by many in the global political sphere.


There's always a 'but' with Meles. Several actually, some of which are pointed out in Mark Tran's article in the Guardian. Growing as reclusive as he was unpopular (at least everywhere in Ethiopia except for Tigray, his homeland) in recent times, Meles had unfortunately turned power hunger and the never-ending search for political longevity into a repression of his people and a deft manipulation of the Western donors.

In my experience, Ethiopians were largely scared (and/or unable to due to the government's annoying telecommunications limitations) to voice any opposition to him or his cronies lest they end up disappearing in the middle of the night. Fear of the government was par for the course. Most foreign, and more importantly diaspora, companies wanting to invest didn't for fear of expropriation. Aid to Ethiopia (in the billions of US$ per year) continues to sustain the massive amounts of food insecure while NGOs (and any outsiders really) are tightly controlled to such a degree that limits sustainability, innovation and long-term effectiveness of donor dollars.

Much like contemporary Turkey and its delicate balancing act between Islam and democracy, it's hard to understand this fear without experiencing it first hand. Friends refusing to discuss the government at all in public. The inability to fight any type of bureaucratic injustice for fear of violence. The dreaded knock on your door that could come at any time (what did I say? what did I do?). The (admittedly) rapid economic growth that has occurred with little international or diaspora investment. The amazing unmet potential of a beautiful country full of bountiful resources and well-educated people (the food's pretty tasty too, but that's another story).

Meles might have started off on the right path, but like so many others (Saddam, Putin, Mugabe and Erdogan if he becomes Turkey's next President - to name but a few) he stayed in power too long and his people have suffered because of it.

The mark of a great leader is not just revolutionary success and big dreams. The mark of a great leader is knowing when the job is done... then stepping aside for others to carry the torch.

Unfortunately for Meles, it took his death for that torch to pass in Ethiopia.