Meles Zenawi and Ethiopia’s Grand Experiment

The death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi deprives Ethiopia — and Africa as a whole — of an exceptional leader.

We both knew him from his days as a guerrilla in the mountains of Tigray, northern Ethiopia, fighting against the former Communist government in Addis Ababa. “Comrade Meles” (he was christened Legesse but took the nom de guerre Meles in his early revolutionary days after a colleague who was killed) rose to become first among equals of the rebel fighters who took power in 1991.

His ascendancy was due to force of intellect: In those days of collective leadership of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, Meles was best able to articulate a theory linking state power, ethnic identity and economic policy, making Marxist-Leninism relevant to the demands of winning a guerrilla war.

Intellectual rigor was the hallmark of Meles’s many years in office. In his first press conference in Addis Ababa, in reply to a question about his goals, Meles 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. Unconvinced by the prescriptions of the I.M.F. and the World Bank, he held back on accepting international loans until his conditions were met and won the admiration of the World Bank’s chief economist at the time, Joseph Stiglitz. Throughout the next two decades, he was uniquely ready to engage in sustained debate with policy makers, diplomats and scholars from around the world.

Meles’s most bitter setback was the outbreak of the 1998-2000 war with Eritrea. He had not only championed Eritrean independence in 1991, but also pushed through a major reduction of the Ethiopian armed forces, which left the country ill-prepared for war. During the fighting, Meles narrowly won a bitter dispute within his government. His rivals argued for escalating the war even at the cost of bankrupting Ethiopia. Meles countered that such a victory would be worthless. Shortly after Ethiopia’s military victory — which Meles refused to press home beyond the disputed border areas — the ruling party again split. Meles prevailed through tactical acumen. He understood the political game and played it unflinchingly.

After this political victory, Meles began fully to articulate his own vision of the “democratic developmental state.” He drew from models such as South Korea and Taiwan to argue that the route to accelerated economic growth was through a strong state to encourage and direct investment, and through inculcating the values of hard work among the general population.

Meles argued that Ethiopia, and indeed most of Africa, produced no commodities that could compete internationally, save minerals and a few boutique products such as high-grade coffee and cut flowers. Foodstuffs could be grown far more cheaply in the Americas, and manufactured goods produced at a fraction of the price in China. Laissez faire economics would result in the evisceration of the productive sector, emigration of skilled workers and impoverishment of the masses. Entrepreneurs would focus on rentier incomes from petroleum, real estate, windfalls such as in telecoms — or from corrupt dealings with government.

Meles’s policies delivered economic growth as high as 10 percent per annum for most of the last decade — a rate that, if sustained, would transform one of the world’s poorest nations into a middle-income country. Today, the country’s infrastructure projects are impressive. Corruption is low and aid is well spent.

Many economists criticize Meles for refusing to open up the banking and telecoms sectors and prohibiting private land ownership. Meles’s answer: The time is not yet ripe.

Ethiopia’s democratic deficit is undeniable. Following the 2005 elections, Meles ordered a crackdown on the opposition and passed legislation restricting the press and civil society. But condemnation by human rights organizations didn’t worry Meles. He was confident that his record of economic growth and efficient use of aid meant that any European sanctions would be short-lived. He also knew that the United States needed Ethiopia’s cooperation against terrorism. His calculations were right: After a brief hiatus, aid and diplomatic support resumed.

Over the last decade, Meles emerged as one of the most quietly influential African leaders. He took a leading role on Africa’s negotiations on climate change, in peacemaking in Sudan and in combating extremism in Somalia.

Meles saw himself as a builder of institutions and an intellectual leader. He wanted his legacy to be stability and the conquest of poverty. He foresaw that consolidating his grand experiment in transforming Ethiopia would need another decade. He promoted a new generation of leaders, grooming them to take power at the 2015 election, when he planned to step aside.

Meles leaves Ethiopia far stronger than when he gained power, but his achievements remain fragile and the Ethiopia’s emerging leaders face the challenge of taking the reins of power with their mentor gone.

Abdul Mohammed, an Ethiopian, is chief of staff for the African Union High Level Implementation Panel on Sudan. Alex de Waal is executive director of the World Peace Foundation.

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