Reflections on Meles’ Life and Legacy

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Daily Ethiopia

For the last week, the body of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has been lying in state at his residence in the Grand Palace. It will stay there until his funeral on Sunday.

The casket lies at the top of a flight of steps marked by candles and flowers. Soldiers, unmoving, stand guard at the bottom of the steps as people come from every walk of life, passing in an unending stream, to pay their tribute to the late Prime Minister, to show their respect, to display their grief and shock at his untimely death. Every day, from morning to nightfall, an endless line waits to enter the long drive up to the residence, with thousands from all age groups and social classes patiently standing and waiting their turn. Many wail and cry, too emotional to express their grief in words, falling to the ground as they pass the coffin that rests at the top of the carpeted stair. Others, mainly older women cry aloud in the traditional rhythms of mourning. They sing of the incomparable leadership qualities of the departed, and regret he passed away before being able to take a rest from his public responsibilities.

The outpouring of grief makes it very clear that the unexpected death of Prime Minister Meles has touched the whole country. The bonds that Ethiopians, all Ethiopians, had built with Prime Minister Meles over the last two decades have been undeniably strong and personal. No matter how isolated anyone might be from politics, Meles had a personality that was impossible to ignore. People have made it very clear they regard him as the greatest leader the country has ever seen. Over the last week, they have demonstrated their deep unfulfilled wish that he might have stayed with them longer than he did. Their outpouring of grief expresses the esteem in which the people held him, and their appreciation that under his leadership the country had gained a global stature, giving us every reason to be proud of his life and accomplishments.

Meles was the most intellectually brilliant political leader of his generation. He was a unique combination of theorist and practitioner. His actions and explanations were invariably coherent and firmly argued. One of the cleverest and most engaging leaders in Africa, his death has robbed Africa of one of its greatest sons and most prominent personalities. From the age of 19 he devoted himself to his country, in word and deed. There was no let-up. Seventeen years as one of a group at the helm of a rebel force taking on Africa’s largest army, backed by the Soviets, was followed by four years as president overseeing the transition to a constitutional democracy, and then another seventeen years as prime minister. No contemporary African leader was more highly regarded or considered more impressive by his African Union peers. After 1991, Meles rapidly became an international statesman. He was hailed by Bill Clinton as the prime exponent of “Africa’s new generation of leaders” in 1998; he sat on Tony Blair’s Commission for Africa in 2004-2005; and represented the African Union in climate change negotiations since 2009. Prime Minister Meles was a leader and voice for Africa in climate change and global warming. He demanded the west compensated the world’s poorest countries for the effects of climate change. Last year Ethiopia became the first African country to launch a Green Economic Strategy, and Meles called on African leaders to rethink their approach to development, reminding them that “rapid and sustained growth in Africa is a matter of life and death.”

Meles represented a new generation of Pan-Africanists, alongside leaders such as Thabo Mbeki, who recognized that the continent needs to anchor its efforts towards political unity in the practicalities of economic integration. He consistently promoted developmental initiatives such as NEPAD. He recognized that Africa needed strong states, but it was in the sphere of regional politics that Ethiopia’s role was most prominent. Meles consistently used Ethiopia’s military and other capacities for the good of the region. Underpinning his drive for peace and security in the Horn of Africa there was, as always, a strong Ethiopian agenda. Meles envisaged the emergence of Ethiopia as regional power, most recently basing this on the diplomacy of energy. He was actively engaged in the Sudanese peace process, providing political and military support to the efforts of the African Union, becoming the most influential regional leader in facilitating the negotiations between Sudan and South Sudan after South Sudan’s independence in July last year and managing to keep the trust of both parties. A recent example of this was the dispatch of a mechanized brigade of peacekeepers to the contentious area of Abyei on the borders between Sudan and South Sudan.

Meles’s foreign policy positions were based on Ethiopia’s wider national interests and a deep analysis of the bigger picture. There was no posturing or rhetoric. Ethiopia intervened in Somalia at no-one’s behest. Under his leadership, Ethiopia took it upon itself to resist the challenge of the terrorist menace in Somalia. This also offered a strategy to protect the country from any spill-over effects of the two-decade long crisis there and the ability to deny the Eritrean regime any opportunity for using Somalia to try to settle scores with Addis Ababa. Ethiopia itself is a center for stability and for economic development in Horn of Africa.

In the narrative celebrating his legacy, Meles Zenawi is certainly the most effective, indeed the best, leader the country has ever had, ‘liberator’, ‘developer’, even ‘saviour’ as some have called him. From his earliest days in the field as a cadre of the TPLF, Meles consistently identified Ethiopia’s most fundamental problem as the need to overcome poverty. This was the hallmark of the policies of the armed struggle, and on taking power in 1991 Meles insisted that the priority was to feed the people. A decade later he identified the number one national security challenge as ‘overcoming poverty’. Not surprisingly, economic development was the chosen focus for his main intellectual efforts. He sat for a long-distance learning degree from Britain’s Open University, coming a remarkable third in his graduating class despite studying while governing one of Africa’s most populated countries. His framework for the “democratic developmental state” is genuinely innovative.

Any nuanced or accurate narrative of the legacy of Prime Minister Meles will see his time in power as providing outstanding economic successes. His greatest achievement has been to articulate, implement and successfully defend a distinctively African development path that can produce high levels of economic growth over a significant period of time. It 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 equally importantly in social services such as education and health, and since 2004 the introduction of the Productive Safety Net Program which has provided food security to millions of chronically food-insecure families. It has been a critical element in the effort to reduce and overcome poverty.

Under Prime Minister Meles’ leadership, Ethiopia became one of the fastest growing non-oil economies not only in Africa but in the world. It has posted double-digit GDP growth figures for the last eight years, and indications are this will continue. Enrolment of children in school has increased by huge amounts, winning the country international plaudits. Many areas have sharply increased access to electricity and drinking water. Public investment in the health sector has resulted in substantial falls in maternal and child mortality rates, the later by up to 40%. The share of Ethiopians living in extreme poverty—those on less than 60 cents a day—has fallen from 45% when Prime Minister Meles took power to under 30%. Ethiopia is on line to achieve all the Millennium Development Goals, one of very few countries to do so. The country does not depend on large-scale natural resources, and the government has focused on manufacturing and agriculture. Exports have risen sharply. Significant progress has also been made in rectifying the socio-economic marginalization affecting historically disadvantaged parts of the country. A growing if still small middle class has emerged. Roads have been built; rivers dammed and a string of hydroelectric dams now under construction will provide a major boost to the economy in the next few years. The progress is undeniable and very real. Poverty is still very present but serious progress is being made towards its eradication. The latest element is the five year Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP) in operation since 2010 to provide the necessary basis for the high level of economic growth over a prolonged period of time.

The undeniable successes of his economic policies earned Meles a well-deserved international reputation and widespread praise both in Africa and around the world. Indeed, the economic success achieved during a constraining global environment and national economic conditions, attracted particular attention for possible emulation. It also allowed the Prime Minister to control the terms under which donors were allowed to operate in Ethiopia; and its successes made Ethiopia into Africa’s biggest recipient of aid. One of Meles’s earliest and most celebrated battles with international donors was his insistence that Ethiopia would not take loans from the IMF and World Bank unless unacceptable conditions were lifted, in particular the IMF’s insistence that foreign aid should not be incorporated into national budgetary planning. The IMF argued that it was unpredictable and reliance would lead to unsustainable fiscal policies. Meles’ arguments, buttressed with detailed evidence, won the day.

On the political front, Meles’ major achievement has, of course, been the introduction of a federal system of government in which minorities and historically disadvantaged groups have been given political and institutional recognition. In acknowledging and giving institutional expression to the extensive ethno-cultural diversity of Ethiopia, the federal system has irreversibly redefined the national character of the country. The federal system marks a major step forward towards rectifying the inequalities of the past. Large areas and communities that were historically outside the policy making processes have, for the first time, been brought into the country’s structures and policy processes.

When Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s leader for more than two decades, died he was mourned across the world. He will be remembered as a “stable” force in a chaotic region. South Africa’s President, Jacob Zuma, praised him for “lifting millions of Ethiopians out of poverty”. British Prime Minister, David Cameron, remembered him “as an inspirational spokesman for Africa on global issues”, who had “provided leadership and vision on Somalia and Sudan.” Microsoft’s founder, Bill Gates, praised him as “a visionary leader who brought real benefits to Ethiopia’s poor.” Ethiopians themselves saw Meles as a visionary and peerless leader who built one of Africa’s most dynamic economies and turned his country into a major regional power. Prime Minister Meles has left a formidable and enduring legacy which will inspire and motivate the next generation of leadership for his country.

 

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