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Lament for a dynamic and charismatic leader

2012 August 21
by Paul Vallely

The death of Meles Zenawi, the prime minister of Ethiopia, at the relatively young age of 57, is a grave blow not just to the country which he rescued from the brink of recurring famine. It is a blow to the whole African continent and to the wider international community.

Meles was far from a perfect politician. In his later years he became more intolerant of opposition and dissent, presiding over some infringements of human rights. But that must be set against his masterminding of the transformation of what was one of the poorest countries in the world in a way which transfigured the lives of the vast majority of its citizens. A nation routinely teetering on the brink of life and death has become, thanks to him, a place of modest prosperity.

In his youth Ethiopia had been held in static feudalism under the Emperor Haile Selassie. Then came paralysing communism under the bloody terror of the Soviet-backed regime of Colonel Mengistu. Meles emerged as the brightest talent in the group of Tigrayan revolutionaries which overthrew Mengistu in 1991.

Over the next two decades the dynamic and charismatic leader, who began as an Albanian-style Marxist, embraced a pragmatic controlled capitalism which made Ethiopia a model for economic growth and development. He became one of the leading lights in the African Union and was one of the seminal thinkers in Tony Blair’s Commission for Africa which set the blueprint for new kinds of partnership between developed and developing world.

Under his aegis Ethiopia received nearly $4 billion of aid a year, mostly spent to good effect. The economy has been growing at as much as 10 per cent a year for a decade and more. Foreign capital has flooded in. Meles became what the Liberian President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, described as the “intellectual leader for the continent”.

Not all his actions found universal favour. He has effectively maintained a one-party system in Ethiopia. He has set up economic relationships with India, Turkey and China, which places less emphasis on human rights and democracy. Some 200 people died in street demonstrations that followed the 2005 elections. A number of critics have been locked up by a controlling politician who kept a tight grip on even minor details of government. Most recently he tried to control what was being said in mosques, fearful of the growing influence of salafists and wahhabists. It was this fear which led him to ally Ethiopia with US policy to counter Islamic terrorism in neighbouring Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia.

When challenged in private over his intolerance of dissent Meles Zenawi would hint that there were more extreme views within his ruling party which he had to appease. Now he has gone Ethiopia, Africa and the world will wait with trepidation to see if that was true.

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