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Meles Zenawi Leaves Mixed Legacy After 20 Years in Power

  • Gabe Joselow

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in Addis Ababa, January 27, 2012.

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in Addis Ababa, January 27, 2012.

NAIROBI — Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has died at the age of 57 after months of speculation about his health. State television announced his death Tuesday, saying he had been recovering overseas. Meles leaves a mixed legacy after more than 20 years in power, having guided rapid development with one hand, while silencing all forms of dissent with the other.

Rise to power

Meles came to power in a 1991 coup, as the head of an alliance of rebel groups called the EPRDF (Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front).

Their rebellion helped to end a harsh communist dictatorship, known as the Derg, during which time tens of thousands of government opponents were imprisoned or executed.

Meles has been praised for helping to dig Ethiopia out of poverty following years of civil war.

His ruling party has gone to great lengths to incorporate the United Nations Millennium Development Goals into its national policy. According to the U.N., the country has spent 60 percent of its total expenditures on agriculture, education, health and other poverty-alleviating sectors in the last seven years.

Hands-on

Meles outlined his hands-on development philosophy in a speech at the U.N. General Assembly in 2010.

"We have taken full charge of our destiny, devised our own strategy, and maximized the mobilization of our domestic resources to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. We made the best use of the limited available international assistance to supplement our own efforts," he said.

While Meles often dismissed the effectiveness of foreign assistance, external aid to Ethiopia averaged more than $3.8 billion per year between 2008 and 2011, according to the World Bank.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia Tibor Nagy described Meles as a visionary with a clear plan for his country's future.

"I had many private conversations with the prime minister and he's not shy in using words like 'Ethiopia cannot be a beggar nation' or 'If our people don't see certain progress in x number of years then we're all finished.' He was very realistic about that and not afraid to articulate it," said Nagy.

US ally

Meles also was known as an ally with the United States in the war against terrorism.

But Nagy recognizes there were philosophical issues that were difficult to bridge, including the government's reluctance to relinquish control over telecommunications, to open up to private ownership or to allow foreign banks to operate in the country.

Human rights groups have long-criticized the Ethiopian government for suppressing opposition voices by limiting freedom of speech and assembly.

“Those rights have been steadily eroded throughout the leadership of Meles Zenawi, so we have a situation now where it's almost impossible in Ethiopia for people to express their opinions, to protest, to criticize the government, and in that context that means that the government continues to commit a wide range of human rights violations," said Claire Beston, the Ethiopia and Eritrea researcher for Amnesty International.

Beston says the rights situation really deteriorated after the 2005 elections, which opposition parties say was rigged. Nearly 200 people died in post-election violence and protests.

In recent years, Ethiopian courts have sentenced journalists and opposition activists to lengthy prison sentences under an anti-terrorism law.

Eritrea

For nearly the entire Meles regime, tension between Ethiopia and neighboring Eritrea remained high. The two countries fought a border war from 1998 to 2000 that killed more than 70,000 people.

The Ethiopian military has also twice intervened in neighboring Somalia to confront Islamist militants allegedly backed by Eritrea.

While Meles has been a strong and visible force behind the ruling party for the last 20 years, analysts say he also has groomed a number of younger politicians, including Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn - a technocrat with an engineering degree from a university in Finland.

Dr. J. Peter Pham, Director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington says any successor will have “big shoes to fill.”

“There is a shift in generation and whether that transition will be smooth, whether it will be successful remains to be seen. But the fact that provision was made for a technically prepared next generation itself is, I think, another legacy piece," he said.

Photo Gallery: Meles Zenawi

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