By Elamu Denis Ejulu
“I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” – Mark Anthony, Julius Caesar
I would apply these words to Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s prime minister, a resilient, intelligent, and larger than life figure. The announcement of his passing on officially on August 20 was like that of a true African folk hero, entailing finger pointing at the village level. His death at 57 years of age was as sudden as it was painful.
A ny passing on of an African strong man creates panic due to the tradition that treats their death as delicate, usually attributed to mysterious powers, and talked about in hushed voices. But I will, as a journalist, try to break tradition and analyse critically the life of this icon of Ethiopia and Africa.
In 1991, as a young Marxist guerrilla from Adwa, Tigray, in northern Ethiopia, Meles became president of Ethiopia. It was the first major step on a journey that dated to his university days at Addis Ababa University, where he abandoned his degree in medicine in 1975 to join the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) which eventually overthrew the communist regime of Haile Mariam Mengistu in 1991.
Meles was president up to 1995, when he assumed the position of prime minister up to 2000 and later 2005 under the multi-party dispensation. He won the highly charged controversial elections whose critics from the European Union and Carter Centre rated to be short of international standards.
The election was characterised by massive state inspired violence on civilians, but being a smooth international operator, Meles was able to keep the Americans on his side.
As usual, he presented an intellectual face outside Africa and even to his peers within the African Union. He emerged as an astute debator as witnessed in the September 2007 famous debate with then British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, at the Annual Clinton Global Initiative on global warming.
He defined his position well on the environment with his famous talk at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, if to quote: If need be we are prepared to walk out of any negotiations that threaten to be another rape of our continent”.
Though he earned criticism from several African leaders for turning on his word when, while appearing for a communiqué with then president of France Sarkozy, he agreed to an unfair deal for Africa in the December 2009 Cop 15 African submission to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
He was highly rated for turning around a bankrupt Ethiopian economy into what today is an East African land of opportunity.
While pursuing free market economic policies to combat hunger, he unleashed the transfer of land from collective farms to local levels through a slogan “land to the tiller”. Many rural farmers were empowered to grow coffee and Qat. Ethiopia’s floriculture industry boomed to become only second Kenya with millions of dollars invested.
GDP growth for the last seven years was an impressive 9% on average, school enrolment from 27% in 1991 to average 77 % by 2004 and 85% by 2006.
He is credited for massive infrastructure investment in roads like the huge flyover witnessed in the capital and the huge dam construction. The dams on the Nile River, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (5,250MW) and Gilgel Gibe I,II,III (combined capacity 2470MW), are some of the biggest projects in Africa. He came under criticism though, for locating the Tekeze Dam (300MW) in Tigray, his home region.
Meles pursued a foreign policy that came under criticism at home like his ally President Museveni and they were once grouped together by then-U.S. President Bill Clinton as “the new breed of African leaders”. This had a major impact in shaping their foreign policy with close links to the West. In the Somalia question, for example, when the Islamic Courts Union took large swathes of the southern parts in 2006, Ethiopian troops were quick to repulse them out of Mogadishu and for the first time then-president Abdullahi Yusuf, was able to enter Mogadishu in January 2007. Ugandan troops entered Mogadishu the same year and by January 2009 due to home pressure and the changing tide of the war against Al shabaab Ethiopian troops withdrew.
In 1993 Meles was criticised for accepting Eritrea to secede allegedly because of his blood relations with President Isaias Afewerki. This incident caused some of his senior comrades to join the opposition.
To the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in Africa’s new nation of south Sudan, he was the imminent arbiter on the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. The respect SPLM accords Meles dating back to the hey days of South Sudan’s struggle for nationhood, was reflected in the statement read by a senior figure in the government on how it was a big blow to lose Meles at this critical time.
Meles’s record on human rights is a mixed one as the Committee to Protect Journalists has accused his government of the worst backsliding on press freedom and jailing many critical journalists accused of working for the Oromo liberation Front, a group critical of Meles’s policies.
Sometimes African leaders forget their legacy when they find themselves in the good books of the donors. Like Meles, they are blinded and cracked hard on those with divergent views. This is part of the continent’s tragedy but the international community shares blame for being opportunistic.
I know Meles’s family and country will miss him but he has left footprints in the sand of Africa’s politics in which posterity judge him. Hopefully, it will say he was a selfless leader who tried to do good for his people but the desire for longevity forced him to crack hard on his critics.
Elamu Denis Ejulu is a journalist and commentator