Coincidentally, as Ethiopian Airlines Flight 808, a Boeing 737, was menacingly flying through the turbulent dark clouds, I was immersed in ‘Africa’s Future: Darkness to Destiny’, a book by Duncan Clarke tracing Africa’s complex past as a compass to understand the continent’s contemporary socio-economic evolution and transformation. My arrival at Bole International Airport, including the drive into the city, was well timed for Meskarem three days later, Ethiopia’s New Year celebration on 11 September marking the arrival of the year 2005. It was also a sombre moment for this old city, which for the past three weeks has been mourning the death Prime Minister Meles Zenawi on August 20 2012, including the laying to rest of his mortal remains on September 2 2012.
Meles Zenawi, in power since 1991, has been in equal measure widely praised and condemned, both in life and in death. The British Prime Minister David Cameron, Ethiopia’s second largest bilateral donor after the United States described the late Meles as an ‘inspirational spokesperson for Africa’ in global affairs, while Gordon Brown spoke for his part about a champion for the poor. South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki related with sadness and with his usual detached passion about a man of remarkable intelligence and a rare commitment to the African continent. Conversely, Western NGOs including Human Rights Watch, referred to a paranoid leader who stifled dissent and human rights by driving many activists and journalists underground and worse, jail. Without doubt, the most important commentaries about the life and times of Meles Zenawi are those to be heard in a taxi or in the chaotic streets of Addis. Notwithstanding the texture of the Ethiopian political system which Mamush, my taxi-driver aptly described as 35 per cent democratic and the rest as something else, as if to refer innocuously to what scholars call developmental authoritarianism, Ethiopians and diplomats seem to be judging, in the cacophony of Addis, the legacy of PM Zenawi as positive.
Beyond the mourning defining Addis Ababa in almost North-Korean adulation, both in print and on national television, Ethiopia has not witnessed colonialism. Unlike what we do in this part of the world, Ethiopia cannot blame colonialism for its gloomy state of poverty and underdevelopment. But it is country whose political, ethnic and religious fault-lines, with a toxic mix of searing poverty, are accentuated by the dynamics of what is arguably one of the most unstable neighbourhoods in the world: the Horn of Africa. These dynamics, coupled with bad leadership for successive decades, created fertile ground for poverty, marginalisation and underdevelopment. Thus, an amount of naivety and idealism should have inhabited the medical studies dropout Meles Zenawi at the age of 36 – and his ethnic-minority-led Tigray People’s Liberation Front – to drive out of power the decrepit leadership of Haile Mengistu, now living in exile in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.
There are two important paths other parts of Africa can draw from Ethiopia under PM Meles Zenawi. First, by virtue of its contemporary history and difficult past, the Ethiopian political system and process is a difficult compromise and balancing act of ethnic, religious and geostrategic tensions. The excesses of such compromises seemed pretty evident with the political legitimacy of PM Zenawi under constant question as an ethnic minority. The unintended consequence of these overt and at times subterranean tensions has been the hybridisation of the political system, managing the domestic order through a stability-security mind-set.
This hybrid system structured by design and not by default under PM Zenawi is not sufficiently democratic, nor is it sufficiently dictatorial. But what seemed evident under the leadership of PM Zenawi was a strategic commitment to democratic governance and economic development as twin goals in the country’s development. These goals providing the context for leadership action are encapsulated in key documents, including the country’s foreign policy. Second, since PM Zenawi created a system that responds to the situational demands on the basis of clearly defined strategic goals, including democracy, he was able to focus with passion on the crucial task of development and the upliftment of millions of Ethiopians out of poverty. It is the absence of passion for issues or an issue and the desire to pursue lofty ideals under difficult circumstances that has been lacking in African leadership. Evidently Ethiopians aspire for more democracy and not less, but under Meles they had less. But crucially they had a champion for the poor and economic development. To conclude, in a fraught landlocked country of 80 million inhabitants (of which 75 millions are poor) – and one without substantive natural resources, PM Zenawi, Africa’s visionary ‘dictator-diplomat’ and ‘pragmatic idealist’ provides through his unique blend of leadership important lessons for African leaders.
* Alfredo Tjiurimo Hengari is Head of the South African Foreign Policy and African Drivers Programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs, based at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.