Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

Ethiopia’s Meles: Two sides of an autocratic coin

Celebrated by donors as a visionary philosopher-king who brought development to his country of 75-million people, his domestic critics condemned him as an iron-fisted dictator.

Meles's Tigray People's Liberation Front had waged a successful war alongside the Eritrean People's Liberation Front to topple Soviet-backed dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. Meles came to power in 1991 and he supported Eritrea's independence in 1993, but within five years the former allies were fighting a bloody war that, by 2000, had resulted in nearly 100 000 deaths.

In power, Meles pursued a pragmatic course in a coffee-dominated economy, 30% of which still relies on foreign aid. There was a nationalist restriction on foreign banks combined with government monopolies in the energy and communications sectors, plus incentives for foreign leasing of agricultural land to produce food and flowers.

Meles often pursued an independent economic course based on a carefully considered strategy to commercialise small-scale farming and promote manufacturing. Rural schools and clinics grew in number and child mortality was reduced.

The late prime minister consistently called for fairer trade and an end to aid dependency in Africa. Ethiopia has had impressive annual growth – about 9% – for a ­decade. Yet Meles's critics say ­villagers were forcibly relocated to make way for foreign investors and poverty and food insecurity are still widespread.

Meles's ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front has remained the dominant political group in Ethiopia since 1991. In 2005 the opposition won 23 parliamentary seats in Addis Ababa, but the regime reacted harshly, killing 200 protesters and jailing 30000 opponents. Some were later tried for treason.

Five years later, continued repression – including a clampdown on the media and foreign-funded non-governmental organisations, as well as the use of draconian anti-terrorism laws – and a divided opposition ensured that the Revolutionary Democratic Front and its allies won 99.6% of parliamentary seats. More arrests followed these polls.

Power vacuum
Meles's popularity was, however, hard to gauge in a country where the media and civil society are closely monitored. He announced he would step down in 2015, but had broken a similar promise in 2010.

Meles had so dominated Ethiopia's political system for two decades that a power vacuum now seems certain. No other political figure has the stature to hold together the fractious ruling coalition. His deputy since 2010, Hailemariam Desalegn, an engineer who also serves as foreign minister, is expected to take over as interim leader, but it is unlikely that the ­succession will be smooth. Much uncertainty lies ahead.

In foreign policy Meles used Addis Ababa's hosting of the African Union Commission to raise his international profile, representing the continent in the Group of Eight and the  Group of 20. The United States has maintained close ties with Ethiopia, the pre-eminent military power in the Horn of Africa, benefiting from its experience and intelligence in fighting Islamist networks. Meles supported the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and has allowed Washington to send drones into Somalia from Ethiopian territory.

Ethiopia itself sent troops to Somalia to fight anti-US Islamists between 2006 and 2009 and has intervened sporadically since. It now forms the backbone of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Sudan's volatile Abyei region.

Ethiopia is also the largest African recipient of British aid. Meles, however, avoided dependence on the West by obtaining Chinese assistance for building roads, railways and dams and championing a Chinese model of development. He will ultimately be remembered as a pragmatic autocrat.

Dr Adekeye Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution in Cape Town. An earlier version of this piece was first published in the Guardian of London.

Subscribe for R500/year

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them and get a 57% discount in your first year.

Related stories

WELCOME TO YOUR M&G

If you’re reading this, you clearly have great taste

If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to the Mail & Guardian for less than the cost of a cup of coffee a week, and get more great reads.

Already a subscriber? Sign in here

Advertising

Subscribers only

R350 social relief grant not enough to live on

Nearly half of the population in South Africa — one of the most unequal countries in the world — is considered chronically poor.

More top stories

Young and jobless? Apply for one of 287 000 education...

Education department urges young, jobless people to apply for teaching assistant vacancies

Officials implicated in arts council mismanagement will be brought to...

The National Arts Council vows that every cent from the sector’s Covid-19-relief programme will be disbursed to artists, after auditors uncover maladministration

Covid-19 vaccine mandates: a constitutional balancing act

South Africa’s laws allow the government to implement mandatory Covid vaccinations but, if it chooses this path, it must do so responsibly

Popularity will not guarantee mayoral selection — Ramaphosa

ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa has promised a more rigorous mayoral selection process, which will involve the party’s top six
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…
×