21 Aug 2012

Meles Zenawi and the legacy of ethnic federalism

I met Meles Zenawi just once, when I went to Addis Ababa in 1998 to interview him about the war he and his former comrade-in-arms Isaias Aferwerki of Eritrea had embarked upon.

It was dubbed “two bald men fighting over a comb” – a squabble over a barren piece of borderland. Both leaders were equally stubborn and uncompromising in sending hundreds of thousands of their countrymen to their deaths for the principle of not moving a colonial border by a single inch.

When he came to power in 1991, Meles – a short, precise man in a suit – was a new kind of African leader: not a flamboyant kleptocrat like Mobutu or Mugabe, but an ascetic, a former communist and guerrilla leader, who saw capitalism as the way to develop his country.

In other words, he followed the Chinese model: prioritising development over democracy, imposing his vision of progress over any alternative.

Journalists were locked up, land was devoted to export crops over the concerns of environmentalists, people were forced to move to make way for a giant dam, and Ethiopia grew by as much as 11 per cent per year.

Tony Blair made him chair of his commission for Africa, but the Chinese were his closest allies.

His methods were not dissimilar to those of Paul Kagame in Rwanda, another of the leaders supposed to spearhead an “African renaissance”.

Yet despite the modernity of his economic vision, his “ethnic federalism”, which formally divided Ethiopia along national or tribal lines was seen by his enemies as old-fasioned tribalism – a way for his Tigrayan people to push the majority Amhara, and the Oromo, out of positions of power and influence.

The Americans, who sponsored his invasion of Somalia in 2006, saw him as an essential ally in the “war on terror”, but many in the region saw this less as an attack on Somali Islamists and more of an assertion of Ethiopian, especially Tigrayan, dominance.

Meles Zenawi had said he would retire in 2015 at the age of 60. His death at the age of 57 means we will never know if he – unlike many of his contemporaries – would have kept that promise.

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