Government of Ekiti State, Nigeria.

Meles Zenawi: Death of a Daring and Dedicated Leader

August 27, 2012

Ethiopian Prime Minister, Meles Zeinawi

By Kayode Fayemi

With the demise of Meles Zenawi last week, Africa has lost one of its most intellectually dynamic leaders. For many of us involved in post cold war struggles against military dictatorships and authoritarian governments in Africa, ‘Comrade’ Meles counted strongly amongst a new generation of African leaders in the early and mid – 1990s – daring, dynamic, inspirational, anti-colonial, pan-Africanist and developmental alongside Museveni, Mbeki, Zenawi, Aferwerki, and Kagame.   Although many saw them as dubious democrats, what set them apart was the courage of their conviction and their abilities to mobilise their population against bad governance in their successful efforts toward re-establishing capable states.

Through sheer force of intellect and deep passion for his people’s liberation, Comrade Meles Zenawi rose to become the primus-inter-pares in the collective leadership that was then the hallmark of the Marxist-Leninist Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPDRF). At the time, Meles was known for his uncanny ability to push an ideological argument in the most pragmatic sense without losing the essence of his goal.  It mattered of course that his ethnic group – Tigray – was also the dominant tendency in the ranks of the EPDRF, but what counted most was his ability to develop and articulate an institutional theory for managing diversity and difference, linking Marxist-Leninism to the right to self determination and the necessity of using guerrilla warfare to remove the Derg dictatorship.

I first met Meles Zenawi in 1997 at the OAU Summit in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. I was introduced to him by my comrade brother, the late pan-Africanist exemplar, Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem who was at the time Secretary-General of the Pan African Movement in Kampala, Uganda and Abdul Mohammed, an Ethiopian colleague, both of whom knew Meles Zenawi in his days as a guerrilla. After listening to my jeremiad about the Abacha dictatorship and why progressive leaders like him should support our effort to restore democracy, Meles was unsparing in his dismissal of the Nigerian opposition as arm-chair critics.  He felt if we really wanted to remove Abacha, the corridors of OAU summits was not the place to argue our case since Africa owed us nothing more than we owed ourselves. Although I found his approach brusque, his brutal candour was helpful. For the first time, I contemplated the possibility of an alternative route to fighting the dictatorship in Nigeria. Ironically, the next day – General Sani Abacha died and Nigeria, yet again pulled back from the brink.

Between this first meeting in Ouagadougou and my last meeting with Meles Zenawi in Bahir Dir, Ethiopia in April 2012 when I joined several of his guests at the Tana Forum, I had numerous encounters with Prime Minister Meles Zenawi as a regular civil society activist at successive African Union summits in the last decade.  The Tana Forum was the maiden edition of the High Level Summit on Peace and Stability in Africa that he convened to discuss state fragility and the management of diversity in the promotion of peace and security in Africa. Although already rumoured to be suffering from a terminal ailment, the intellectual rigour that became his trademark in all his years as Premier remained at its sharpest edge as he sat through the two days of intense discussion that had in attendance five former and current presidents – Obasanjo, Mbeki, Museveni, Hassan Gouled of Djibouti and Mohammed of Somalia. He articulated a vision of diversity management as a pre-requisite for peace in Africa.  It was of course music to my ears as an federalist when Zenawi spoke about the bold experiment in post-conflict Ethiopia, which saw the right to self-determination, including right to secession, as a fundamental constitutional right, and a federative arrangement conferring robust rights of cultural and political self-government as constitutionally entrenched. Indeed, this became the crux of my heated but humorous exchange with President Obasanjo who chaired the Tana Forum on why recognition of the importance of diversity and difference should not be equated with promotion of disintegration in Nigeria.

In between the encounters in Ouagadougou and Tana Forum, my respect for Meles Zenawi grew tremendously even as I remained uncomfortable with the sad turn his democratic developmental State agenda took with his egregious clampdown on opposition and the independent media in Ethiopia’s last election. But that was not the only low moment.  There were others – particularly the war with Eritrea between 1998 – 2000 which nearly splintered the EPDRF cohesion and the famine that ravaged some parts of northern Ethiopia in his early years in office. There were certainly more highs than lows in the two decades of the Zenawi premiership.  Although he walked a tight rope between the demands of democracy and the overwhelming need for development and leaned heavily in the direction of the Asian model – Taiwan, South Korea, Malaysia and Singapore being his models, his was clearly a people driven government and his central goal was how to make poverty history in his country. Even his most virulent detractors would admit that he succeeded in significantly reducing the number of Ethiopians below poverty line even if the country is still confronted by the challenges of underdevelopment.

As a regular visitor to Ethiopia in the last decade, the texture and content of governance is indicative of an upward swing both in infrastructural and institutional development. Meles was not perceived in any sense as a venal and corrupt African leader.  Indeed, he encouraged the decentralisation of economic power to the regions and promoted the value of hard work among the general citizenry even as he remained highly suspicious of opening up the Ethiopian economy to foreign investment. He believed that neo-liberal economics would snuff out life in the productive sectors of the economy if he were to allow untrammelled access in sectors like banking, telecommunication and power generation. Equally, he stood up to the Washington consensus, particularly the IMF until they were ready to deal with him on his own terms.  All of this contributed to the double digit growth rate the country witnessed in the last decade. Although a pragmatic ideologue, he earned the respect of all who encountered him because of his robust diplomatic credentials.

There are of course other lessons to draw from the Zenawi leadership which might appear to be a contradiction in terms. On the one hand, Zenawi appeared to believe strongly in the myth perpetuated by the African political culture that only strong leaders can bring about change single-handedly. Yet on the other hand, the intellectual in him was too irreverent not to know that real leadership ought to involve motivating people to solve problems within there own communities – rather than reinforcing the over-lordship of state on them and he did that with gusto especially towards the end of his life. So, he was both a promoter of realpolitik and an intellectual advocate of soft power.  In my assessment as a student of civil-military relations, his success in reducing the huge post-war Ethiopian military and the ability to still achieve robust democratic control of the military remains a good model in post-conflict reconstruction on the continent.  He went ahead to influence the incorporation of several unique clauses in the Ethiopian constitution which mandates a civilian to always be the Defence Minister and prohibits the suspension of the Ethiopian constitution through unconstitutional means like coup d’etats, insurgency and the likes. Symbolic as these might appear, they contributed to the demystification process necessary for democratisation process to gain traction in the country.

On the African scene, he was a quietly towering figure.  Aside from President Obasanjo and Thabo Mbeki, very few African leaders elicited the respect that Meles Zenawi got from the African as well as the international community. The huge respect he enjoyed derived from his readiness to engage intellectually – especially on questions of African development, climate change, terrorism and the crisis in Sudan and Somalia. His was also a quiet resistance to Gaddafi’s rough and gruff attempt at material domination of the continental body and he worked closely with Presidents Obasanjo and Mbeki to resist this attempt to replace Addis with Sirte as the base of the continental body.  I recall significantly his exchange with Tajudeen Abdulraheem again at the UN-ECA convened African Governance Forum in Addis Ababa in 2005 when Tajudeen accused him of pandering to Western interests by refusing Africans who have business in Ethiopia visas at the port of entry whilst Europeans and Americans easily enjoyed this. Meles took the criticism in his stride and responded by declaring Ethiopia visa-free to Africans who have business with the African Union. This was the measure of the intellectual Meles.  He never refrained from a good debate, whether with his benefactors or his beneficiaries. This was also his conviction about that singular blight on his otherwise sterling leadership performance in office – his democratic deficit and human rights abuse.  He was always convinced that his record of economic regeneration and institutional development would stand him in good stead.  On this, the jury is certainly still out but no African who knew Meles Zenawi at a close range would want to deprive him of his seat in the hallowed chambers of politicians who saw leadership as sacrifice and service.

By the time we were in Bahir Dir in April 2012, his Deputy (now Acting Prime Minister) looked very much like the heir apparent and Meles had apparently indicated his readiness to step down at the next election in 2015. Perhaps he also knew that the end was near. That he left Ethiopia on a much stronger footing is certainly not in doubt, but lingering doubts persist about the state’s capacity to deepen democratisation. Yet having achieved a level of developmental and institutional stability, the only way the emergent leadership can make a fundamental difference is to build on his legacy of service and sacrifice and deepen the foundations of the ‘democratic developmental state’, reinsert freedom of association whilst promoting active citizens’ engagement with the state as a means of avoiding democratic reversal.  If it insists on continuing business as usual, no one could predict the direction the country is headed.  For now, Comrade Meles deserve credit for restoring pride to a naturally proud people through the courage of his conviction and the intellectual rigour that were his trademarks. Africa will miss him. Adieu Comrade Meles.  Rest in peace.


Dr Fayemi, Governor, Ekiti State serves on the Governing Board of the Tana Forum as its West Africa representative.

Last modified: August 27, 2012

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