THE recent demise of the Ethiopian prime minister and strongman, Meles Zenawi, brings to an end an interesting chapter of contemporary history in the Horn of Africa region. His passing away was not entirely unexpected. The Ethiopian leader was incommunicado for most of this year, even skipping important events like the African Union summit in July this year which he was hosting. The nature of his long illness has not been disclosed.
Zenawi was cast in the mould of traditional African strongmen, brooking little dissent during his long years in power. Born on May 8, 1955, Zenawi came to power after a bloody civil war 21 years ago, becoming the youngest head of state in Africa at the time. The man he replaced was Mengistu Haile Merriam, whose military dominated government had tried to introduce socialism in a country that was dominated by feudal elements and ethnic rivalries. Mengistu had played a key role in the overthrow of the decadent pro-western monarch, Emperor Haile Selassie. Under Mengistu, Ethiopia was in the forefront of the countries supporting the liberation movements on the African continent. Ethiopia at the time was a staunch ally of the Soviet bloc.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West had targeted the Ethiopian government for regime change. Washington and its allies decided to support the two main guerrilla groupings leading the fight against the central government in Addis Ababa — the Tigrayan Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front (EPLF) led by Isaias Afirwerki. Interestingly, the two groups at the time had an avowed Marxist agenda which was actually to the Left of Mengistu. Zenawi in fact was critical of both the Soviet Union and China and was an avowed supporter of the hard-liner Albanian Communist Party of Enver Hoxha. But Washington seemed confident that it would be able to manage the transition from Mengistu to its satisfaction. The two guerrilla groups which had worked closely in the struggle to overthrow Mengistu had an understanding that the country would be partitioned and the long running Eritrean demand for freedom would be respected.
Soon after Zenawi became president in 1991, the people of Eritrea were allowed to hold a referendum in which they duly voted for secession. Eritrea became independent, taking with it the entire coastline and the seaports that once belonged to a united Ethiopia. Mengistu whom he overthrew was totally against the partitioning of the country. For most of the nineties, both Ethiopia and the newly independent Eritreacompeted with each other to be the major strategic ally of Washington in the region, dumping their earlier anti-western rhetoric by the wayside. Within years, it was the more astute Zenawi who became the “chosen one” of the West in the region.
FIGHTING THE US’S
WAR IN SOMALIA
Relations between the erstwhile allies soon became unfriendly, due to a variety of reasons which included border disputes and economic matters. Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a brutal war between 1998 and 2000. A measure of Zenawi’s clout with the West in particular and the international community in general can be gauged from the fact that poverty stricken Eritrea is today under international sanctions while Ethiopia continues to be one of the biggest recipients of international aid. The country received four billion dollars in aid every year. The major charge against Eritrea is that its government is supporting the Al Shabab militia in Somalia which is fighting Ethiopian troops occupying their country.
Zenawi had played a key role in ensuring that the moderate Islamist Courts Union (ICU) was ousted from power after it had briefly united the war ravaged Somalia in 2006. At the behest of Washington, Meles sent in the Ethiopian army to Mogadishu. Somalia was once again caught in the vortex of a civil war. The ouster of the ICU led to the emergence of the more militant Al Shabab which till last year was controlling most of the country, including parts of the capital. Though the US air cover, coupled with the help of the Ethiopian armed forces, pushed out the Al Shabab from the big cities, the group remains defiant and is trying to push its fight into Ethiopia. US military drones which wreaked havoc over Somalia are stationed in Ethiopia.
The sizeable Muslim population in Ethiopia had also started organising against the central government in Addis. Among the groups that are currently engaged in small scale hostilities with the central government in Addis Ababa is the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), which was formed in 1973. The other is the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), another group that has been militarily clashing with the Ethiopian government since 2007. Zenawi, taking a page from the USSR constitution, had at the time of taking power grandiosely proclaimed that the ethnic nationalities which make up the mosaic of Ethiopia all had the right of self-determination and even the right to secede. But after the secession of Eritrea, Zenawi only paid lip service to this concept and in reality cracked the whip against movements like the OLF and the ONLF. During Zenawi’s long rule, larger ethnic groups like the Amhara and the Oromos felt sidelined. Till Zenawi came to the scene, the Amhara had monopolised power at the centre.
Despite Washington’s alleged priority of spreading multiparty democracy in Africa, its major allies have been authoritarian rulers like Zenawi, who ran the country with an iron fist. The opposition as well as the media was severely curtailed by Zenawi. Many Ethiopians believe that the 2005 elections in which the political coalition led by Zenawi — the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) — faced a tough challenge from the opposition, was stolen. The TPLF remains at the core of the ruling coalition, with a tight knit group around Zenawi, consisting mainly of close colleagues from the Tigray region, running the show. The powerful armed forces are dominated by the Tigrayans. The Tigrayans constitute only eight per cent of the country’s 82 million people.
POVERTY STILL A REALITY
On the day the votes were to be tallied in the 2005 elections, the government declared a state of emergency, outlawing public gatherings and arresting scores of opposition leaders and activists. When the results were announced the government claimed a sweeping majority. “The best and the brightest have been persecuted, prosecuted, brutalised and silenced by the dictator,” an exiled opposition leader observed. After 2005, most of the opposition leadership were either jailed or went in to exile. More than 200 people were killed and 30,000 arrested in the protests that erupted after the election results were announced. In the 2010 elections, the EPRDF won the elections with more than 99 per cent of the votes.
Zenawi had received accolades from the international community for his handling of the country’s economy. Ethiopia’s average GDP growth in the last decade was between 8 to 10 per cent, making it comparable to China’s. Zenawi’s close relations with the West ensured that his country remains among the top ten recipients of humanitarian aid in the world. Ensuring “food security” was a top priority for the Zenawi government. He had committed himself to ending the country’s dependence on food aid. But one of his policies aimed at making the country self-sufficient in food — that of leasing large tracts of land to foreign companies, including Indian owned ones, has generated domestic and international controversy. Almost half of the land in Gambela province bordering South Sudan has been leased out to foreign companies, displacing thousands of people. The government claimed that large scale land leasing policies would bring in millions of dollars in investment that would also create jobs and improve domestic agricultural expertise.
Some of the benefits of economic growth trickled down to the grassroots level. The share of Ethiopians living in extreme poverty has fallen from 45 per cent to 30 per cent since Zenawi took power more than 20 years ago. The country’s road network was improved and more than 15,000 rural health clinics were opened. But widespread malnutrition and poverty are still very much a reality in Ethiopia. A report by Human Rights Watch had detailed the discriminatory way in which development money was spent. The biggest gainers were the Tigreyans and other smaller ethnic groups that constitute the main support for the ruling EPRDF.
© 2012, Prof. Muse Tegegne. All rights reserved.