Meles Zenawi Makes Africa More Secure


By Abudul Mohammed

As the 50th anniversary of the African Union (formerly the Organisation for African Unity) is being celebrated, the issue of peace and security, and the role played by the organisation and its member states, continues to be a primary preoccupation. In recognition of this, a new, progressive definition of peace and security seems to have emerged.

The definition takes peace and security as a foreign policy tool, contributing to the stability, security and development of Africa, and the strengthening of the continental peace and security architecture. The late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s thoughts on this issue are now, more than ever, relevant to Africa’s quest for peace, security and prosperity.

Meles was widely recognised as a bold and innovative economic theorist and practitioner. Less known is his contribution to the theory and practice of Ethiopia’s national security and foreign policy.

Drawing upon 21 years of engagement with Meles Zenawi, his senior officials and advisers and his writings, I suggest that his theory and practice in national security, defence and foreign policy deserves greater attention. In the last ten years, for the first time in Ethiopia’s history, the country has had a comprehensive and integrated national security and foreign policy doctrine. Meles himself is widely credited with having written the 2002 white paper on national security and foreign policy, and it certainly bears the hallmarks of his writing style.

The national security doctrine is the product of a thorough process of reflection and analysis, characteristic of the EPRDF under Meles’ leadership. It is intimately linked to the national development strategy, with the two reinforcing each other.

The white paper also shows the circumstances of its origin – namely, the aftermath of the bitter war with Eritrea and the divisions within the EPRDF that surfaced during and after the war. Just as Meles’ writings on economic theory are, in part, a rebuttal of prevalent neoliberal dogmas, the national security and foreign policy paper is a rebuttal of a simplistic tradition of “shallow nationalism”, which views Ethiopia as a land besieged by enemies, needing to invest first and foremost in a huge national army to defend its independence and territorial integrity. To the contrary, Meles argued that Ethiopia would become strong by achieving internal cohesion and broad-based development, and suggested that its security strategy should stem from a rigorous analysis of the national predicament.

What we might call the “Meles doctrine” of Ethiopian national security is founded on the three pillars; building the developmental state, harnessing national pride in a progressive manner and recognising the reality of globalisation so as to best utilise it for Ethiopia’s advantage.

The core of Meles’ argument was that, if Ethiopia is to survive, it needs to become more prosperous and better governed. Although the immediate context of the 1998 war with Eritrea was that Ethiopia had relaxed its military guard, the fundamental reason why the country remained prone to external threats was that it was poor and underdeveloped.

It was national weakness in these aspects that left the country vulnerable to external enemies; both attacks by neighbours and manipulation by global powers. Meles was anxious to rebut those who would argue that Ethiopia’s overriding needs were a strong national army and a fierce sense of nationalism; pointing out that the Dergue’s vast army collapsed and that chauvinistic pride in Ethiopia’s past glories could not be squared with the shame and indignity of being a beggar nation, relying on foreign handouts, with its citizens rushing abroad for even the most menial employment at the first opportunity.

Meles’ argued that bragging and arrogant declarations of bravado by previous governments-what he dismissed as ‘jingoism with an empty stomach’-divided the citizens, left them without consciousness of their true interests in a strong and united Ethiopia, impoverished the nation and, therefore, exposed it to greater vulnerabilities. Shallow nationalism, he argued, does not properly analyse the internal challenges of Ethiopia and instead looks at Ethiopia from the outside. In turn, this led to a ‘siege mentality’, in which Ethiopia sought only to guard itself against outside threats, rather than by transforming itself internally to truly be strong.

Meles valued Ethiopian nationalism, but insisted that it must be based on real achievement; national pride is not a policy objective in itself, but must come about through realising democracy and development.

Indeed, Meles recognised the reality of globalisation and sought to make it work for the Ethiopian national interest. Although Ethiopia was poor, it did not mean it should accept others’ prescriptions or follow others’ dictates.

From this analysis, it followed logically that, under Meles’ leadership, Ethiopia’s security strategy had internal, regional and global dimensions, integrating development strategy, military strategy and foreign relations.

The internal dimension was, first and foremost, the national objective of accelerating economic growth, in order to attain a democratic developmental state. Much has been written on Ethiopia’s economic policies under Meles and this is not the place to repeat these points. The key point to affirm is that sustained rapid growth not only promised to transform the lives of ordinary Ethiopians, but also to build a strong nation.

In the context of a strong economy, the army could be strong. Meles argued that spending of two percent of gross domestic product (GDP) on defence was the maximum that any developing country could afford. He also argued that the backbone of the national army is not its equipment, but its human resources, and emphasised technical training and political education for members of the armed forces.

In 1991, the EPRDF was both a political party and, following the dissolution of the former army, the national army. One of the most significant and unsung achievements of the early years of the EPRDF government was to create a new national defence force: its core remains the EPRDF fighters, but there is no question that today it is a national institution with high professional standing. The reputation that Ethiopian peacekeepers have secured for their conduct in United Nations peacekeeping operations in Rwanda and Sudan (Darfur and Abyei) is testament to the effective transformation of a guerrilla force into a professional military establishment.

According to Meles’ analysis, the foundation of regional peace and security, and Ethiopia’s relations with its immediate neighbours, should be economic integration and stability. Meles saw the security of the Horn of Africa region as being founded on shared economic growth.

Unfortunately, he saw that some of Ethiopia’s immediate neighbours were unlikely to move towards the model of a developmental state, because either they were following no discernible economic strategy or relying on rents or a liberalised economy, which generated highly unequal growth and created socio-political tensions.

Ethiopia’s immediate interest in its neighbours was therefore focused upon peaceful access to the sea and cross-border economic activities, but Meles hoped that infrastructural integration (particularly transport and power) would cement the countries together. A particular concern was Ethiopia’s traditional insistence on its right to use a fair share of the Nile waters for domestic and regional development (hydropower) and the historic concern, in Egypt, that increased water usage in Ethiopia might undermine Egypt’s share of the Nile.

Meles’ opinion on Egypt was that there is no clash of vital interest between the two countries on the Nile waters. In fact, it is here that we see how much the Meles doctrine is innovative and free of any traces of chauvinism or quest for one-sided advantages.

He allowed for the possibility that, mistakenly, a state may feel, as Egypt has historically, that they face a threat rooted in the clash of vital interests. In reality, this is far from the truth, or at the least, any threat is not imminent.

He felt that, in this instance, the task of diplomacy is not to be accusatory, but to find ways of dispelling such suspicions. Peace requires consistent communications, with regards to the mutual benefits derived from cooperating on natural resources, such as water; that is the Meles’ approach.

Under Meles, Ethiopia put enormous effort into strengthening regional institutions; notably, the African Union (AU). The particular focus of the AU has been peace and security, and Ethiopia has been actively engaged in this, in Somalia and the Sudans.

Ethiopia took the lead in military action in Somalia, in order to engage the Union of Islamic Court and Al-Shabab. This was a controversial operation, undertaken in large part because Ethiopia espied the hand of Eritrea in terrorist groups operating out of Somalia.

Over time, this has laid the foundations for the African Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and the reestablishment of a government there. Because of Ethiopia’s history, under previous governments, of meddling in Somalia’s internal affairs, Meles did not want to take any formal action in recognising the Somaliland Republic, but Ethiopia has been respectful of Somaliland, helping to preserve its stability and promote its prosperity.

Meles saw political instability and conflict in Sudan and South Sudan as a serious threat to Ethiopia and the region. Over twenty years, Ethiopia has occasionally had difficult relations with north and south Sudan, but has consistently maintained communication with both in pursuit of a balanced strategy.

Over the last few years, it has vested enormous effort in supporting the AU’s efforts to resolve the Sudans’ crises. Meles helped establish the AU High Level Implementation Panel, headed by former President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, and supported its efforts, to the extent of dispatching an armoured brigade to the Abyei area, on the north-south border, to constitute the UN Interim Security Force for Abyei.

Meles was acutely aware that Africa needed a coalition of progressive political parties committed to development. He saw a number of candidates across the continent and was close to South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC), and undoubtedly shared its thinking about the developmental state. One of his unfinished projects was building a broader understanding of the democratic developmental project in Africa.

Consistent to the country’s tradition, particularly Emperor Haileselassie’s, who balanced Ethiopia’s relations among the major powers of his day and solicited assistance from diverse donors on Ethiopia’s terms, Meles sought to make best advantage of the global order. During the 1990s, when the Washington Consensus prevailed over all its rivals in the global policy sphere, the EPRDF leadership fought a rearguard action to preserve the policymaking autonomy of the Ethiopian state. As China and regional powers emerged after the millennium, Meles took the opportunity to expand his options and to be more explicit about his developmental project.

Most notably, Meles commissioned careful studies of the comparative advantages of different donors and selectively sought out diverse donors to contribute to different sectors of the Ethiopian development project. Despite enormous constraints on its capacity, Ethiopia has been exceptionally effective in using international assistance in support of its national development goals.

Twenty five years ago, Ethiopia was not only weak and vulnerable, but was a source of instability in the region. Today, Ethiopia is a force for peace and stability in Africa, as a whole, and especially the Horn.

In the last days of the Dergue, the UN was canvassing the idea of sending peacekeepers to Ethiopia with a strong mandate for using force. Today, Ethiopian peacekeepers are a model for professionalism and effectiveness in Africa. Much of the credit for this transformation belongs to the intellectual leadership of Meles Zenawi and the way in which he was able to translate his doctrine into practice.

Abudul Mohammed, a close friend and chief of staff of the African Union High Level Implementation Panel on Sudan.