Review of African Political Economy: Obituary – The Legacy of Meles Zenawi

By Martin Plaut, BBC World Service News, London, UK
Dec. 05, 2012

I recently obtained a somewhat grainy, black and white photograph dated 14 December 1935. It shows a long line of men, walking down a dusty street in Addis Ababa. It is entitled ‘“The sinews of war”: rich merchants bring bags of money to finance the Emperor Haile Selassie’s doomed attempt to halt the Italian invasion’. As the caption indicates, the money is carried by slaves. Mentioning Ethiopian slavery at the start of an assessment of the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi may seem a little odd, but it is pertinent to recall just how far and how fast Ethiopia has been transformed.[1]

The death of Meles Zenawi in a Belgian hospital was announced on 21 August 2012. This was less than four decades after the Derg toppled Haile Selassie in September 1974. Appalling suffering followed, with the Red Terror, the famines and Ethiopia’s wars in Eritrea and Somalia, yet Ethiopian society has changed almost beyond recognition. In the past 40 years Ethiopia has been transformed from a stagnant, ossified society dominated by the nobility and the church into a modern developmental state. It registered gross domestic product growth of 8.8% a year between 2000 and 2010.[2] Any assessment of the part played by Prime Minister Meles; revolutionary, statesman and autocrat, must acknowledge his role in this extraordinary transformation.

This article focuses on three main elements: ethnic federalism, which was central to Meles’s rule, the development strategies that he pursued and the foreign policy that was the bedrock of his Western support. This is not a biography of the former leader. Others have chronicled his role in the leadership of the Tigray People’s Liberation Party (TPLF), the founding of the Marxist-Leninist League of Tigray (the core party that controlled the TPLF) and the adoption of a hardline ideology that looked to Albania as a model (see Young 1997, 134 ff.). It will suffice to say that he was a towering intellect, who was generous with his time for foreign reporters, like myself, while remote from his own population.[3] Unlike the emperor, who had a reputation for driving through the streets of Addis Ababa, receiving the petitions of his subjects, Meles Zenawi was remote and austere. He was seldom seen in public except on official occasions.

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