The Paradox of Meles Zenawi, the Late Ethiopian Prime Minister

By Michael Street

This version was first published in openDemocracy on 22 August. A shorter version was published as a letter to the Financial Times 28 August.
He embodied the eternal paradox that is Ethiopia: a land of ‘great abundance’where so much poverty exists; a Garden of Eden whose potential has never been fulfilled.
The death of Ethiopia’s prime minister, Meles Zenawi, on 20 August raises immediate and grave concerns for security in an extremely complex, fragile and unpredictable part of the world. Ethiopia sits at the end of an arc of instability stretching from Kashmir to the Horn of Africa and is one of the world’s most dangerous flash-points. Ethiopia’s 85 million people, with millions more in surrounding countries, are at the frontline of rapid climate change – last year’s drought in the region affected 13 million people. And although Ethiopia is one of the fastest growing economies in the world on the verge of a historic Renaissance, it is also extremely vulnerable to global economic volatility. As “the voice of Africa” and a key player in “the war on terror”, Mr Meles’s death after 21 years in power comes at a critical time for Ethiopia, for Africa and the world at large.

While politics and security issues surrounding Mr Meles’s death understandably dominate the assessment of Ethiopia’s situation, it is also important to consider three other vital areas where the late prime minister had considerable national, regional and international influence: the economy, development and climate change. Whoever leads Ethiopia, the management of these three interconnected issues will determine levels of peace and stability achieved in the region. On these, Mr Meles embodied the eternal paradox that is Ethiopia: a land of ‘great abundance’ where so much poverty exists; a Garden of Eden whose potential has never been fulfilled.

Since the June 1992 Lem (or Green) Meeting in Addis Ababa, held in conjunction with the UN’s first ‘Earth Summit’ in Brazil and only a year after he assumed responsibility for one of the most challenging countries on earth, Mr Meles championed sustainable development in Africa, fought for  Africa on climate change and was a leader in Africa’s green thinking. A major influence on US president Bill Clinton’s “New Africa”, for the past 20 years Ethiopia has played a pioneering role in environmental research, management and development, combined with historic experiments in ethnic federalism and democracy. In 2011 Ethiopia was the first African country to launch a Climate Resilient Green EconomyStrategy.

Over the past two decades Mr Meles’s coalition, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Party has laid solid enough green foundations, based on commercial smallholder farming and ambitious environmental rehabilitation schemes, for Ethiopia to become a global leader in the green economy, the main theme of the UN’s Rio+20 ‘Earth Summit’ in June. Following this path, any new or reformed government in Addis Ababa stands a good chance of managing a 21stcentury Green Ethiopian Renaissance that would be good for Africa and the world.

The paradox that threatens Ethiopia’s current advantage resurfaced around 2003 when Mr Meles took a turn back to the 20th century by embracing the ‘China model’ for development. There are many explanations for this return to the state-led model: the fallout from the 1998-2000 Ethio-Eritrea war; the slow progress of “bottom-up” green development; the 2002 drought and contraction in GDP; China’s big push into Africa, which coincided with the beginning of the biggest global economic boom in history. And like other African leaders Mr Meles often said, “Rapid and sustained growth in Africa is a matter of life and death…We have to run just to stand still.” Ethiopia, like China, also has a long history of central rule to overcome; change does not come easy in such ancient lands.

The 1980s model worked. The last 8 years have seen unprecedented advances in Ethiopia on many levels including double-digit annual economic growth with great growth prospects. Ethiopia has become “the China of Africa” with tremendous potential, poised to regain its place in the world.

But this has not been achieved without the hidden costs or externalities associated with such an outdated development model as China’s, whose “top-down” strategies Mr Meles said in 1992 were the cause of so much of Ethiopia’s suffering, hardship and senseless natural resource depletion. If the China model in China, as China’s leaders often remind us, is “unbalanced, uncoordinated and unsustainable” these hidden costs in Ethiopia could be greatly magnified. Transforming the ecological, social and economic landscapes of the fragile Horn of Africa on the scales envisaged by Ethiopia’s 2011-2015 Growth and Transformation Plan – through a series of mega dams, farms and sugar enterprises – could result in unintended consequences on mega scales to match.

In the 1770s Gibbon famously wrote: “Encompassed on all sides by enemies of their religion Ethiopians slept for near a thousand years, forgetful of the world by whom they were forgotten.” Those enemies are still there, there are more of them, they are well armed and their resources are disappearing. Depending on Ethiopia’s development path, brown or green, there is a great danger that they might be joined by enemies of Ethiopia’s growth and transformation strategies.

Whatever government emerges from the uncertainty in Ethiopia, the green route is the quickest, surest way to a balanced situation. Ethiopia’s green foundations, combined with its tremendous undeveloped natural resources and youthful population, puts this ancient land in an historic position to bring about a Green Renaissance focussed on the most fundamental issues of all for peace and security – food production and environmental management. For this challenge Ethiopians are well qualified.

In the 1960s agronomists saw Ethiopia as a paradise that could feed the whole of Africa. They thought the Awash, one of the smallest of the country’s 12 major river basins, could feed the whole of Ethiopia. The result, as in the rest of Africa, was a disaster. By 1990 most of Ethiopia’s large-scale development concentrated in the Awash Valley was failing or had failed. The planning, technologies and economics of the post-colonial brown development model were “unbalanced, uncoordinated and unsustainable” in the very short term.

Twenty years later the tools, technologies, knowledge, skills and information networks have been sufficiently developed for Ethiopia to forge new development models and build a green economy from which we can all learn. In the wake of the successful World Economic Forum on Africa 2012 in Addis Ababa in May and the historic Rio+20 Summit in June, Ethiopia has never been in such an influential and advantageous position. It is hoped that under new leadership, with a careful balance of top-down and bottom-up management learned over the past two decades, Ethiopia’s legendary ‘great abundance’ can be fulfilled.

In March 2009, when the third wave of the financial and economic crisis was hitting Africa and the threat of failed states loomed large, Mr Meles said that Africans would have to rethink all their development strategies and “learn to do well in a less permissive age.” The less permissive age looks likely to last for a while. Whoever leads Ethiopia in the 21st century, this current challenge is a great opportunity to address the eternal Ethiopian paradox and redirect Mr Meles’s influence, energy and vision back to the greener, more democratic path on which he and Ethiopia embarked in 1992. If this is to be “Ethiopia’s moment”, the moment for a “rethink” of Ethiopia is now.

About the Author: Michael Street’s connections with Africa began 40 years ago. In the 1970s and 1980s he worked in a number of African and Asian countries as a ‘brown’ development expert on various agro-industrial projects. He first visited Ethiopia in 1975. During the 1990s and early 2000s he travelled extensively in Ethiopia and lectured widely on the country’s history and ecology. Since 2001 he has been based in Sicily where he is establishing two small biosphere reserves as part of an initiative to understand and expand Sicily’s green economy. 

He blogs at