Lessons From the Life of Meles Zenawi
By Paul Kagame
President of the Republic of Rwanda
For me, even more so for Ethiopians and many other Africans, talking about Meles’ contribution goes beyond the boundaries of Ethiopia and encompasses the whole continent of Africa and beyond. He championed not only Ethiopia’s, but Africa’s cause in various international forums with passion and conviction, and to great effect.
We recall, for instance, his commitment, together with other colleagues, to the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD). That dedication to Africa, among others, reflected his thinking on Africa’s development. NEPAD was, and still is, for many a collective vision for Africa’s renewal and progress. It is an expression of our common desire to construct a framework for development fully-owned and mainly driven by Africans.
We shall remember Meles Zenawi as a moderniser who dedicated his life to advancing the liberation and socio-economic transformation of his country and our continent. He was able to achieve a lot because he was a man of strong convictions. That strength derived from his ability to subject issues and situations to thorough study and analysis from which he was then able to chart a clear path to development based on domestic realities and home-grown solutions.
On the strength of that analysis, he challenged and rejected conventional development models where they were not suitable.
Today, as during his life, Meles Zenawi is associated with the concept of a developmental democratic state which he articulated as the most appropriate vehicle for development at our current level of economic evolution.
For Meles and other like-minded African leaders, in a developing country where both social and finance capital are very low, the state must play an active role in marshalling and directing development effort. It has to intervene in sourcing and directing investment to where it will have the greatest impact.
It is the only institution with the ability to build the physical and social infrastructure needed for the desired transformation of the country. The state has the mandate and should empower its people, especially rural communities, to participate fully in the country’s political and economic activities. In so doing, solutions to national challenges are understood and owned by the people and become more effective and sustainable.
We have indeed experienced how this partnership with the people builds confidence for further achievements. This is the essence of people-centred, inclusive governance that Meles espoused and which many others in Africa would practice.
Equally, it is only the state that has the ability to mobilise international backing, both public and private, to support domestic choices and solutions to national challenges. Let me state, however, that this does not exclude working with others. It only means that the state has the primary responsibility and that cooperation is built on meaningful partnerships that recognise national choices.
Actual practice in a number of our countries has shown that it is an efficient state that is able to drive the development effort. Success for this requires continuous building of its institutions that can guarantee efficient performance, stability and continuity of policies.
Meles had the intellectual ability to formulate and argue the case for a developmental democratic state, historical proof of its success elsewhere in the world and the boldness to push it through. He was able to institute land reforms to rationalise land use, increase agricultural production, raise levels of food security and empower rural populations and transform their economy as we know it.
Similarly, education has been able to play a transformational role through expansion, both in terms of infrastructure and access. Perhaps the most visible area of growth has been in infrastructure development. Dams have been built for generating electricity so crucial for industrialisation and improved living standards. Roads within the country as well as linking Ethiopia to neighbouring countries have been built and a thriving construction industry exists.
However, he did not conceive or even prescribe the concept of a developmental state as the model for all nations for he knew only too well that none fits all situations. Nor is there ever a consensus about any one answer to an issue like this. Solutions are contextual. That is why other Africans practice variations of the concept based on local conditions in their countries and may get equally good results.
It is evident to many of us that for a developing country, choices designed to accelerate development and growth are essentially politically driven and require the appropriate political set up for effective implementation. And that is to be provided by an actively and appropriately involved state.
This single-minded pursuit of a development agenda, as indeed Meles and others have done, has often led to a deliberate or ignorant misinterpretation of their intentions by some in the international community. And invariably, the question has been raised about whether the emphasis on development and the role of the state in it is not done at the expense of democracy and people’s rights.
For those who share Meles’ approach to development, there cannot be any contradiction between the two. They are actually mutually reinforcing – sustainable socio-economic development gives rise to greater democracy and political rights can best be exercised and enjoyed in a climate of growing prosperity and improved quality of life.
In any event, Meles believed, and other African leaders have a similar view, that democracy is built and grows and makes sense if it creates conditions for stability, continuity of policies, freedom, and the protection of gains that have already been made. Genuine democracy can never be equated to election cycles only as he emphasised. It has to do with the popular engagement of ordinary citizens in making and implementing choices that affect their lives – so true.
Successful governance systems are those that organically grow from local realities and reflect and respond to specific experiences. They do not have to be measured against arbitrary external standards, but can relate to them.
And in any case, those who disagree with or criticise our development and governance options do not provide any suitable or better alternatives. All they do is repeat abstract concepts like freedom and democracy as if doing that alone would improve the human condition. Yet for us, the evidence of results from our choices is the most significant thing.
I believe you have all seen how recent events in some parts of Africa have vindicated this view of democracy and development. We have witnessed the collapse of what had been touted as economic and democratic models on our continent, largely because they paid more attention to forms and symbols and ignored the substance. At the same time, we have seen the resilience of Ethiopia and other countries that have built their governance systems on the aspirations and participation of their people.
In the quest for rapid socio-economic transformation, it often becomes necessary to take tough, even unpopular decisions that work and stick to them. Meles did and held to them despite strong opposition. And for doing what was right, being true to his vision, values and principles, he earned the wrath of some, but more significantly, the admiration of many.
And as so often happens in such circumstances, he was vilified and called all sorts of names. But he stayed the course and soon the results of his choices were too obvious to ignore. Ironically, it seems earning such names is a measure of the success of one’s policies.
Only a man of unusual courage, strong conviction, uncompromising integrity and selflessness could put the widespread criticism in its proper place and focus on meeting the needs of his people. It needed a person of remarkable powers of persuasion and the ability to articulate his position passionately, logically and clearly to convince his compatriots, other Africans and even others from further afield that his policies were correct.
Meles was such a man and was able to drive the transformation of Ethiopia and become the inspiration of many young Africans across the continent. Ethiopia today and during his life has attained a level of development and self-reliance not achieved before.
The subject of this forum was close to Meles’ heart and it is indeed fitting that a conference on security should be held in Ethiopia. He recognised from the outset that no country could prosper in peace and security when all around it was turmoil. The security of all was essential to the stability and prosperity of all. And because of this, Meles spared no effort to mediate where there was dispute or to intervene militarily when that was the only option.
Today, this region is increasingly more peaceful, permitting its people to lead better and more dignified lives. Across Africa, social and economic progress is going on at a level and pace we have not experienced before. Africa’s voice can no longer be ignored.
Rwandans in particular have a special bond with the late Meles Zenawi and the people of Ethiopia forged by shared values, ideals, solidarity and path to sustainable prosperity. We will always remember with gratitude his insistence for the formation of a Panel of Eminent Persons to investigate the genocide in Rwanda.
The vision of prosperity and unity the late Meles Zenawi had for his country and our continent, his dedication, commitment and personal sacrifice to its realisation and the policies he adopted to bring it about – all these are his legacy. The most fitting tribute we can pay him is to make Africa stronger, wealthier and an equal player on the world stage. And that we shall achieve if we are prepared to defend our right to make our own choices, deal with our own issues and stand up to all forms of injustice whatever their origin.