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Africa’s Dictator-Diplomat

BRUSSELS – The recent death in Brussels of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi finally brings to light what lay behind his mysterious two-month disappearance from public life. Ethiopia’s government had strenuously denied rumors of serious ill health caused by liver cancer. Now that the worst has, indeed, proven true, Ethiopia and all of East Africa will need to learn to live without the stabilizing influence of its great dictator-diplomat.

Meles was certainly both. Ethiopia has undergone a remarkable transformation under his strongman rule since 1991, when his Tigrayan minority group from the country’s north came to power with the overthrow of the odious Communist Derg led by Mengistu Haile Mariam (still enjoying a comfortable retirement in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe).

Initially serving as the president of the first post-Derg government, and then as Ethiopia’s prime minister from 1995 until his death, Meles (his nom de guerre in the revolution) oversaw 7.7% annual GDP growth in recent years. Strong economic performance is somewhat surprising, given his party’s interventionist policy approach, but Meles showed himself to be a consummate pragmatist in attracting investment – particularly from China – to drive growth.

Meles’s own political provenance as the leader of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front was Marxist-Leninist. But, when the Cold War ended, so, too, did his dogmatism. To his credit, child mortality was reduced by 40% under his government; Ethiopia’s economy became more diversified, with new industries like car manufacturing, beverages, and floriculture; and major infrastructure projects, including Africa’s largest hydroelectric dam, were launched. Once a basket-case associated in the world’s eyes only with famine and drought, Ethiopia has become one of Africa’s largest economies – and without the benefit of gold or oil.