For some a saviour, for others a dictator


FEW COUNTRIES epitomised the prickly question of whether development should be prioritised before democracy better than Ethiopia under Meles Zenawi. The Ethiopian prime minister, who died this week at the age of 57, ruled with an iron fist, yet he was a donor darling lauded for steering a nation once synonymous with famine towards economic growth.

Meles came to power after the rebels he led toppled the brutal dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991. In the decades that followed the former Marxist guerrilla oversaw sweeping political and economic changes: introducing a multiparty system, boosting health and education, and adopting pro-market policies to help transform an ailing, predominantly agricultural economy into one now among the fastest growing in the world. Ethiopia’s economy is expected to record a growth rate of 11 per cent this year.

“We have succeeded in proving that Ethiopia can grow at Asian growth rates,” Meles told me in a rare interview in his offices in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, in 2010. “This has rekindled hope in the possibility that Ethiopia will not for long be the poster child for poverty in the world.”

Meles was so confident about Ethiopia’s onward march that he argued that “technically . . . if push comes to shove, we can survive on our own”. When I pointed out that in the first six months of that year almost 12 million Ethiopians would be forced to rely on food aid, he replied: “We would have to shelve some of our development projects [if food aid was cut] and use the money to buy wheat from abroad but no one would starve.”

Aid practitioners have long mulled over the conundrum of whether good governance and human rights should come before economic prosperity. Meles’s Ethiopia was as close to a textbook example of that dilemma as it was possible to get.

While Meles’s fans hailed him as one of sub-Saharan Africa’s shrewdest and most visionary leaders – in 1998, Bill Clinton described him as the leader of a continental renaissance – human rights organisations regularly published reports decrying his record, making donor countries such as the Irish Republic squirm.

Ethiopia is one of the world’s largest recipients of development aid, receiving about $3 billion (€2.4 billion) annually. Irish Aid’s total expenditure in Ethiopia last year amounted to €25.7 million, most of which was bilateral assistance to the government.

Following disputed elections in 2005, almost 200 people died and thousands were rounded up in a crackdown on demonstrations by the opposition, who accused Meles of rigging the ballot.

Ethiopia drew the opprobrium of the UN in 2009 when it passed controversial legislation outlawing any civil society group that promoted human rights, democracy or conflict resolution and received more than 10 per cent of its funding from abroad.

Human rights groups charge that anti-terrorism laws introduced the same year have been used to snuff out dissent and stifle freedom of speech. More than 100 opposition figures and journalists, including two Swedes, have been jailed under the legislation.

The US-based Committee to Protect Journalists accused Meles of having used “the fight against terrorism as a cover to silent peaceful voices of dissent”. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said journalists, human rights defenders and opposition figures in Ethiopia were facing a “climate of intimidation”.

Meles was bullish when I raised Ethiopia’s human rights record with him, and he accused some critics of “having an axe to grind” and “trying to make political capital” out of it.

“The overwhelming majority of the criticism is invalid,” he claimed. “At the same time, I say this is a work in progress . . . and we do not expect to have a situation where there is no violation of human rights of any person anywhere in Ethiopia.”

Several international rights groups and Ethiopian opposition figures accused donor states such as Ireland of shying away from properly challenging Meles on human rights because he was a crucial ally in an unstable region. During the George W Bush era, US officials frequently described Meles as Washington’s most important African partner in its so-called war on terror.

Irish diplomats and aid officials regularly insist that the bilateral relationship with Ethiopia involves “open and frank” discussions on a range of issues including human rights. They will be watching closely as the post-Meles order takes shape, given that Ethiopia is one of the State’s largest aid recipients.

Urbane and articulate, Meles often charmed visiting officials into if not quite completely accepting then at least acknowledging his take on the development versus democracy debate. A delegation from the Oireachtas foreign affairs committee visiting Ethiopia last November arrived fired up on damning reports from Human Rights Watch and other organisations. After a meeting with Meles, they were effusive in their praise, talking of how his government was “striving to do [its] best in the interests of Ethiopia”.

That is how Meles’s supporters will remember him; others considered him nothing short of a dictator. In death, as in life, Ethiopia’s strongman divides opinion at home and abroad.