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.