Iron man with contradictory image who did much for Ethiopia

Meles Zenawi: IN MARCH 2005, when Tony Blair released the Commission for Africa report he had sponsored as British prime minister…

Meles Zenawi:IN MARCH 2005, when Tony Blair released the Commission for Africa report he had sponsored as British prime minister, it seemed he had gathered together a winning team: a popular icon, Bob Geldof; his own rival, Gordon Brown; and the best that Africa could offer by way of leaders who wanted to join the continent to the modern world – among them, Ethiopia's prime minister, Meles Zenawi.

Meles seemed like a younger counterpart to Nelson Mandela. Then only 50, he had been a rebel leader waging war against communist dictatorship, and was now a democrat leading Africa’s oldest independent state forward to a new age of development and modern political values. However, times change and the image of Meles at his death is a far more contradictory one. He has died aged 57 of undisclosed causes, after hospital treatment.

Ethiopia’s May 2005 elections resulted in protests that led to the deaths of almost 200 people, with 800 wounded. European Union observers declared the elections to have failed international standards, while the Carter Centre, the US-based organisation founded by former US president Jimmy Carter, said they were fair notwithstanding irregularities and intimidation. The international community by and large accepted the outcome.

Although the 2010 elections were not marred by protests of the same scale, opposition parties saw them as flawed and said the relationship between Meles’s party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), and the army had created a one-party state, with opposition parties permitted only to give a semblance of democracy to court the West.


From 2006 to 2009, with US assistance, the Ethiopian army mounted an invasion of neighbouring Somalia with the aim of destroying the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), the ruling Islamic militia. Fighting was fierce, with many accusations of indiscriminate Ethiopian tactics. But the defeat of the ICU left a space for al-Shabaab, the even more radical group, leaving the US-backed intervention a strategic failure.

Meles was at the forefront of supporting the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, one of the parallel engagements between the West and Africa alongside Blair’s Commission for Africa, whereby democracy would be encouraged by African peer review, and helped by western largesse.

Meles took a lead on climate change in the African Union and worked, amid great criticism from fellow African presidents, to bring African policy in line with Europe – again to be rewarded by fast-track financing from Europe.

Zenawi was born in Adwa, Tigray, in northern Ethiopia, the son of an Ethiopian father and Eritrean mother.

In his 20s, he rebelled against the Stalinist dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam while a medical student at the then Haile Selassie University, Addis Ababa, and in 1975 joined the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front.

He became head of its executive committee by 1983.

In 1991, in alliance with the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, the rebel forces swept aside the armies of Mengistu, and Meles became president of Ethiopia. He also became chair of the EPRDF, and in 1993 agreed to what seemed an amicable agreement for Eritrea to leave Ethiopia and become an independent state. But years of tension and war between the two countries were to follow.

The conflict was at its bloodiest from 1998 to 2000, but the settlement of the border dispute has only ever allowed an uneasy peace.

Meles drove Ethiopia forward with a huge range of reforms and global links.

At the first general elections of 1995, he became prime minister and the EPRDF became the dominant political party. He and the party were re-elected every five years subsequently.

Under their government, Ethiopia has seen a dramatic lowering of infant mortality and a huge growth in education: literacy rates rose from 50 per cent in 1997 to 65 per cent in 2002.

There has been economic growth of up to 9 per cent in most of the years of the new millennium. The country has seen a huge building and housing boom. Meles won the Norwegian Green Revolution prize, and awards for lifting much of Ethiopia out of poverty and hunger. Under his rule, Ethiopia doubled its food production.

Perhaps the iron man who is nevertheless “modern”, who leaves a genuine developmental legacy while making life hard for his opposition, who seeks to please the West while cementing his country’s own regional interests is a necessary step on the path of African growth.

The beautiful and grand new headquarters of the African Union, opened in Addis Ababa in 2012, was financed, designed and built by Africa’s new friend, China.

Meles is survived by his wife, Azeb Mesfin, a son, Senay, and two daughters, Semhal and Marda.

Meles Zenawi: born May 8th, 1955; died August 20th, 2012