The Zenawi Paradox: An Ethiopian Leader's Good and Terrible Legacy

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Shrewd, brutal, and a master at soliciting and spending aid money, Prime Minister Zenawi's 20 years of rule could be nearing its end.

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Zenawi at the World Economic Forum in Addis Ababa.(Reuters)

Following the news of the past few years, you might get the impression that flamboyance and bellicosity are signature traits of any long-tenured dictator. But for every Muammar Qaddafi there's a Meles Zenawi, the shrewd, technocratic Prime Minister of Ethiopia. Inside of the country, he's known for imprisoning his political opponents, withholding development assistance from restive areas, stealing elections, and cracking down on civil society NGOs. In the rest of the world, he's often praised for his impressive economic record, though not for his human rights. Zenawi has attracted Western support by being a responsible steward of aid money, a security partner in a rough region, and a G20 summit invitee.

Now, both his supporters and his detractors may have to contemplate a future without him. Zenawi is in a Brussels hospital with an unspecified stomach ailment that may or may not be fatal, depending upon what news reports you believe. Today, a government spokesperson announced that Zenawi would be taking a leave of absence from running the country, which he's led since 1991.

From a human rights perspective, Zenawi's rule has been abusive, heavy-handed, and self-interested. Still, his apparently earnest dedication to sustainable development has long attracted international donors, whose money has benefited Ethiopia while propping up his regime. Zenawi, has fostered a friendlier environment for foreign investment. Between 2000 and 2010, Ethiopia's GDP enjoyed a staggering average annual growth rate of 8.8 percent -- China-like numbers. The country's public sector is hardly clean of corruption, but the Ethiopian state isn't as mismanaged or as predatory as others in the region. It ranks 120th out of 183 governments on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions index, not exactly Scandinavian but still ahead of such regional leaders as Kenya, Uganda, and Nigeria.

The Democracy Report

Under his leadership, Ethiopians have suffered from a lack of human, civil, and political rights. At the same time, their country has earned a reputation as a place where aid money can be responsibly and effectively spent. "The U.S. assistance portfolio in Ethiopia remains one of the United States' largest and most complex in Africa" according to an online U.S. government profile of the roughly $2.1 billion in aid the U.S. has sent to Ethiopia since 2010. The World Bank helps fund over $ 4.4 billion worth of projects in the country.

This is the paradox of Zenawi's legacy. He has done much to simultaneously help and hurt his people, with just the kind of quiet skill that you hope to see in a benign leader and dread in a malevolent one. If he never returns to office, should he be remembered as the technocrat behind Ethiopia's amazing economic rise, or the brutal strongman who resisted democracy as much of Africa adopted it? Though one did not necessarily require the other -- a kinder, gentler Zenawi might have overseen even better growth -- the same character might inform both sides of his rule.

"When I meet with Prime Minister Meles and [Ugandan] President [Yoweri] Museveni, I feel like I am attending development seminar," rockstar development economist Jeffrey Sachs said in a 2004 speech. "They are ingenious, deeply knowledgeable, and bold." Magnus Taylor, the managing editor of the Royal African Society's renowned African Arguments blog, wrote about Zenawi's ability to dazzle foreign investors at the World Economic Forum in Addis Ababa this past May, while challenging the democratic world's seemingly dogmatic belief in the causal relationship between political freedom and economic dynamism:

Sitting astride this economic growth, and taking pride of place at this year's WEF, was Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. In an event that boasted such political heavyweights as former British PM Gordon Brown, and private sector luminaries like the Ivorian boss of The Prudential, Tidjane Thiam, whose $600 billion worth of assets makes Ethiopia look like a minnow, I was surprised by how much Meles came out as the dominant figure. A fiercely intelligent man, with a grasp of figures redolent of Brown (whom Meles referred to as 'Prime Minister' throughout) he seemed totally in his element. Perhaps it was the nature of the audience. He was never going to have to field too many tricky questions about Ethiopia's political space, (un)free press or tight government control over telecommunications and banking in front of a room full of CEOs and fellow technocrats.

One senses that in certain crowds his statement that "there is no direct relationship between economic growth and democracy" would have got him in to trouble - important players were gnashing their teeth at this but Meles, kingpin of Western policy in the Horn of Africa, knows exactly how much he can loosen his Marxist instincts without upsetting his donors.

The World Economic Forum was one of Zenawi's last public appearances. Even if he survives his illness, there is currently no public timetable for his return to Addis Ababa. As dictators across North Africa and the Middle East can no longer take their survival for granted, it's worth wondering whether Zenawi will be the model for the next generation of enlightened, western-coddled autocrats -- or one of the last of a literally dying breed.

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Armin Rosen is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Global channel.

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