A Modern Dictator: Why Ethiopia's Zenawi Mattered

The man who ruled this East African country through 20 years of oppression and rapid development has died.

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Meles Zenawi (left) with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the London Conference on Somalia last February. (Reuters)

It's a quirk of the post-Cold War era that dictators rarely die either in bed or in office. Meles Zenawi, the two-decade Ethiopian Prime Minister who died in an as-yet undisclosed hospital on August 20th after a mysterious 59-day absence from his country, managed both. It's little wonder that he was able to pull off a feat that Romania's Nicolae Ceausescu or Liberia's Charles Taylor, who were executed and imprisoned, respectively, could only envy.

Few dictators have so aptly balanced as many contradictions as Zenawi, who cracked down on civil society organizations and journalists, even as leaders and intellectuals flocked to Addis Ababa for the government-hosted World Economic Forum. His willingness to cooperate with the United States against terrorism -- epitomized by the U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia to dislodge Islamic Courts Union militants from power in 2006 -- made him a seemingly indispensable ally in an unstable region.

Yet within Ethiopia, Zenawi's rule was marked by a cynical divide-and-conquer strategy that excluded several of the country's major ethnic groups from political and economic life, and that denied humanitarian aid to supposedly disloyal sectors of the country. Zenawi was one of the most-praised leaders in Africa (although never by human rights groups), a development-minded regional power-broker whose government was largely funded through foreign aid. At the same time, according to Bronwyn Bruton of The Atlantic Council, "Zenawi very successfully painted journalists and human rights workers as purveyors of Western rather than African ideas," a tactic that culminated in a ban on civil society organizations in 2009.

The Democracy Report

At times, Zenawi represented the promise of the post-Cold War "African Renaissance," the wave of new leaders, including Nelson Mandela, Rwanda's Paul Kagame, and Uganda's Yoweri Museveni, who replaced a generation of corrupt, anti-Western or ethnically exclusionist strongmen who had previously ruled much of the continent. But like Kagame and Museveni, he resisted, rather than aided, the rise of democracy across much of the continent. Zenawi did initiate a clean break with Ethiopia's violent past, and helped overthrow and then reverse the effects of the brutal and widely hated communist government of Mengistu Haile Mariam. Still, in Zenawi's case, the "Renaissance" was, at times,illusory, a record of development, economic growth, and regional leadership tempered by a dictatorial ruthlessness that foreign actors -- including the United States -- were often quick to forgive. U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice tweeted that she was "profoundly saddened by the untimely passing of my close friend and cherished colleague," calling Zenawi's legacy "indelible." Yet as Obang Metho, a Washington, D.C.-based Ethiopian civil society leader who was convicted in absentia of terrorism earlier this year, put it to me, "Meles set up a system where what he said to the world and what he did to his people were really two different things."

Below, a few bullet points on what Ethiopia's complicated leader leaves in wake:

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

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