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.

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:

A Regime Built To Last. In Tunisia and Libya, the political system crumbled as soon as its leader left the scene. This is not likely to happen in Ethiopia, according to Metho: "The individual is gone, but the system is there, the system that has been running the country for the last 20 years." He explains that Ethiopian exiles are hardly booking plane tickets to Addis Ababa. "It is premature to say if the country is hopeful or if there will be change."

Bruton of the Atlantic Council says that violence against democracy activists, such as the police crackdown that killed nearly 200 people after the country's rigged 2005 elections, is "a deliberate and longstanding policy, and I don't see anything to suggest that [the government] will suddenly have a change of heart." Right now, Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn is in charge of the country, with a powerful military, and the party's still-intact central committee lurking somewhere in the background.

Ethnic Instability. Zenawi ruled Ethiopia partly through empowering his own ethnic group -- the Tigaray -- while marginalizing other communities, such as the Ogaden and the Amhara, says Bruton. "The major ethnic groups feel they've been deprived of their legitimate participation in governance because of the Tigrayan dominance of the political and economic aspects of the country," she explains. In such a charged and uncertain atmosphere, she adds, an outbreak of violence or lawlessness could be possible. The country is already in a restive state. In July, members of Ethiopia's marginalized Muslim community held major demonstrations in Addis Ababa; many of the protests' leaders are currently in jail. "The country is vulnerable," says Metho, who then invoked two emblematic and vastly differing examples of political transition in modern Africa. "We hope that Ethiopia will not go the Rwanda way, but will go the South Africa way."

Richer Than Before, But Still Poor. Ethiopia's average yearly GDP growth between 2000 and 2010 was a China-like 8.8 percent. Much of this benefitted the broader population. As Helen Epstein reported in a 2010 article in the New York Review of Books, Zenawi oversaw the opening of 15,000 village health clinics and improved the country's road system. But Epstein still encountered widespread malnutrition, as well as ample evidence that the government was mishandling and even embezzling foreign aid. A much-cited Human Rights Watch report describes the government's ethnically motivated dissemination of services and aid, and Ethiopia currently ranks a dismal 174th on the Human Development Index.

Leadership in a Rough Neighborhood. Zenawi's death wasn't the week's only major political development in East Africa. Despite continuing violence, Somalia recently swore in its first national parliament since 1991, a sign that the war-torn country could finally be stabilizing. At the same time, Kenya -- whose military currently occupies parts of Somalia -- has a presidential election scheduled for 2013, a simultaneously promising and worrying development, given the violence that broke out after a controversial 2007 vote. With one the region's most powerful leaders out of the picture -- Zenawi asserted strong Ethiopian leadership in East Africa, sometimes with U.S. backing -- East Africa could look far different in a just a few years if someone else fills the void.