Will Ethiopia escape Zenawi’s shadow?
You just have to look at the USA and Europe to see what a lack of leadership can lead to; Republicans and Democrats bickering while an impending fiscal cliff approaches and a eurozone on the brink of collapse while national leaders debate the pro’s and con’s of a more unified Europe. In Ethiopia, the country had the complete opposite, a leader with a clear idea of where the nation was heading and more importantly how to do it. But following the death of their Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi (pictured below) the future of the country has suddenly become cloudier, as no likely successor is in sight.
Ethiopia, possessing the second largest population in the continent, has always been a big player in the history of Africa. Famously one of the oldest sites of human existence, Ethiopia was also one of the few countries not to be taken over by Europeans powers (embarrassing Italy in their attempted invasion) and is a founding member of the UN. Despite this they have had a patchy record in politics; after decades of monarchy, a military dictatorship took over in a coup which lasted from 1972-1991, from then the country officially adopted democracy (though many criticised its apparently “equal” elections). Meles Zenawi was elected Prime Minister in 1995 and won three more re-elections in 2000, 2005 and 2010 to the dismay of critics.
Politically, Meles Zenawi has clearly played dirty. In the 2010 elections his ruling party won an absurd 99.6% of the vote, leaving the opposition with only one seat in parliament. That is what’s left of the opposition, as parties were banned and leaders exiled or arrested (in March 2011, 200 opposition members were arrested alone). Then there is the media censorship, where citizens have little choice other than state owned networks and journalists are regularly arrested for being critical of the government (in 2011 several journalists were arrested for such reasons). Mr Zenawi also took upon himself to meddle in other countries problems, with notable incidents involving forced entries into Somalia and Sudan.
Protests against Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia.
But economically, Meles Zenawi has done a better job than many in improving his countries conditions. He has carried out many economic reforms on a country that practically used to have no private sector and youth unemployment as high a 70% (down to a reported 23.7% in 2011). He increased FDI flowing into the country (averaging $240 million from 1995 to 2004) though the global financial crisis hampered this somewhat. Meles Zenawi was primarily able to do this because of global aid, as his country became Africa’s biggest aid recipient. Mr Zenawi contributed to this by working his charms among the biggest nations of the world, with America a reported ally of Mr Zenawi despite his patchy human rights record. To his credit Meles used this money wisely, boosting manufacturing, agriculture and exports (with exports to the US nearly tripling from $270 million in 2009 to $690 million in 2011). In fact over the last 10 years, GDP has increased on average by over 10% a year, around double that of the countries surrounding it and even more impressive when you consider the country doesn’t possess any large scale natural resources to rely on. Recent plans have involved building new Hydroelectric dams that could boost energy output by five times its original amount in 2015. More importantly, Mr Zenawi has managed to lift 15% of the population out of extreme poverty, which for one of the poorest countries in the world is a big achievement. Under his reign, Ethiopia went from a starving country to a food exporter.
Graph showing average GDP growth rate for Ethiopia from 2001-2010. From 2002-2012 this increases to 10.6%.
Like many things in life, Meles Zenawi’s reign is neither black or white, but more a shade of grey. His government has improved the economy and living conditions of its people, but the extreme measures used to stay in power are rightly condemned. The big question now is what will Ethiopia do now he is gone?
For all his good or bad, the running of the country was modelled around him. He left no real institutions in his place for the country to continue growing and leaves a vacuum of power that no-one looks like filling right now. The current successor, Mariam Desalegn (the foreign minister) is just one of the many yes men Mr Zenawi surrounded himself with and does not look up to the job of replacing him. The years of success that Ethiopia has had in reforming its economy and improving the country could now be wiped out if a power struggle tears apart the ruling party.
Mariam Desalegn looks ill suited to the position permanently.
But perhaps it can be lesson for both Ethiopia and for all of Africa. Economic success based on a dictator will always face succession problems, while human rights always lose out. The key to continued success is through democratic elections and the building of institutions. A current example of this is Myanmar, where recent deregulation of the past strict media laws are just one of many economic reforms going through the country in the build up to one of the first truly democratic elections to be held in the country in 2015.
Similar steps must be taken in Ethiopia if it is to grow from out of Zenawi’s shadow.