Meles Zenawi’s Death

Death of a Strongman,” NYTimes, 22 August 2012

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NAIROBI — After two months of mysterious absence, Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s prime minister, is finally accounted for: He’s dead.

By seeking medical treatment abroad he won admission to the club of African leaders who fled the health systems over which they presided in order to save their own necks.

Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that Meles died at 57, the average life expectancy for his still underdeveloped country. More telling still, however, was the paranoid bureaucracy that kept the details of his illness out of Ethiopian newspapers for two months. This, too, is the legacy of a strongman.

Ethiopia, the second most populous nation in Africa, has dizzying economic potential. But its anxiously planned, autocratic governance structure has been jolted by Meles’s death. Even as Ethiopians mourn, the coming uncertainty illustrates the danger of a personality-centric development agenda.

Since 1991, Meles had presided over the unapologetic consolidation of state power and regional influence, often by force. Few of the region’s affairs unfolded outside of Meles’s personal involvement.

Endorsing the Chinese model of state capitalism and central management, Meles was able to launch ambitious projects. These included an electricity grid connecting the rural areas where 83 percent of the population live to hydroelectric power from the Nile River, as well as a $23 billion pipeline to redirect oil from South Sudan to the port of Lamu in Kenya.

Pressing the flesh at the World Economic Forum or global climate talks in Durban and Copenhagen, he spoke for African interests with considerable charm. His cheerleading of food security in Ethiopia and beyond was genuinely refreshing. And, of course, the G.D.P. growth rates for Ethiopiahave hovered in the double digits for the last five years.

But Ethiopia, like other “African lions,” has work to do before its roaring economy actually reaches its enormous, impoverished population. Indeed, many of Ethiopia’s recent successes were undergirded less by the country’s inherent promise than by Meles’s personal advocacy, ideology and assurances.

Meles’s noted fluency with culture, economics and regional politics endeared him to China, Turkey and the warring governments in Sudan and South Sudan — not to mention major donor countries like the United States and Britain, which bankrolled Ethiopia’s development efforts in exchange for Meles’s strong hand in regional security policy.

His tenure also saw wars with three of Ethiopia’s neighbors — in the case of Eritrea, partly because of a deeply personal struggle with President Isaias Afwerki. And though Meles’s diplomatic dexterity kept aid coming — and critiques of his human rights record off the table — as Amnesty Internationalpoints out, Meles’s self-centered reign has left Ethiopian prisons “packed to the seams with suspected political opponents — from urban intellectuals to rural farmers.” With increasing fervor, he pulped opposition parties and erected one of the most restrictive media and surveillance environments in the world.

Even as his East African neighbors leaped ahead on telecommunications and Web infrastructure, Meles stoppered conversation. When I visited Ethiopia in March, the queue for a mobile SIM card was days long; this summer, his government sought to criminalize Skype.

Now Meles’s successors will need to manage his blueprints without the benefits of his unusual mix of erudition and intimidation.

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