Meles Zenawi is the cleverest and most engaging president in Africa - at
least when he talks to visiting outsiders. When he speaks to his fellow
Ethiopians, he is severe and dogmatic.
But he entertains western visitors with humour and irony, deploying a
diffident, self-deprecating style which cleverly conceals an absolute
determination to control his country and its destiny, free of outside
He was one of four African presidents to be invited to the Camp David G8
meeting last weekend. The aid donors love Meles. He is well-informed, highly
numerate and focused. And he delivers. Ethiopia will get closer to the
Millennium Development Goals than most African countries. The Ethiopian
state has existed for centuries and it has a bureaucracy to run it. So the
aid flows like a river, nearly $4 billion a year. And Meles is the United
States' policeman in the region with troops in Somalia and Sudan. He also
enjoys a simmering enmity with his former ally, now the bad boy of the
region, President Isias Afwerke of Eritrea. "It's Mubarak syndrome," a
worried US diplomat told me. "We only talked to Mubarak about Egypt's role
in the region, never about what was happening inside Egypt. It's the same
In the 2005 election when the opposition won the capital, Addis Ababa, and
claimed to have won nationally, the government arrested its leaders and
tried them for treason. Some were imprisoned, others fled into exile. Now
with 99.6% of the vote, the ruling Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary
Democratic Front (EPRDF) has created a virtual one party state. In an
interview last week Meles told me he did not know of a single village in the
whole country that voted for the opposition.
This is subtle totalitarianism, dubbed 'Authoritarian Developmentalism' by
some. If you do what the government says, you get assistance - land, water,
services. If you don't, you get nothing. The basic principles of political
freedom enshrined in the constitution are frequently undermined by subtle
edicts from government departments. Press freedom is clearly spelt out and
recently a minor ruling stated that printers must take responsibility for
everything they publish and can refuse to print anything the government
might consider illegal. Hardly a devastating blow to press freedom you might
think until you discover that the only presses in Ethiopia capable of
printing newspapers are government-owned.
Meles' remarkable achievement since he took power in 1991 has been to
attract foreign companies to Ethiopia through a policy of low taxes and a
free hand. Growth has been between 8 and 11 percent over the past eight
years thanks to the private sector (both western and eastern.) The economy
has doubled over the last five years. Meles is rushing to develop the
country as fast as he can. Using the Chinese model he has attracted foreign
investors to develop agriculture and manufacturing. As he told me: "The
criticism we had in the past was that we were crazy Marxists. Now we are
accused of selling the family spoons to foreigners. It's a balance."
Meles has leased more than 4 million hectares of land to foreign or domestic
companies to grow food or flowers. And to provide them with water and power
he has built dams which he says are environmentally much better than power
stations since they are built in gorges with little water loss through
evaporation. But it is not a completely free market solution. There are
government monopolies in banking and telecoms. Nor will the government give
people title deeds. All land is state owned. Meles has made it clear he will
keep it that way.
"Have we created a perfect democratic system? No it's a work in progress.
Are we running as fast as our legs will carry us? Yes. And it's not just
Addis but also the most remote areas. Unlike previous governments we have
really created a stable country in a very turbulent neighbourhood. Our writ
runs in every village. That never happened in the history of Ethiopia. The
state was distant, irrelevant."
He fiercely defends his policies, in the face of Western NGO criticism, that
this development is environmentally unsound and indigenous people have been
removed forcibly from their land. He insists that in every case they were
consulted, dismissing a report by the Oakland Institute in the US which said
people had been forcibly removed as "bullshit". When I suggest that
pastoralists should be allowed to continue their nomadic way of life, he
says I am a romantic westerner. But he adds that it is their right to
continue their way of life.
It is the same with the politics. Having taken power by force in 1991 and
coming from a minority, Meles created a safety valve by writing into the
constitution the right of every "nation" in Ethiopia to declare
independence. Whenever there are local political problem he re-asserts that
right to leave but it is unlikely the clause will ever be put to the test
through a referendum.
The current trouble spot is the southern region of Gambela where land has
been given to agricultural businesses. Meles is defensive about reports of
recent forced removals. "We are making sure that the Gambela people are
settled and have land and that young people can go to farms not as guards
but as farmers," he said, assuring me that the people who have been moved
were consulted. Only when all those in the region who want to work have jobs
will other workers be recruited from other parts of Ethiopia.
Is the Meles plan for rapid, state directed capitalism working? At the
recent World Economic Forum meeting in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa
earlier this month, criticism came, not from western NGOs , but from China,
Ethiopia's closest ally. Gao Xiqing of the China Investment Forum, warned
Meles: "Do not necessarily do what we did". Policies of "sheer economic
growth" should be avoided, he said. "We now suffer pollution and an unequal
distribution of wealth and opportunities... You have a clean sheet of paper
here. Try to write something beautiful."
Has any Chinese official ever publically criticised an African leader in
such terms before?
And some foreign investors are not happy either. They have driven Ethiopia's
growth but now the government and Ethiopian firms are desperate for a
greater slice of the profits. Flower and horticultural companies have been
suddenly ordered by the government to only use Ethiopian companies for
packing their produce, transporting it to Addis Ababa airport from where
only the state-owned Ethiopian Airlines must be hired to fly it to Europe.
As the distraught owner of one of the biggest flower farms told me last
week: "Ethiopia does not have such companies yet". But if they refuse, their
licences will be withdrawn. It appears that having lured foreign businesses
into Ethiopia, the government is now tying them down and taking their
Meles is caught in a bind, under pressure on several fronts with problems
that economic growth may not solve. Inflation is coming down but has been
running at almost 50 percent. Everyone I spoke with in Ethiopia said that
the cost of living was the highest they had ever known. There is real
hardship among the poor as the staple grain in Ethiopia, teff, has
quadrupled in price recently. The universities are pouring out graduates but
there are few jobs. One recent graduate I spoke with said she was one of
about 10 out of more than 100 in her class who had a job. The government's
hope is that it can grow the economy even faster. It is promising mining as
the next bonanza and Meles hinted last week that oil has been discovered.
But this is the scenario he may soon be facing: a mass of urban poor hurt by
the price rise of the staple food and large numbers of educated but
unemployed urban youth. Sounds familiar? The Arab Spring was watched closely
by Ethiopians. Watch this space.
Richard Dowden is Director of the Royal African Society and author of
Africa; altered states, ordinary miracles.
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Received on Mon May 21 2012 - 17:30:44 EDT