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Reflections on Ethiopia’s Former Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi

By J. Stephen Morrison
Senior Vice President and Director, Global Health Policy Center at CSIS
Sept 07, 2012

Prime Minister Meles - Tigrai Online
Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is one of our martyrs, we did not get here with nothing, we paid dearly, we paid in blood and we are ready to do it all over again if we have to!

Former Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's sad, premature death at 57 on August 20 marks the end of a striking era in Ethiopia's history. How are we to understand his legacy and what his passing may portend for Ethiopia's future?

I approach these questions from a personal bent. I first met Meles Zenawi on Easter Sunday in 1989 in a dingy Columbia Heights row house; he was visiting Washington, D.C. to open a dialogue with the Bush administration and Congress (where I worked at the time) over the ever more likely victory by the insurgent movement he led, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). That initial long conversation, two years before the EPRDF’s decisive defeat of the Mengistu regime, was followed by several others: as he ascended to power in the transition years of the early 1990s, when I resided in Addis; and later in the following years. My final exchange with Zenawi occurred during an extended March 2011 discussion of Ethiopian development strategy, U.S.-Ethiopian bilateral relations, and Horn regional security.

At the time of his death, Zenawi was the only remaining credible former insurgent leader/intellectual to effectively transition from a combatant past to become a self-avowed state-builder in conflict-riven East Africa. Other heads of state who aspired to fit within that bracket – Eritrea's Afewerki, Uganda's Museveni, Rwanda's Kagame – have variously squandered their luster and reputations. In Zenawi's case, his credibility stubbornly and curiously lived on to the end. That is in spite of the heavy reputational damage incurred during the violent confrontations surrounding the 2005 Ethiopian elections – when the Ethiopian government’s panicked and repressive actions left hundreds of opposition dead; thousands imprisoned; and draconian legislation that curbed opposition parties, unions, the media, human rights groups and other non-governmental bodies.

For two decades, Zenawi navigated – confidently at most times, unsteadily at others – Ethiopia's considerable promise and turbulence. During that period, Ethiopians benefited from relative stability, accelerated economic growth, renewed hope, and heightened international prestige. Simultaneously, Ethiopians lived through periodic darkness – a hardened autocracy, a vicious war with Eritrea that has yet to be definitely resolved, high inflation, ruling party corruption, and excessive state power.

Source: CSIS http://www.smartglobalhealth.org/blog/entry/reflections-on-ethiopias-former-prime-minister-meles-zenawi/

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