The burial of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia on September 2 will bring to a close a chapter of a visionary leader who assumed the reins of power at the young age of 37 in 1991, after a brutal war of liberation from the dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam. His death at a comparatively young age of 57 is mired in mystery as was his ability to manage a complex political machine he developed when he assumed power.
Meles Zenawi belonged to a crop of progressive leaders who emerged in the 80s and 90s and took centre stage in what appeared to be a phase out of tired leadership on the continent. Together with Kaguta Museveni of Uganda, Paul Kagame of Rwanda, Jerry Rawlings of Ghana, Nelson Mandela of South Africa, although not young, among others, the new crop of leaders seemed to inject a breath of fresh air and hope into a continent that was fast fading from positive international attention.
Throughout the 21 years of his rule in Ethiopia, Meles built a reputation of a strong and decisive leader who brooked no nonsense with those opposed to him both internally and externally. He also came across as a visionary leader with an obsession for perfection, order and great determination. His steadfastness and zeal for hard work made him stand out as an imaginative and self conscious leader in economics, diplomacy and as a political operative.
History will judge him for being heavy handed with a singular mind for military adventure into foreign territory to prove his point. He will be remembered most for the war with Eritrea between 1998 and 2000. Dubbed to be a conflict between feuding relatives, Ethiopia-Eritrea war has characterised the fallout between Meles Zenawi and Isaias Afewerki of Eritrea with whom, it is claimed, he has a blood relationship. Personal egos of the two men almost guaranteed failure of any attempt to negotiate a solution. Meles' death could open a small window of hope for a resolution of the conflict.
Ethiopia's engagement in Somalia may be understood from three perspectives. First, Meles argued that Ethiopia was, for strategic reasons, acting in her national interest instability in Somalia had a direct bearing on Ethiopia's security and economic interests. Meles could not contemplate a hostile government in Mogadishu. Meles was right to act to safeguard his country's interests like any other country would have done.
Second, the territorial integrity of Ethiopia was threatened through secessionist tendencies by regions such as Ogaden, Oromo which threatened to secede from Ethiopia describing them as irredentist movements. Third, having let Eritrea go after Mengistu's fall, Meles did not want to be seen to be presiding over the disintegration of Ethiopia. He became obsessed with self preservation of himself, his legacy and of Ethiopia, in fear of being seen as a weak leader.
Ethiopia prides herself as the only country in Africa never to have been colonised, except for a five-year stint under Italian rule during World War II. This is a country of diverse nationalities but which was kept together under a heavily centralised system of government, first under imperial rule, then a Marxist dictatorship and under Meles, a centralised federal system. The federal system in principle provides for federated regions, but is practically impossible to exercise. It is this principle which will test the tenacity Meles' political and administrative acumen.
In Africa, and indeed, internationally, Meles will be remembered as a visionary; a make believe politician who sought solutions to Africa's political and economic problems. His legacy as a founding member of New Partnerships for Africa's Development will be exemplified in the efforts Ethiopia made under his leadership to transform a battered economy into a competitive one with an annual GDP growth of more than seven per cent. This aspect of his contribution will continue to attract admiration.
Much as there is anxiety in the region about his demise, there are mixed reactions to his death in Ethiopia. His democratic credentials were suspect. There are those who hail him for maintaining the unity of Ethiopia in spite of deep rooted nationalistic groups which form its various components. Although there was significant internal opposition to him, it was not allowed to flourish due to draconian laws designed to contain dissent.
His brutal response to the opposition in 2005 must have informed the voting pattern in the elections of 2010 in which only one opposition Member of Parliament was elected. This is a luxury which even the most liberal democracies do not enjoy. Despite these misgivings, Meles continued to attract accolades from western governments.
His intervention in Somalia in 2005 received tacit approval from the United States of America despite lack of United Nation's Security Council authorisation thanks to the al Shaabab menace. As the world mourns Meles, his imposing presence of mind will be greatly missed in the corridors of international diplomacy. Kenya has lost a friend in the war against international terrorism.
Ambassador Boaz K. Mbaya Executive Director, Centre for Policy Analysis