Zenawi will be remembered for holding Ethiopia together as one country

Officials move a portrait of Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi shortly after an announcement of his death was made in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa August 21, 2012. Zenawi, regarded by the West as a bulwark against Islamic militancy, died while being treated abroad for an undisclosed illness, the government said on Tuesday. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

Any recent visitor to Ethiopia would be struck by the ubiquitous billboards commemorating the late Prime Minister’s life, two months after his demise. Meles Zenawi’s photo form the backdrop to the TV screens and adorns the streets of all the major towns and villages.

These sights were supplemented by the chorus of Africa leaders that attended the PM’s funeral and who lavished praise on this “dedicated son of African soil”. He was depicted as the untiring leader who toiled for the upliftment of the indigent peoples of Ethiopia and Africa.

Among this choir were African presidents and prime ministers whose own policies have degraded the lives of their people. The least distinguished of these visitors were the former President and Prime Minister of Somalia whose tenure in power was marred by their total subservience to the Ethiopia regime.

One wonders if this orchestrated and well managed public love of the late Zenawi reflects the thoughts and feeling of the peoples of Ethiopia and the neighbouring states where the PM’s policies had the greatest footprint.

Putting aside the propaganda of the Ethiopian governing party, the admiration of his cohort of political friends and partisan Ethiopian critics, most objective analysts would agree that, unlike the visiting African leaders, Zenawi left behind a record that deserves critical scrutiny.

Zenawi’s legacy

Zenawi’s legacy can be viewed through two analytical lenses: a) his domestic footprint; (b) and his regional impact.

To assess the PM’s legacy, we need to understand the political and economic context of Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa when Zenawi and his party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), came to power in 1991.

First, Ethiopia was devastated by a brutal military dictatorship that massacred hundreds of thousands of people, while it also presided over the catastrophic famine of 1984 that devastated several regions of the country.

Additionally, the military regime wasted Ethiopia’s meagre and precious resources to oppress the legitimate struggle of the Eritrean people, as well as others inside Ethiopia, such as Tigray, Somali and the Oromos, to mention a few. War, famine and oppression were the hallmark of Ethiopia in 1990, and the regime was exhausted and had run out of ideas and energy to move the country beyond multiple calamities.

Then came the last drive of the Eritrean resistance against the regime since they already controlled the entire countryside and surrounded the capital Asmara. Their ally in Ethiopia (TPLF) then pushed towards Addis Ababa and within a couple of months, it became clear that the regime’s days were numbered.

Given the ethnic character of the TPLF, it was not clear whether its takeover of the capital will induce a new civil war with the Oromo liberation Front and other communities. Concerned about the possibility of having another failed state in the region, with all the attendant problems such as a tidal wave of refugees, the United States brokered an agreement between the regime and the TPLF. This pact allowed for a “peaceful” takeover of the capital and Mengistu’s departure for exile.

The TPLF brought with it a client group of ethnic political parties, the so-called PDOs (People’s Democratic Organisations), who jointly formed what became known as EPRDF. But there has never been any doubt that TPLF controlled the levers of power in the country.

The junior partners of the “coalition” were supposed to provide national legitimacy for the new ethnic authority, however, the Ethiopian public largely considered the PDOs as lackeys. The independent Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), which initially joined the ruling coalition, failed to understand TPLF’s militarist agenda and paid the ultimate price as the latter swiftly destroyed its military base.

After this defeat, OLF went underground where it has virtually become inconsequential. Establishing the new order and consolidating TPLF’s power took nearly a decade after which the regime turned more of its attention to other matters.

After 21 years in power, we can emphatically state that Zenawi’s regime has been a Janus-faced order. Its political rhetoric exuded democracy, peace, national harmony and development, but behind that façade was a determined security apparatus that crushed even the most democratic attempts to challenge its authority.

This rhetoric proved seductive enough for outsiders, but all indications are that it has failed to sway a majority of the population. It is these two faces of the regime that the remaining section of this brief will focus on.

But I must first provide an explanatory note about the nationalist character of the regime. I can categorically state that the late Premier Zenawi was an Ethiopian nationalist, despite the claims of some of the opponents that he was building Tigray for an eventual secession, if needs be.

Many critics of the TPLF regime claim that it exploited the resources of most regions in Ethiopia to develop its home province. There is a grain of truth to this assertion, but I would suggest that to be a nationalist does not exclude a regime from internally differentiating regions by privileging some over others.

Most critics do not understand that there are two kinds of nationalists: civic and sectarian nationalists. Civic nationalists genuinely try to treat all regions and citizens alike and fairly. In contrast, sectarian nationalists protect the territorial integrity of the country but also establish a hierarchy of power which privileges certain groups and political factions.

Zenawi and his regime represented the latter version of nationalism and are not alone in this regard in the developing world. Read More

Abdi Ismail Samatar
Abdi Ismail Samatar is professor of geography at the University of Minnesota and a fellow at the University of Pretoria.

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