Dr Elliott Green is a lecturer in LSE’s Department of International Development. Dr Green examines the achievements and the failures of Ethiopian leader Meles Zenawi after twenty years in power as well as the way forward for the East African country. This post was originally published in August 2011.
This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the end of the Derg regime in Ethiopia and the beginning of Meles Zenawi’s tenure, first as President and since 1995 as Prime Minister.
At the time Zenawi’s accession was widely welcomed in a country which had seen both famine and civil war in the 1980s under a brutal Marxist dictatorship and similarly violent rule under Emperor Haile Selassie, whom the Derg had deposed in 1973.
There were high expectations for Meles’s new regime, in part because the end of the Cold War meant that Ethiopia would no longer suffer from the geopolitical manipulation that saw the US support Selassie and the USSR support the Derg.
So has the past twenty years been a step forward or a step back for Ethiopia?
On the one hand lies a series of achievements. First, the new regime instituted an unusual form of ethno-federalism, which allowed the country’s ethnically-defined eleven regions wide latitude in their internal politics, a sharp contrast to Selassie’s attempts to impose the Amharic language and the Orthodox religion on the entire country.
Second, it granted the regions the right to secede upon reaching a 2/3 majority vote in the regional council and a majority vote in a regional referendum – an opportunity immediately seized by Eritrea, which had been illegally incorporated into Ethiopia in 1962.
Third, Meles’s government allowed regional elections in 1994, a referendum on a new constitution in 1995 and general elections in 1995 and every five years thereafter. While opposition parties boycotted the 1995 and 2000 elections, they competed in the 2005 elections, making them the first ever multi-party elections in Ethiopian history.
Finally, Ethiopia has recorded an average economic growth rate of 11% over the past seven years, making it one of the fastest growing non-oil economies in Africa.
On the other hand, Ethiopia’s democracy is highly problematic and in many ways is one in name only. The government locked up several opposition leaders after the 2005 elections and clamped down on freedom of the press, while in the 2010 elections the opposition was harassed to the point where they only won two seats in the national parliament.
The government has largely failed to stem growing inequality and high unemployment and Ethiopia, while growing economically, still remains one of the poorest countries in the world.
Finally, Meles’ international relations have been marked by a war with Eritrea and a military intervention into Somalia which did not receive universal internal support and which failed to stabilise Somali politics. As such it was no surprise that the 20th anniversary of Meles’s accession on 27 May was marked, not by celebrations, but by protests.
This is undoubtedly a mixed record. But perhaps it is only natural that it should be so: compare, for instance, Meles to other members of the so-called ‘new generation of African leaders’ who came to power as rebel leaders in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
These new leaders included Yoweri Museveni in Uganda (1986), Isaias Afewerki in Eritrea (1991) and Paul Kagame in Rwanda (1994), none of whom can be said to have fulfilled the high hopes that greeted them when they initially took power.
Museveni remains in power despite his earlier claims that he would not turn into a president for life, and his regime has largely focussed its recent attentions on maintaining itself in power rather than poverty reduction or other worthy goals.
Kagame has been seen as perhaps more successful economically than Museveni, but the Rwandan economy has problems of its own and press freedom remains among the lowest in the world.
Finally, Afewerki, whose rebel forces joined Meles’s force to jointly fight the Derg, has become one of the world’s most authoritarian rulers, with no scheduled elections and no independent media.
In this light Meles’ twenty years in power appear par for the course. Does this mean Ethiopia is headed the right way or the wrong way?
The real test will come when and if Meles relinquishes power. It is notable in this regard that, despite claims beforehand that he was planning to retire after the 2010 elections, he remains in power today.