The two sides of Meles Zenawi – The Economist

August 13th, 2009 Print Print Email Email

A long-lasting leader faces growing problems at home and abroad (more…)

A long-lasting leader faces growing problems at home and abroad

HE HAS run Ethiopia as prime minister since 1991, but Meles Zenawi, still only 54, has two faces. One belongs to a leader battling poverty. In this mode he is praised by Western governments, with Britain to the fore, for improving the miserable conditions in the countryside, where 85% of Ethiopia’s 80m-plus people live. Mr Meles takes credit for building new roads, clinics and primary schools, and for an array of agricultural initiatives. He also wins plaudits for his country’s low crime rate and for keeping its parliamentarians more or less on the straight and narrow, especially in terms of wealth. They get paid only about $3,240 a year compared with the $120,000 earned by Kenya’s fat-cat MPs. Moreover, in the past few years Ethiopia’s economy has grown fast. Mr Meles says it will grow this year by 10%, though the IMF’s figure is about half as big.

His mind is sharp, his memory elephantine, and he bristles with energy and vigour. In a rare interview, he speaks for two hours without notes. With his polished English, full of arcane turns of phrase from his days at a private English school in Addis Ababa, the capital, he captivates foreign donors. Though he avoids mentioning famine because the spectre of it may be looming again, he uses the memory of past debacles to prick Western consciences. Last month he suggested that the famine of 1984, which stirred Band Aid to come to Ethiopia’s help, may have been worsened by the pollution in Europe. He says he fully expects the West to pay $40 billion a year to Africa to compensate it for the damage caused by climate change.

But then there is the harsher side of Mr Meles, the Marxist fighter turned political strongman with a dismal human-rights record who is intolerant of dissent. In 2005, after a disputed general election, his police shot dead some 200 civilians. An independent inquiry ended up with several of its judges fleeing the country. Mr Meles sprinkles spies through the universities to intimidate and control the students; he was once a student agitator himself. He closes down independent newspapers and meddles in aid projects, banning agencies that annoy him. Last month he suspended the activities of about 40 of them from the Somali-populated parts of the country.

Many of Ethiopia’s opposition leaders were imprisoned after the election of 2005 on trumped-up treason charges; after a year or more, they were freed. But several have been rearrested. A new catch-all law that has just been passed could make peaceful opposition liable to the charge of inciting terrorism.

In any case, the economic story is not quite as rosy as Mr Meles suggests. Ethiopia may have only a few weeks of foreign reserves left. On the business front, the country remains very backward. Ethiopians have one of the lowest rates of mobile-phone ownership in Africa. Banking is rudimentary at best. Farming is still mostly for subsistence.

And famine looms once more. At that suggestion, Mr Meles narrows his eyes and growls, “That is a lie, an absolute lie.” There is more than enough food in government warehouses to feed the people, he says. But others say stockpiled grain has already been earmarked for handing out to people in the towns. The UN and foreign charities are predicting a large-scale famine in Tigray, Mr Meles’s home region, by November. At least 6m people may need food handouts unless more supplies can be found locally.

Mr Meles’s officials, most of them still working in gloomy Soviet-built offices, often sound almost paranoid in their sensitivity to criticism. The prime minister is quick to talk up threats to his country, whether from malcontents in the army or disgruntled ethnic groups among Ethiopia’s mosaic of peoples. Radical Oromos, a southern group that makes up about a third of Ethiopia’s people, often fall under suspicion. A bunch arrested earlier this year after an alleged attack on a dam under construction were paraded on state television as members of the secessionist Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). The government also regularly publicises threats by the Ogaden National Liberation Front, a Somali separatist group in the east, which has murdered foreigners and Ethiopians exploring for oil in that area.

Mr Meles is understandably worried by events in the wider region. Ethiopia’s relations with Eritrea, his mother’s birthplace, remain lousy. He accuses it of backing jihadists bent on hurting Ethiopia. He also accuses Eritrea of egging on Oromo rebels in the south and Somali separatists in the Ogaden region. “Eritrea is hellbent on destabilising Ethiopia,” he says. “It does not care who it sleeps with.”

And he remains edgy about the continuing strife in Somalia. In late 2006, with American encouragement, he sent his army there to topple an Islamist government that had declared a holy war on Ethiopia. Earlier this year he withdrew his troops after it became apparent they could not impose peace. But now the jihadists are gaining ground there again, bringing in al-Qaeda types—just what Mr Meles wanted to prevent.

So Mr Meles is up against it, at home and abroad, but apparently relishing the challenges. A general election is due next year. He had previously hinted he might step down after it. More recently, he has sounded less sure, dismissing such speculation as “boring”. Some say he may leave his prime ministerial post but stay on to chair his ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front. He seems likely, in whatever guise, to call the shots—with decreasing dissent.

  1. samuel
  2. sifiya
  3. Guest
    | #3

    The writer give the praise to the wrong person. Every stability being witnessed in Ethiopia is the result of the longstanding tolerance and peacefulness of the Ethiopian people. What the country and Ethiopian lack is a visionary, unifying, and tempered leader. The economic growth is just statistics, it doesn’t have anything to do with the Welfare of the Ethiopian people, the distribution is very skewed and serious ethnic strife is brewing due to this.

  4. zora
    | #4

    He is milking Ethiopia. All the developments at the expense of oromo resourcses and et al are in his ethnic homeland, Tigray. Folks! when are you gonna kick out this apartheid leader? Don’t expect support from Tigray. Just do it!!

  5. JIGSA
    | #5


  6. Wondirad
    | #6

    Despite all these blablablabla….. he seems to be doing very well!

  7. Danu
    | #7

    bravo my hero meles

  8. Nagasso Gidada
    | #8

    An article written by a mercenary journalist – who knows paid by Meles and Tigre thugs by the money they are laundering from Ethiopia into money safe havens in London and others . It is so sad that the once reputed publication for its reliable journalism has fallen so low and by the way side trying to serve tyrants and murderers the likes of Meles Zenawi – attempt to lie and twist the truth in an effort to market Meles and his criminal gang but remains a futile exercise .

    This latest article is attempting to restore or rehabilitate Meles and his Tigre thugs by creating a smoke screen to destruct the world from the unparalleled tyranny and misery caused by this criminals. He was obviously exposed for the criminal he is during the G-8 summit in London.

    The mercenary journalist ignores how Meles and his Tigre thugs are looting the Ethiopian treasury, the extesively recorded human rights violations and to a degree of waging genocide against Oromos, Somalis, Sidamas, Amharas, Agnuaks and others.

    Ethiopians from all walks of life must write to the Chief Editor of the Economist that mercenary journalists like this are feasting at the expense of the misery of 80 million Ethiopians!

  9. mateos
    | #9

    The economist could not be any wrong! I was so optimistic when the derg was eradicated from the face of Ethiopia and Eritrea. As any peace loving human being would pray I felt that god did the rightest thing for the people of Ethiopia and Eritrea; and for the benefit of any doubt I was under the impression TPLFie would lead the whole Ethiopia to the 21st century! BOYYY I WAS DEAD WRONG! who could have thought there was that much hate by the TPLFies elite toward their former teachers and masters who brought them on board of the EPLFies tanks to Addis Ababa, who could have thought Abebe/Legesse/Melese would be the modern and sophisticated slave in Africa, who could have thought Abebe/Legesse/Meles and his boss Bereket would have that much of hate and selfishness toward the people of Ethiopia, Erirea, and later Somalia. In my honest opinion Meles is born to be led but NOT LEAD and god made him the way he is for reasons that are known to god only. Ethiopia is not short of people that can lead it to the 21st century however thanks to western donor countries Ethiopia and Ethiopians have become the recognized as hungry, starved, backward, and above all shame. Meles and his boss Bereket can only be good leaders in the jungle of aiga because their jungle constitution and belief is kill, and kill

  10. fish
    | #10

    መለከ እና ሚግባረ ጥፉ በስም ይደግፉ ነው ነገሩ:: የሄ በጫት የደንዘ አስቀያሚ ፍጡር ደግሞ ስሚር ካምፔይን መሆኑነው when the writer say polished English from the private school in addis ababa many of know about his English which is not better than his “Zibeto Kitelo” language called tigrigna. Meles was in general winget through a scholarship given to poor families just to promote wingete school not because of his achvement or blabla that we are hearing from aiga forum. His father aya zenawi was chronic alcoholic and abounded all of his family. One of his sister Gergis she is in England as refuge was working as a house made in one British Sanford school teacher and some time he enjoyed her when ever he got drunk and loose conscious. Meles didn’t even went to his father funeral. So please forget meles ignorant and midget

  11. abel
    | #11

    The influential magazine The Economist just published an article on Meles as “Ethiopia’s resilient prime minister”. Here is a suggestion to Ginbot 7 or the writer of this article.

    Request ‘equal time’ from the Economist and publish your essay there so you can present a view and also show factual errors it published.

    I see little use in posting your article in Ethiopia-related sites. Who reads them?

  12. Anonymous
    | #12

    Reliable but not to be identified sources from the Kenya foreign ministry has informed us that the Ethiopian ambassador Mr Disasa Dirribsa is going to be fired from his job. Mr Disasa Dirribsa is from the Ethiopian Oromo region. He is one of the very few Oromo-intellectuals working with the Ethiopian regime. It is not clear why the Ethiopian regime is against him. It may be due to the regime expecting that that the new OLF leaders are working with the ambassador in secret. We hope he will run off soon to the USA and save his life and the lives of his families.
    Godana Gelicho from Nairobi

  13. GODANA
    | #13

    Reliable but not to be identified sources from the Kenya foreign ministry has informed us that the Ethiopian ambassador Mr Disasa Dirribsa is going to be fired from his job. Mr Disasa Dirribsa is from the Ethiopian Oromo region. He is one of the very few Oromo-intellectuals working with the Ethiopian regime. It is not clear why the Ethiopian regime is against him. It may be due to the regime expecting that that the new OLF leaders are working with the ambassador in secret. We hope he will run off soon to the USA and save his life and the lives of his families.
    Godana Gelicho from Nairobi

  14. KelaffoTenager
    | #14

    The Economist claim of the good FACE of Melese is got to be for the WEST for his unwavering cooperation and only for the few who benefited from unlimited economic resources of Ethiopia while 95 percent of Ethiopians are excluded. The West is aggressively trying to convince Ethiopian audience that the Melese regime is the only hope Ethiopia can afford in every second they got. However, time will come soon or later when all these lies are tumbling down and the truth will come to light. Then, Ethiopians will respond accordingly not to repeat the same historical mistakes of listening and trusting any, I mean any, Western agents in the business of Ethiopia. In the history of Ethiopia we never seen a leader (I never believed he is Ethiopian anyways, thanks to the magical hands that put this guy on us) that made our Ethiopia and Ethiopians extremely vulnerable and embarrassed.

  15. Atkurot
    | #15

    This is typical of the Economist. Meles may be bad for them natives but he is good for us… argument. Like, yes, he is a son of a @#%ch but he is our SOB.
    I don’t how many of you followed their editorials on Ethiopia, they always condemn Meles and the Tigrraean gang in no uncertain terms, as brutal, savage, vengeful and extremist Marxists. Yet, they always claim they are good for the economy.
    In other words:
    Meles and company may be terrible for the Ethiopian people but they are good for investors(read foreign).

  16. Teklu
    | #16

    “VIVA G-7″ My Choice is in jail

    Bertukan is the only Ethiopian to bring Ethiopians one and United. I know, TPLF/WOYANE/EPRDF will loose any election against Bertukan and her party at any time any place if there is democracy and freedom to vote freely. Her crime is, Being a true and a proud Ethiopian “we Ethiopians love her and trust her” and she is a genuine person. She was a Lawyer and then Judge who can be able to support her Daughter and her Mother better than most Ethiopians support their families.She is in jail because she cares for you and me and for all Ethiopians regardless of our Ethnicity or region. I like to call to all Ethiopians to stand up and be a Man or a Women against Dictator Meles Zenawi now.


  17. JIGSA
    | #17


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