The Meles Zenawi Mystery: Has anyone seen Ethiopia’s Prime Minister?By Graham Peebles

August 15th, 2012 Print Print Email Email

To many Ethiopians the sudden disappearance of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is a source of joy and excited expectation. For his die-hard supporters apprehension no doubt and concern for their leader. Is he dead? they ask, or perhaps critically ill, has he run away, finally overwhelmed by guilt and shame at the way he and his ministerial cronies have treated the people of Ethiopia, since they took power from the communist Derg twenty one years ago? Or is he recovering from illness peacefully on some isolated retreat?

The Prime Minister has not been seen since his last outing at the G20 summit, in Mexico on 19th June, where he looked a wee shadow of his usual Italian-suited self. Such prolonged absence is unusual for a man who revels in performing his supporting part upon the international stage of political propaganda. He has failed to appear at a series of high-profile events since June, including the opening of the African Union summit in Addis Ababa in July.

So where is the revolutionary democrat? It has been repeatedly reported that Meles has received treatment in the Saint-Luc hospital in Brussels for a stomach complaint, a suitably vague description as to mean nothing. The Washington Post (8/8/2012) affirms “Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, the rebel-turned-technocrat who has led Ethiopia since 1991, is sick.” The Guardian (8/8/2012) relays “the Egyptian state information service reporting that Meles underwent surgery in Germany.”

They continue “It is a mystery what has happened to Meles and not even his own ministers know his fate,” an exiled Ethiopian source said.” According to a ‘government source’, (no name or status is given) speaking to the Guardian, Meles is on holiday, well, it is the summer after all, and is recovering from an illness. There is no mention of where he is holidaying or why he has not personally issued a statement, reassured his followers who are no doubt worried, and silenced the internal tussling within the EPRDF that is undoubtedly taking place.

Secrecy, smoke and mirrors

Ethiopian leaders are notoriously secretive and distrustful, the great Polish journalist Rysard Kapuscinski in his classic work ‘The Emperor’, regarding the reign of the last Ethiopian Emperor, Haile Selasie and his inner circle, states “the Ethiopians are deeply distrustful and found it hard to believe in the sincerity of my intentions,” elsewhere he goes further claiming that Ethiopians are the most “secretive people on Earth.” Having lived in Addis Ababa and worked with Ethiopians for a number of years, my experience certainly bears out Kapuscinski’s comments reinforced by René Lefort, author of ‘Ethiopia. An heretical revolution?’ when he states “given the history of Ethiopia [...] secrecy is a cardinal virtue”

The Sellasie years were ones shrouded in deceit and extreme secrecy, all discussions and decisions among the Emperor and his ministers took place verbally. There are no documents bearing Sellasie’s signature, making it possible for him to deny involvement in any policy, to adopt a number of positions on any issue and to change his mind based on political expediency at any point in time. Kapuscinski relates “Though he ruled for half a century, not even those closest to him knew what his signature looked like.” At meetings the Monty Python sounding ‘Minister of The Pen’, recorded the Emperors orders and instructions, whose words were often muffled and ambiguous, allowing for non-commitment on issues and the creation of fear amongst his ‘court’.

Image and social status is of great importance within Ethiopian society. In 1973, whilst hundreds of thousands starved, Halie Selasie and his government denied that a famine was taking place in the northeast of Ethiopia, known as the ‘Unknown Famine’ and lied to ITV journalist David Dimbleby, who reported the situation in Wollo that Sellasie and his cronies had attempted to cover up.

Food was in fact available in the Wollo region, but was transported to the capital Addis Ababa, where it could command higher prices at market, all under the direction of the Sellasie regime. The revelation to the World of the famine hastened his downfall and he was deposed in 1974 by a military junta, led by Mengistu Haile Mariam, who had him suffocated to death a year later.

Another example of the secretive tendency of Ethiopian leaders, creating a false or misleading image was the way Emperor Menelik II death in December 1913 was kept quiet. He died and was buried without any public announcements after suffering a stroke and being unable to govern for several years. And this for and of a man regarded by many as the last true Emperor.

The Meles way

There is no freedom of the press in Ethiopia; in fact there is little or no freedom in any area of social or political life. Express dissent against governments policies and face certain imprisonment, write articles critical of Zenawi and his regime and expect to be charged with treason or some such fictitious crime and sentenced as many have been, often in absentia, to life imprisonment. The Economist (7/8/2012) reports “Dissident or investigative journalists have been jailed or driven into exile. In July a prominent online journalist, Eskinder Nega, was sentenced to 18 years in prison.” Political opposition is all but banned under the Zenawi administration. All media is state owned, so too is the sole telecommunication company as well as the major printing press, Barhanena Selam.

Barhanena Selam recently told the weekly newspaper Feteh, which planned to publish a story quoting the BBC and others discussing the whereabouts and health of Meles, that the government had ordered that week’s edition (22/7/2012) of the paper, about 30,000 copies, to be blocked on grounds of inciting national insecurity and endangering the government and the public. Such is the degree of media control.

Accurate, uncensored information about anything is therefore impossible to find within the Ethiopian news sources, who are to nobody’s surprise towing the EPRDF party line on the missing premier – ‘Meles is on holiday, recovering from illness.’ ESAT the independent satellite television station based in Holland, have reported various accounts of Meles death (30/7/2012), misquoting, it appears, the Belgium-based International Crisis Group, who denied giving any such information. It is, it seems, a maze of invisibility cloaks, secrets and deceit, a drama that would one feels not surprise Kapuscinski in the least.

The EPRDF under Meles Zenawi has been in power since 1991, he has been Prime Minister since 1995, after taking the mantle of President the previous four years. Two stolen corrupt elections followed in 2005 and 2010, in which European observers declared the election unfair. The regime is a dictatorship, trampling on human rights and restricting all freedoms, selling off vast tracks of prime Ethiopian farmland to international corporations for a few dollars, displacing hundreds of thousands of indigenous people in the process, who are corralled into villagization developments. Land sold is cultivated to grow staples not for the needy people of Ethiopia where some 13 million are food insecure, but for the industrial farmers’ home ‘market’.

Western complacency

The west believes, as it did with Egypt’s President Mubarak, that it has an ally in Prime Minister Zenawi. He allows American drones to be stationed on Ethiopian soil, and acts when ordered to by the imperial master. In 2006 Ethiopian troops invaded Somalia, at the behest of George W. Bush, who sought to subdue the activities of the Al Shabab militia (Islamist group). The deal is clear and predictable: Meles allows Ethiopia to be an outpost of the American military, in exchange for the west turning a blind eye to extensive human rights abuses in the country. As the Financial Times states “western donors and allies have been willing to overlook human rights abuses and a lack of political freedom at home.” Human rights abuses that destroy lives too many to count, but trouble not ‘western donors’, concerned only to extend their reach into all corners of the world

Around $3 billion a year is given to Ethiopia in development aid by the US, Europe, Britain and The World bank, all of which incidentally is paid to or through government agencies. The EPRDF misuse and politicize the funds, allocating donations based on political affiliation and not need, including emergency humanitarian aid.

For western donor countries the heavy hand of a tyrant, that inhibits and controls, offers stability, or so those fearful of freedom will say, as the Financial Times (9/08/2012) comments, “Strongmen in power can be useful allies. They make decisions fast and can impose their wills.” Not withstanding the impact on the people of their hasty ideologically driven decisions and shortsighted actions.

Time for change

If Zenawi is unable to continue in office, and according to Rene Lefort in Open Democracy (8/8/2012) “the widespread conviction shared by most diplomats and experts is that, whether Meles is dead or alive, he is no longer in charge and never will be again, so the candidacy for his succession is open.” Should the constitution be respected, parliament would pick a successor.

Would his passing make any difference, ushering in change in the way the EPRDF rules Ethiopia (in the absence of any credible, well-organized, coherent opposition they are sure to continue in power)? Will freedom, social justice and democracy flow into the country unrestricted, gently healing the deep wounds of the past 20 years? Or will another in the mould of the repressive, brutal Zenawi step forward to continue his legacy of suppression and human rights abuse. One suspects the latter would take place, sadly Ethiopia has lacked good governance for generations.

The ERDF and its leader Meles Zenawi, whilst publicly espousing democratic values and signing all manner of human rights laws into their constitution and federal code – to be summarily ignored, are idealists, adhering firmly to a version of ‘Revolutionary Democracy’ at the core of which is a centralized controlling dogma that believes in social uniformity and the abolition of independent thought.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) in their report on Ethiopia, ‘Development without Freedom,’ quote Meles describing his version of the ideology, “individuals will start to think alike and all persons will cease having their own independent outlook. In this order, individual thinking becomes simply part of collective thinking because the individual will not be in a position to reflect on concepts that have not been prescribed by Revolutionary Democracy.”

Time for freedom and justice

Perhaps Meles Zenawi is dead or, perhaps more likely, recuperating on holiday. Alive or not, his passing is long overdue, should a man who holds such divisive inhibiting ideals, disregards human rights laws and indeed Ethiopian domestic laws, and seems to care little for the people of Ethiopia hold political office at all? It is time for change within Ethiopia. The current regime, locked as they are into a repressive narrow ideology show no signs of relaxing the controls exerted upon the people, in fact since 2009 State repression has intensified.

It is Prime Minister Meles Zenawi that leads the EPRDF government and dictates policy. Governance is highly centralized, The Economist (7/7/2012) states “power has still rested with a clutch of Mr. Meles’s comrades from his home area of Tigray in northern Ethiopia,” and according to a former American ambassador to Ethiopia, David Shinn, cited in The Economist, “this hard core, including the army’s chief of staff, General Samora Younis, retains a “paranoid and secretive leadership style.” Echoes of Sellasie perhaps and further support for Kapuscinski’s view.

The people’s time

One doubts a man like Meles Zenawi would be a great loss, either to the African continent or to the people of Ethiopia. On the contrary, the majority of Ethiopians would rejoice, for under his leadership they are controlled and suffer, have no voice and cry out to be heard, are entrapped and yearn to be free: free to express themselves, to gather and speak openly, free to build a just and open society. Free to be.

  1. Abebe Mengistu
    | #1

    With all due respect, Mr Graham Peebles, I don’t think you know the history of Ethiopia & its people in depth. It seems that you have been filled with propoganda or read articles with no foundation from so called intellectuals &/or parties claiming need new government or leader for the sake of the people’s freedom when infact most of these people living abroad in luxery but stirring the people back home to demonestrate or riots. These group of people actually are looking after thier own self interest but not for the people of Ethiopia or for the country, in general.
    Look, knowing and experiencing myself, how Ethiopia & its people were during Haile Sellassie and Mengistu’s derg, I would say Ethiopia is & was in better hand. Ethiopia under Melese is in much better position politically, Economically …..etc. Those people who are feeding you wrong info are actually the people’s enemy who are greedy & dreem to hold position(s).
    We think of our county & the people first before our own.

  2. ananymous
    | #2

    Meles is done and we hop the good weyanes, if there are any, will come clean and ask for forgiveness from the Ethiopian people.

  3. Abadi
    | #3

    May God bless Ethiopia, we pray for his recovery from his serious illness

  4. well done
    | #4

    your analysis is pure and right

  5. ዮሃንነስ
    | #5

    እነ ማማንያት መለስ መልከም

  6. ዮሃንነስ
    | #6

    እስሂ ጭሀገር የልለም

  7. ፍሬኤ
    | #7

    Where is meles ? Is he alive

  8. bilali
    | #8

    Let Almighty God deal with him.

  9. Anonymous
    | #9

    i live ethiopia and no dimcracy you can”t say any thing about government …i hate the country by my leader.

  10. dalite
    | #10

    Dead or alive,zinawi is still a fugitive!!!!!

  11. Dawi
    | #11

    “Development without Freedom”

    Is an extreme way of looking at choices but, discipline is needed for rapid development. As Prof. Tecola mentioned Meles is the epiphany of decipline and hard work that Ethiopian can’t egnore.

    Today is the 65th anniversary of India. The Indian state despite rapid economic growth has deteriorated over time. Basic law and order or delivering public services is low.

    The Dictatorship of China, under the command of a strict political regime has implemented & sustained institutional reforms towards promoting Foreign Direct Investments and infrastructure building of the highest kind. This produced the improvement of hundreds of millions Chinese citizens who moved from poverty to the middle class within a decade.

    Having said that, Which model should we choose?

    Meles’s has answered it already. The Chinese model with a Democratic twist.

  12. anonymous
    | #12

    please don’t worry about an individual. what matters is wheather the system estabilished by the eprdf is good or bad for ethiopans and the country. Hopefully the regime had effortfully done for the development of the country for the last two decades, Alas…

  13. Abel
    | #13

    Meles is long gone unless someone has cloned him.

  14. Chala Hiruy
    | #14

    It is shame on you ,you are broadcasting an idea of a murderers , actually you are biased of a dry wind with dust, & you do not know truth in your life & we expect nothing from you because you are not an African , Mr Grahm there would be no more Joy of our Icon Meles , if you want writing the truth come & Visit the progress going on so we want to harvest more & this is our Joy.

  15. Anonymous
    | #15

    It appears that God has turned his face to Ethiopia. Meles is dead, one down. The politician Pope is on his way two down. We are waiting for the next guy.

  16. Elias
    | #16

    He will go to hell!

  17. Deriba Guru
    | #17

    Hypocritical! No surprise there. Awful and a self serving rubbish- It was obvious the polish clown was frustrated because our people refused to lay bare for his insincere unbalanced rubbish of a book he was planning to write about our Emperor. Going beyond the eye-catching image and Title on the cover, in the end it was filth filled with gossip, innuendo and conjecture. It is not as a great book as you portray it to be. So much for your beloved source and you also follow in his footsteps. You began by condemning the present leaders as secretive you ended up lumping the entire population. Awful! Who gave you that right to reach this kind of conclusion on an entire population? Much like other nations we have our things. We are generally reserved, may be introvert. I bet you wouldn’t label your stalk with that kind of name calling. Because you are well aware if you do so there will be consequences which you have to face.
    Stop being an all knowing fellow and feeling you have the right to say anything. In the end we know you are just fanning the fire. May be the outcome won’t be to your liking but we know eventually we will work out our problems. You won’t be helping the cause. Simply you are fanning the fire with your insincere thoughts perhaps to help your hidden objective. I believe you should back off.

  18. Anonymous
    | #18

    Dawi, know your limits and give up!
    Sitting in the palace and acting like a super being and giving orders to have law abiding citizens to be incarcerated, tortured, killed, evicting Ethiopians from their property and selling their land to foreigners, leaving the country landlocked and at the same time looting the country, etc. are all the qualities only TPLF acknowledge as great leadership and hard work, it is being a coward, insanity, lack of vision, discipline and extreme cruelty and racism. It is about time that, you and the rest of TPLF should know that dictator Meles was a heartless criminal that has the blood of hundreds of thousands Ethiopians and Somalians on his hands and an evil man that thought he could live forever in the palace not 6′ under.

  19. ኢሳት ይለምልም
    | #19

    የዕሳት ጋዜጠኛ ባደረገው ቃለ መጠይቅ ፕሮግራም ላይ “…. አቶ መለስ ህክምናቸውን ሲጨርሱ ይመለሳሉ ባላችሁት መሰረት አልተመለሱም … በርግጥ ተመልሰዋል? አቶ ስብሃት ነጋ ሲመልሱ..”አይመስለኝም”። በማለት ነው… ይህ ትርጉም በሚስጥር ሞቶ በሚስጥር የተቀበረን እንዴት አድርገን በህይወት እናመጣለን ነው፡፡
    በኮሎኔል መለስ ዜናዊ አሟሟት ሃገራችን ኢትዮጵያ ሰሞኑን ተንፈስ ብላለች ።ነፃነት ወዳዶች ፤ህግ አክባሪዎች፤ሃገር ወዳድ ነጋዴዎችና አትራፊ ዜጎች እንዲሁም ተማሪና ምሁራን የዕፎይታን ሻማን አብርተው በማክበር እያሉ…ዝነኛው የወያኔ ሹምና ባለውለታ ነጭ ለባሽ፤በራዥ፤ከላሽ፤ የጳጳስ ወያኔ ጳውሎስ ዘሃውልት ይሁዳን ሞት በጠዋት እንደ ምሥራች አብሳሪ ዜና ፤ ከተፍ ማለቱ ምን ይሆን?
    እውነት ነው ግፈኛም ተመልካች አለው ፡ጊዜውን ብቻ ነው የሚጠብቀው።
    እኝህ ሁለት ወፍራም የታሪክ አተላዎች ኽሎኔል መለስ ዜናዊና ቄስ ገበዝ ጳውሎስ ይህ ነው የማይባል ግፍና ለግፋቸው ሽፋን በመስጠት ፤ ዜጎችን ደም ዕንባ በማስለቀስና ከሃገር ውጭ እንዲሰደዱ በማድረግ፣ ይኽው በመጨረሻም ሰይጣንም ማረፊያውን አዘጋጀላቸው።

  20. love
    | #20

    Deriba,

    I agree. As if other nation are not secretive when it comes to their own policies especially as crucial as what is going on in Ethiopia probably needs careful thought unfortunately, TPLF is not that good leader for such far sighted policies. That being said, by condemning past emperors always legitimizes the current leadership as if every foreign journalist first have to prove how bad past Ethiopian leaders were and continue to carefully criticze today’s leaders. What this tells us is that the insecurity arising from those who criticize our past great leaders to prove that today such as TPLF are better than past. How small you have to be to have such small mind?

  21. ኢሳት ይለምልም
    | #21

    Deriba guru and Abebe mengistu!!!
    your interpretation of the article writtetn by Mr. Pebbles shows, how you are badly educated and in-self denial and simply choose to grovel about the unbiased indipendent article of the ill-fated and, their cronies of ethiopian leaders.
    It is our collective shame and fate that foreign scholars obliged to implicate our ominous problem and global incompetency.

  22. Kume
    | #22

    I am sad if he dies with out facing Justice for the people he killed and the country he dismantle Other than that God send him to Hell for what he did and he is Cold blood Murderer!!
    Kume

  23. Yared
    | #23

    Abebe Mengistu AKA Meles/TPLF paid cyber disguised agent I know you don’t want to read the truth about today’s Ethiopia under MELES/TPLF minority ethnic aparthied system. You know you cann’t comppare todays ethiopian low living standard & human right abuse with any government in the world because you don’t want to accept the the truth and the facts because you’re benefiting from this facicist ethnic aparthied system. By the way Mr. Peebles a good Article specially “The Meles Way” you put the facts as it is in todays ethiopia!

  24. Sibehat
    | #24

    Meles Zenawi might still be in Belgium!!!!!!!!
    Who knows………

  25. Sibehat
    | #25

    Every one knows that there are so money citizens who want to grab power from the dead but not to avoid poorness,the big scar of the country,in the 21st century!!!!!!! So, just shut up!!!!!!!

  26. Anonymous
    | #26

    No anyone cannot imagine how it is change Ethiopia right now wreathen the last 21 years especially on the last 10 years EPRDF AND meles is doing unbelievable job but easatoch they cannot excepted because they just don’t have no vision to Ethiopia and Ethiopian people’s except eating red meet

  27. fitsum
    | #27

    is the country pland to disintigrad meles gone, general yunse gone,no one controling this shabia weyane leaders preparing the nation to the worest do we have any read army now to fill any gap, are we ready ,as a media leaders you should signaled,red alert to the nation asoon as posible things going to the worest.oh god am worry!!!!

  28. Abeshawe
    | #28

    YOU guys are stop talking , if you really love your country and believe what is going on in Ethiopia is wrong, you should go back your country and fight the way WEYANE DID, simply you seat on comfortable chair using your laptop and do not scurfy the innocent people. Open your sausage head and think.

  29. Abeshawe
    | #29

    you see you are not free media then if you are not accept the public comment, when you became empower you will be like them, trust me

  30. tinziqi
    | #30

    Yes;Zinawi has been a fugitive for decades.Dead or Alive,Zinawi will definitely face the justice.

    Zinawi has gone a terrible agoney through sequences of phases;from a living dead to eternal dead.In whatever shape or form zinawi is captured,he will face the justice and will receive appropriate punishment tantamount to the crimes that he has been committed since he has become a career criminal.Of course jail will be his eternal home either dead or alive.

  31. ፋልማታ ኡማታ
    | #31

    ሰላም ወገግ አለ

    ሰላም ወገግ አለ ጨለማን ገርስሶ
    ያዘን መጋረጃን በጥሶ በጣጥሶ
    ሰላም ሊወርድ ነው እንባችን ታብሶ::

    ልጆችህ ባንድነት ወዳንተ ሲያለቅሱ
    መሪ ነን ባዮቹ ሁሉን ሲያስለቅሱ
    ክርስቲያን ሙስሊሙ ዋቄፋታው ሁሉ
    ሐይልህንም አሳይ ለግብዞች ሁሉ
    ምህረት አውርድልን ተማጸነን አሉ::

    ሕዝብን የረገጡ አሁን ምን ይበሉ?
    መሳርያ የማይደፍረው ጉልበተኛ ሲያዩ?
    የጥፋቱ አውራ ቅንጥስ ብሎ ሲሄድ
    እሳት ሆነባቸ እጅግ ከባድ ሰደድ::

    መታረም ሲችሉ በድለናል ብለው
    ውሸትን እውነት ነው ብሎ ከማምታት እራስን ቆጥበው
    የሞተ ሳይቀብሩ ዳንኪራ ደልቀው
    ሀያኛውን አመት ለጳጳሱ ብለው ወዲያው ተሸላልመው
    ቅዱስ ሠይጣን ደግሞ ተደገመላቸው
    በተስኪያን የሚንድ ማን ቅዱስ አረገው?
    የሳሞራም ጤና በፈተና ላይ ነው
    ገንዘብን ማሸሺያ ባይሆን እመኛለሁ::

    አሁን ነው ሰአቱ ሱባኤ መግባቱ
    ሕዝቡ ይቅር እንዲል ብለውህ አቤቱ
    ምድር ከግራቸው ስር ተደርምሶ ቤቱ
    አንድ ባንድ ይታያል ሲፈርስ መሰረቱ
    ሕዝብ ያሳለፈውም ይቆጠር በቤቱ::

    አንቀበለውም አንሰማም ካላችሁ
    በዲያቢሎስ ጸባይ አምላክ ፈጠራችሁ
    እናንተም አትቀሩም ትቃጠላላችሁ
    መሳርያና ገንዘብ ጤናና ህይወትን ፍጹም አይሰጣችሁ
    አንድ ባንድ ከመሃል ትለቀማላችሁ
    በናቃችሁት ህዝብ ትፈረዳላችሁ
    የኛ አምላክ ብርቱ ነው ጊዜም አይሰጣችሁ::

  32. mamo
    | #32

    Requiem for a Reprobate: Ethiopian Tyrant Should Not Be Lionized

    + Comment now

    By Thor Halvorssen and Alex Gladstein

    With the dust beginning to settle on yesterday’s death of Meles Zenawi—ruler of Ethiopia since 1991—Western leaders have been quick to lavish praise on his legacy. A darling of the national security and international development industries, Zenawi was applauded for cooperating with the U.S. government on counter-terrorism and for spurring economic growth in Ethiopia—an impoverished, land-locked African nation of 85 million people. In truth, democratic leaders who praise Zenawi do a huge injustice to the struggle for human rights and individual dignity in Ethiopia.

    Meles Zenawi at the World Economic Forum summit in Addis Ababa in May 2012 (Photo: WEF)

    U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said Zenawi “leaves behind an indelible legacy of major contributions to Ethiopia, Africa, and the world.” Gordon Brown called Zenawi’s demise “a tragedy for the Ethiopian people,” while David Cameron remembered him as an “inspirational spokesman for Africa.” Bill Gates tweeted that he “was a visionary leader who brought real benefits to Ethiopia’s poor.” Abdul Mohammed and Alex de Waal took to the New York Times op-ed pages today in perhaps the most unspeakably sycophantic eulogy of Zenawi, declaring that the dictator’s death “deprives Ethiopia — and Africa as a whole — of an exceptional leader.”

    For years, the diminutive Zenawi had been a fixture on the Davos circuit, charming Western leaders with statistics of human development and business expansion. Under his control, Ethiopia’s average annual GDP growth rate more than doubled to a gaudy 8.8 percent over the past decade, and trade and investment with the West boomed. He worked with the U.S. to capture terrorists—even invading Somalia to help oust an Islamist government—in return netting roughly a billion dollars a year in American aid. Ethiopia had been to hell and back in the 1970s and 1980s with famine, war, and genocide. For someone who came to power as a freedom fighter and liberator, who gave one of the poorest countries on earth China-esque economic growth, and who became a key ally of the U.S., what was not to like?

    First off, many of the rosy development statistics given out by the Ethiopian government are simply fraudulent; independent sources still rank Ethiopia at the very bottom of poverty indexes. Second, what genuine economic and public health transformations Zenawi did bring to Ethiopia were achieved with a top-down model that mirrored the statist command he implemented over all other aspects of Ethiopian life.

    Zenawi built a totalitarian state, guided by Marxist-Leninism, complete with a cult of personality and zero tolerance for dissent. Like Saddam Hussein or Bashar al-Assad, he filled the country’s top political and economic positions with men from his own Tigaray ethnicity. When elections did occur, he won them with Saddam-like numbers, most recently, 99 percent of the vote. Civil society organizations were harassed into submission or banned. His government only allowed one television station, one radio station, one internet-service provider, one telecom, one national daily, and one English daily—all churning out government propaganda. Zenawi used this information hegemony to heavily censor news available to Ethiopians, taking special delight in preventing them from hearing news from exile groups outside the country.

    Zenawi’s critics were jailed, killed or chased out of the country: in fact, more journalists were exiled from Ethiopia in the last decade than any other country on earth. Let’s restate that: Zenawi kicked out more journalists than any other tyrant on the planet, thereby monopolizing control over information. His favorite tactic was labeling dissidents as terrorists. Journalists risked up to 20 years in prison if they even reported about opposition groups classified by the government as terrorists. The most emblematic case is that of Eskinder Nega, a PEN-award-winning author sentenced to 18 years in prison this July for questioning the government’s new anti-terrorism laws.

    Many in the West like to credit Zenawi with “keeping Ethiopia together” despite ethnic differences, war, famine and regional instability. Dissidents, however, maintain that Zenawi was always at war with his own people. When towns and villages rose up against Zenawi’s military regime, they were put down brutally. There was, and still is, a climate of fear. With 85 million Ethiopians suffering under his thrall, Meles Zenawi constructed one of history’s most depraved states in terms of numerical human suffering.

    So why is this monster being celebrated? Some, like Bill Gates and Ambassador Rice, choose to remain blind to Zenawi’s systemic human rights abuses. He was, undoubtedly, charming. Others, perhaps more worryingly, excuse his tyranny for his development and economic acumen. Foreign Policy’s managing editor illustrated this point of view while tweeting that “Meles Zenawi was a dictator but was better for his country than many democratically elected leaders.”

    This kind of mentality is a dangerous one. There is no such thing as a benign dictator. Only those with a fascist mindset—who want to cut corners, who complain how messy and inefficient democracy can be, and who overlook two thousand years of political history—can believe in this chimera. From Cuba to Kazakhstan, the story is the same.

    For instance, Pinochet took Chile from being a run-of-the-mill right-wing statist dictatorship to an economic success story with the same liberalization principles that the Chinese tyranny has employed to transform itself into a world power. Is the Pinochet-Beijing model of a police state with economic freedom, attempted by Zenawi for Ethiopia, an acceptable one in this day and age? The New York Review of Books reminds us that this sort of ideology brought Ethiopia “appalling cruelty in the name of social progress.” Anyone stating that they “like” the economic results from the Pinochet-Beijing model must accept thousands of tortured and disappeared in Chile and tens of millions dead in China (and 8 million political prisoners languishing in the Laogai as of today). Perhaps those admiring a strongman can accept such a condition with a John Rawls-type veil of ignorance without knowing what it is like to live under a dictatorship. It is easy to tolerate torture and disappearances if it isn’t happening to your daughter, your brother, your mother, or you.

    Those in the West heaping praise on Zenawi—all living in societies that suffered so much to achieve individual liberty—are engaging in dramatic hypocrisy by praising this thug. Would Bill Gates live in a country that denies people basic political freedoms? Whose government arrests and kills its critics en masse? Would he trade places with an Ethiopian university student who believes in free expression and whose stance will lead to certain prison and possible execution?

    Any arguments that Zenawi was mellowing (after 21 years in power!) are false. The past few years saw new sweeping “anti-terrorism” laws and stronger Internet censorship. In 2005, Ethiopia even saw its own Tiananmen Square. That year, Zenawi decided to hold freer elections, but the opposition won a record number of parliamentary seats, including all those in the capital, Addis Ababa. Throngs took to the streets to celebrate. In response, Zenawi lashed out brutally, arresting the opposition’s entire leadership and sentencing them to life in prison for treason; shuttering five newspapers and imprisoning their editors; murdering 193 protestors, injuring 800, and arbitrarily jailing 40,000 other men, women, and teenagers in a show of raw tyranny. According to The Telegraph’s David Blair, who was reporting from the scene, “a crackdown on this scale has not been seen in Africa for 20 years and the repression exceeds anything by President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe for the past decade at least. Apartheid-era South Africa’s onslaught against the black townships in the 1980s provides the only recent comparison.”
    It is startling that so many consider Zenawi an “intellectual” leader, when he needed such bloody policy to enforce his rule. When Western leaders consider this dictator—who rapaciously treated Africa’s second-largest nation as his personal property—worthy of not just condolences, but pure adulation, something is very wrong with their value systems.

    One politician, the Norwegian foreign minister, made a slight nod toward individual rights in his obligatory comments about Zenawi’s passing: “Norway and Ethiopia have an open and frank dialogue on political and social issues, including areas, such as human rights, where we have diverging views.”

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