Following the news of the past few years, you might get the
impression that flamboyance and bellicosity are signature traits of any
long-tenured dictator. But for every Muammar Qaddafi there’s a Meles Zenawi,
the shrewd, technocratic Prime Minister of Ethiopia. Inside of the country,
he’s known for imprisoning his political opponents, withholding
development assistance from restive areas, stealing
elections, and cracking
down on civil society NGOs. In the rest of the world, he’s often praised for his
impressive economic record, though not
for his human rights. Zenawi has attracted Western support by being a responsible
steward of aid money, a security partner in a rough region, and a G20 summit
invitee.

Now, both his supporters and his detractors may have to
contemplate a future without him. Zenawi is in a Brussels hospital with an
unspecified stomach ailment that may or may
not be fatal, depending upon what news reports you believe. Today, a government
spokesperson announced
that Zenawi would be taking a leave of absence from
running the country, which he’s led since 1991.

From a human rights perspective, Zenawi’s rule has been abusive,
heavy-handed, and self-interested.. Still, his apparently earnest dedication to
sustainable development has long attracted international donors, whose money
has benefited Ethiopia while propping up his regime. Zenawi, has fostered a friendlier environment for foreign investment. Between 2000 and 2010, Ethiopia’s GDP enjoyed a staggering average annual
growth rate of 8.8 percent — China-like numbers. The country’s public sector is
hardly clean of corruption, but the Ethiopian state isn’t as mismanaged or as
predatory as others in the region. It ranks 120th out of 183 governments on
Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions index, not exactly
Scandinavian but still ahead of such regional leaders as Kenya, Uganda, and
Nigeria.

Under his leadership, Ethiopians have suffered from a lack of human, civil,
and political rights. At the same time, their country has earned a reputation
as a place where aid money can be responsibly and effectively spent. “The U.S.
assistance portfolio in Ethiopia remains one of the United States’ largest and
most complex in Africa” according to an online
U.S. government profile of the roughly $2.1 billion in aid the U.S.
has sent to Ethiopia since 2010. The World Bank helps fund over $ 4.4 billion worth of
projects in the country.

This is the paradox of Zenawi’s legacy. He has done much to
simultaneously help and hurt his people, with just the kind of
quiet skill that you hope to see in a benign leader and dread in a
malevolent one. If he never returns to office, should he be remembered as the technocrat
behind Ethiopia’s amazing economic rise, or the brutal strongman who resisted
democracy as much of Africa adopted it? Though one did not necessarily require
the other — a kinder, gentler Zenawi might have overseen even better growth –
the same character might inform both sides of his rule.

“When I meet with Prime Minister Meles
and [Ugandan] President [Yoweri] Museveni, I feel like I am attending development seminar,” rockstar development economist Jeffrey Sachs
said in a
2004 speech. “They are ingenious, deeply knowledgeable, and bold.” Magnus Taylor, the
managing editor of the Royal African Society’s renowned African Arguments blog,
wrote about Zenawi’s ability to
dazzle foreign investors at the World Economic Forum in Addis Ababa
this past May, while challenging the democratic world’s seemingly dogmatic
belief in the causal relationship between political freedom and economic
dynamism:

Sitting astride this economic growth, and taking pride of place at
this year’s WEF, was Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. In an event that
boasted such political heavyweights as former British PM Gordon Brown, and
private sector luminaries like the Ivorian boss of The Prudential, Tidjane
Thiam, whose $600 billion worth of assets makes Ethiopia look like a minnow, I
was surprised by how much Meles came out as the dominant figure.
A fiercely intelligent man, with a grasp of figures redolent of
Brown (whom Meles referred to as ‘Prime Minister’ throughout) he seemed totally
in his element. Perhaps it was the nature of the audience. He was never going
to have to field too many tricky questions about Ethiopia’s political space,
(un)free press or tight government control over telecommunications and banking
in front of a room full of CEOs and fellow technocrats.

One senses that in certain crowds his statement that “there is no
direct relationship between economic growth and democracy” would have got him
in to trouble – important players were gnashing their teeth at this but Meles,
kingpin of Western policy in the Horn of Africa, knows exactly how much he can
loosen his Marxist instincts without upsetting his donors.

The
World Economic Forum was one of Zenawi’s last public appearances. Even if he
survives his illness, there is currently no public timetable for his return to
Addis Ababa. As dictators across North Africa and the Middle East can no longer
take their survival for granted, it’s worth wondering whether Zenawi will be
the model for the next generation of enlightened, western-coddled autocrats — or
one of the last of a literally dying breed.

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