The recent death in Brussels of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi finally brings to light what lay behind his mysterious two-month disappearance from public life. Ethiopia's government had strenuously denied rumors of serious ill health caused by liver cancer. Now that the worst has, indeed, proven true, Ethiopia and all of East Africa will need to learn to live without the stabilizing influence of its great dictator-diplomat.
Meles was certainly both. Ethiopia has undergone a remarkable transformation under his strongman rule since 1991, when his Tigrayan minority group from the country's north came to power with the overthrow of the odious Communist Derg led by Mengistu Haile Mariam (who is still enjoying a comfortable retirement in Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe).
Initially serving as the president of the first post-Derg government, and then as Ethiopia's prime minister from 1995 until his death, Meles (his nom de guerre in the revolution) oversaw 7.7 percent annual GDP growth in recent years. Strong economic performance is somewhat surprising, given his party's interventionist policy approach, but Meles showed himself to be a consummate pragmatist in attracting investment -- particularly from China -- to drive growth.
Meles's own political provenance as the leader of the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front was Marxist-Leninist. But, when the Cold War ended, so, too, did his dogmatism. To his credit, child mortality was reduced by 40 percent under his government; Ethiopia's economy became more diversified, with new industries like car manufacturing, beverages and floriculture, and major infrastructure projects, including Africa's largest hydroelectric dam, were launched. Once a basket-case associated in the world's eyes only with famine and drought, Ethiopia has become one of Africa's largest economies -- and without the benefit of gold or oil.
Perhaps more important than Meles's domestic achievements was his diplomatic record. He was an indispensable ally of the West in the fight against Islamist terrorism, culminating in Ethiopia's military operation in neighboring Somalia in 2006. More recently, Meles coordinated efforts with Kenya to stage limited strikes against the al-Shabab militia, which has waged an unrelenting war to turn Somalia into a fundamentalist Islamic theocracy.
At the same time, Meles courted China as both an investor and as a hedge against the West's criticism of his human-rights record. And yet he controversially but rightly held out a hand of friendship to the breakaway region of Somaliland, before it became fashionable, and went as far as he could short of formal re-recognition of that ray of democratic hope in the Horn of Africa. Meles will be sorely missed in Hargeisa, as he planned to run a Chinese-financed gas pipeline through Somaliland territory from the Ogaden to the coast.
More important, Meles put Addis Ababa on the map as the home of the African Union, and as a capital where Africa's worst problems could be discussed in a pragmatic manner, unburdened by colonial grudges. Meles himself became a major diplomatic player, particularly over climate change policy, and most recently was active in mediating border and natural resource disputes between Sudan and the newly independent (and oil-rich) South Sudan. He will be remembered for accepting the painful secession of Eritrea in 1993, rather than prolonging the civil war, and for his efforts to reach an agreement with Egypt over the use of the Blue Nile waters.
The great stain on Meles's record will always be his intolerance of dissent. To be sure, his human-rights record was far better than the Derg's. For example, he allowed a private press to flourish, and in 2000 he became the first Ethiopian leader to hold multi-party parliamentary elections. Moreover, compared to neighboring Eritrea under President Isaias Afewerki or Omar al-Bashir's Sudan, his regime was by no means the worst offender in the region. Nor was there much evidence of personal enrichment or widespread corruption.
Nevertheless, following a violently contested parliamentary election in 2005, in which more than 30 parties participated, Meles demonstrated open contempt for democratic pluralism and press freedom, jailing several journalists in recent years. At the same time, he imposed increasingly strict central control on his ethnically and linguistically diverse country.
Although nominally governed by “ethnic federalism,” where this threatened secession, as in Oromia or the Ogaden, Meles was quick to ignore the constitutional set-up. Although he strengthened religious freedom and peaceful coexistence between Muslims and Christians, the human-rights situation in Ethiopia remained poor. For example, groups like Freedom House and Human Rights Watch have documented widespread official repression of the Oromo people.
And yet Meles is irreplaceable -- unmatched intellectually as an African leader (he dropped out of medical school to lead the revolution against the Derg, but went on to teach himself impeccable English and obtain European university degrees by correspondence), and unmatched politically at home, with no obvious successor groomed to replace him. In the Horn of Africa, there is no leader of his stature who could ensure the stability and strong governance that the region so desperately needs.
Hailemariam Desalegn, Meles's foreign minister, will take over Ethiopia's government. But there will be considerable concern in the West about the danger of a power vacuum or struggle in a geopolitically vital but fractious country -- and just when neighboring Somalia is supposed to be undergoing a transition to a new parliament and elected government.
For his admirers and critics alike, Meles leaves behind a potent political legacy. He will be remembered as an African leader of major historical significance: visionary, despotic and indispensable.
*Charles Tannock, MEP, is the European Conservatives and Reformists' Foreign Affairs Coordinator and Rapporteur for the Horn of Africa at the European Parliament. © Project Syndicate 2012