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Who Was The Real Meles Zenawi?

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Who Was The Real Meles Zenawi?

In life and in death Meles Zenawi left no room for ambiguity. He was loved and hated, admired and loathed with equal passion. And debating his legacy calls for clarity, purpose and passion too, writes Charles Abugre, who describes the late Ethiopian prime minister as a stubborn, single-minded pan-Africanist whose determined pursuit of “democratic developmentalism” transformed Ethiopia into one of the fastest-growing countries in Africa. Will the new leadership sustain this path?

Following the announcement of his death, an Ethiopian Diaspora opposition voice, speaking on BBC radio, proclaimed that Zenawi’s passing was a moment for celebration – a collective good-riddance by the people of Ethiopia. Asked why there was such a popular and spontaneous display of public grief on the streets of Addis Ababa if Zenawi was so loathed by his people, this voice claimed that far from being spontaneous, the people had been mobilised by the regime and ordered on to the streets. It was all a façade, he said. Another opposition voice, writing on his blog from the United States, bemoaned how Zenawi lost the opportunity to be an exemplary leader – to be loved, cherished and revered by their people, like Nelson Mandela. In saying farewell to Zenawi, he chose to paraphrase Brutus’ tribute to Julius Caesar, the friend he had slain in a power grab: “It is time to bury Zenawi not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them.” An international NGO leader working in Kenya, wrote on his Facebook page: “Ding Dong the witch…well, we are admonished in Africa not to celebrate another person’s death, but it can be difficult when the person is a dictator like Zenawi.”

By contrast Susan Rice, The US permanent representative to the UN, speaking at Zenawi’s funeral spoke of Zenawi the normal human being – a loving father and husband – “uncommonly wise and able to see the big picture…disarmingly regular, direct and unpretentious”; Zenawi the “relentless negotiator and formidable debator”… “remarkably ambitious, but not for himself” (as is often the case); Zenawi who was the almost uncontested intellectual political leader of Africa (especially after Thabo Mbeki’s exit from power); a man “with little patience for fools and idiots” and if I may add “pin prickers”…

How much would Zenawi have cared for being a Mandela, or not being seen as a Julius Caesar? Perhaps not much. From the little I know of him I would argue, much as Alex de Waal has in a recent tribute, “He would have cared more whether his ideas and his programmes were properly presented … and whether history will prove him right.”

It is his ideas and programmes that interest me in relation to his legacy. It is the simple and disarming articulation in 1991 of the singular purpose of his leadership – that all Ethiopians could eat three meals a day – that reminds me of his revulsion for poverty and indignity. I associate with his view that it will be hard to keep the Ethiopian state (similar to many African states) in one piece without urgent and sufficient growth and transformation in the economy – starting with agriculture – as a basis for shared livelihoods, shared agency and the resources to build the institutions of democracy. I identify with his analysis of the role of the state being principally to provide services, play an active role in building a dynamic economy including regulating the market for both efficiency and the public good; to redirect incentives and economic rents towards value added activities; enable the people to influence and control political power by their ability to organise as informed and economically empowered citizens.  

I admire the impressive coherence of his political and economic thoughts that guide his programmes and the ability to combine pragmatism with clear ideological focus – we could do with a few more leaders who really care about clear thinking and invest in it. He believed that theory and practice must be rooted in one’s reality – the Ethiopian reality in historical context – and the patience to analyse that reality.
I share his view that neither development nor democracy can thrive on their own – both must be pursued in tandem in an inter-connected manner. The development process is democratised if it is broad-based, dynamic and equitable and the democratic process is developmental if the marginalised have the economic and social wherewithal to actively shape politics. He called this  “democratic developmentalism”.

These together form the foundations for enduring human rights. This way of thinking cannot be fitted neatly into the conventional “authoritarian bargain concept” box some have tried to fit him into – i.e. a South East Asia model of exchanging political repression for “food on the table”.  I admire the ability to combine attention for the immediate – for example feeding people and preventing starvation – with the long haul, building the structural foundations of a dynamic economy and participatory democracy.

Most of all, I agree with Susan Rice that Zenawi was ambitious but not for himself (for he has acquired no private wealth and owns no private companies – he was an old style nationalist of the likes of Nyerere, Kwame Nkrumah and Kenneth Kaunda who sincerely believed that power is about service not personal wealth). I admire his sense of the certitude of his ideas for it is this attribute that guided his ability to take or reject ideas or money, to resist manipulation and to remain unconventional when it suited.

But I do not accept shooting people on the street if even to contain widespread violence, nor the mass arrest of journalists – the political reactions to threats that have come to be widely marketed as evidence of autocratic rule.

So what is it about democratic developmentalism (DD) that I consider the legacy that must not only endure but be actively advanced. I came to be involved in discussions about DD from the angle of peace and security in the Horn of Africa, a subject I know little of, as an economist and anti-poverty activist. A group of us wanted to contribute to peace and security in the Horn of Africa through an informal platform to exchange ideas. Zenawi is one of a few African leaders who actually made time, engaged in and welcomed intellectual exchange, whether about politics, economics or social policy.

We believed that Ethiopia was crucial to this platform for several reasons: it is the largest country by population in the region; relatively the most stable; relatively the most democratic; with the most dynamic economy; with a lot to lose if war broke out across several boundaries and the most to gain with peace; and relatively the most trusted by international powers.

Above all, Zenawi commanded the most respect internationally for his intellect and negotiating ability, also because he was seen as a person whose word people could trust – love him or loathe him. He could afford more magnanimity, more patience and more sacrifice relative to the rest. So initially we spoke about dialogue, bringing young people together across boundaries, making overtures to belligerent neighbours, avoiding the use of Ethiopia as a centre for organised opposition for the regime change of neighbours etc.

All well and good, but how in the long run can peace be sustained and entrenched? Does peace and the lack of thereof depend on individuals in power or is there more to it? Is armed conflict sustained merely by political motives or is there an economic motive? Do people fight simply because they hate each other or is there more to it. As we mulled over these issues over time, one thing became increasingly clear – we needed to think about peace and security in our continent in a long term manner. Relative peace is ultimately built on shared prosperity, shared opportunity, mature institutions, greater choices, an effective voice for people and a serious attention to inequalities, especially geographical and group-based inequalities.

Zenawi argued that sustaining peace and security in Ethiopia and the region will require us to think about how to shape the economy to provide enduring benefits for all the people and address poverty, how to shape politics to make it inclusive of all the diversities and how to build institutions that promote genuine democratic inclusion.

This called for a clear understanding of the structural realities of economies and the institutions in them (public and private); the nature of political organisation and the attitude towards genuine democracy and inclusive and dynamic economies, and how these issues interlink. The task was to simultaneously build institutions for both genuine democracy and genuine development. Zenawi believed that the Ethiopian state is at risk of disappearing unless these tasks are accomplished. This task is daunting for a poor economy because poverty itself results from, and contributes to weak institutions necessary to provide and regulate.

To square these brackets, Zenawi argued for a clear ideology, contrary to Susan Rice’s assertion that Zenawi was merely pragmatic, not ideological. Indeed he believed that not only should the state be guided by a clear ideology but also that ideology should he hegemonic and Gramscian in style. The ideology, he called “democratic developmentalism” – the task was to build a democratic developmental state. To make this ideology hegemonic requires a political vehicle – a party totally committed to the ideology and driving it through society, through education, policy and organisation. Zenawi believed in his party, fought within it, survived it and saw himself as an integral part of it.

He was clear that the economic development task of DD was to build a capitalist economy based on the reality of the Ethiopian economy – an essentially agricultural economy dominated by smallholder farmers facing unstable and hostile local and international markets and a small modern sector benefitting largely from unproductive and “pervasive rent-seeking”. By rent-seeking he meant economic agents seeking ways to maximise returns in ways that are unconnected with efforts to add value. This includes corruption in public and private places but it also meant kick-backs, land speculation, tax dodging, asset price manipulation, speculative activities and much more. The DD task is to guide economic agents towards value added activities, including innovation and productive investments and to discourage unproductive rent seeking activities. However, some economic rents are high not simply because of manipulation and the bad behaviour of economic agents but arise from low competition (free entrants) into sectors of relative low cost and high returns.

In these areas, Zenawi believed that the role of the state is to participate in these markets to share the returns or redirect them through taxation. To be able to guide the private sector towards value addition necessitates a degree of independence of the state from the private sector. But it means actively discouraging political leadership from also being enmeshed in private business, in order to minimise conflicts of interest. This does not of course preclude jointly investing (as in the case of the burgeoning shoe industry). It is in this context that the Ethiopian state actively participates in or even dominates sectors such as telecommunications and heavy industry, as well as the thriving EFFORT (the Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray) group of companies. They thrive in areas they consider necessary to stimulate, or in pursuit of capturing and redirecting rents. It is also the reason why Ethiopia refuses to establish a stock market, seeing them largely as instruments for speculation.

Ethiopia also does not open its banks to foreign participation. This approach is largely derived from the practice of the middle-income countries of Asia and Latin America, and to some extent South Africa. Zenawi did not come to accept a version of capitalism lightly. He was, after all, a Marxist-Leninist. He came to this view from a pragmatic standpoint – the world had moved on and a smarter strategy was required. “You need to pick your fights cleverly,” he would say, conscious of the relative powerlessness of Ethiopia as an aid and food-dependent economy.

It must be said that over the past two decades Ethiopia’s aid receipt has been below the sub-Saharan African average in per capita terms. Yet, many would say that (together with Rwanda) it has made the best use of aid of any country – another reason for keeping aid flowing.

Zenawi would severely critique aid not in order to reject it but in order to soften the terms and access more. He was comfortable with Foreign Direct Investment although he would argue that development is not about capital accumulation but innovation, technology and organisation. Indeed, with the financial crisis leading to low investment absorption in matured countries and average wages rising in China, Zenawi had been arguing strongly for foreign capital flows to Africa, presenting it as the next source of global demand necessary to lift the global economy. And he did not fail in his pursuit. At least 60% of Chinese and Turkish investments to Ethiopia are in manufacturing and these investments are growing.

Contrary to popular belief, Zenawi passionately believed in democracy and human rights – both civil/political and social economic rights. Two things are critical for democracy in a democratic developmental state: firstly, the need to address the powerless of the “atomised peasant” by enabling the peasants to organise not for organising’s sake but to acquire economic power, for example through cooperatives in order to access technology or to tackle pricing problems. Organised wealthy peasants are crucial not only for the fight against poverty but for an effective voice in political contestation – the avoidance of the elite capture of politics. The second task, Zenawi would argue, is the need for a hegemonic party not only to support this process of organising for economic participation and value-added growth but also to educate in order to advance the hegemonic ideology not by force but by gradual internalisation of its tenets. In the context of electoral politics, such a strategy – linking political organisation with economic power – cannot escape the charge that the ruling party is using incumbency and the monopoly over state resources to entrench the party. Zenawi did not contest this charge per se, merely argued that this is what needed to be done.

Besides theory, Zenawi also emphasised the quality of practice: when you think and plan big, then be sure to deliver; when you promise be sure to fulfil; when you decide, be sure to stick by your decision. The evidence of these dictums is clear for all to see – poverty in Ethiopia is reducing at one of the fastest rates in the world.

Ethiopia is industrialising; rural incomes are rising; revenue allocation to ethno-linguistically divided states (using distributive justice as the main principle) is helping convergence among nationalities and providing services that some communities had never before experienced. The economics of democratic developmentalism has clear fruits in Ethiopia.

South Africa declared itself as a developmental state partly thanks to the friendship between Thabo Mbeki and Zenawi and cooperation between their respective parties. The Economic Commission for Africa has taken the first steps to encourage intellectual discourse on DD. Time will tell if they will sustain it. Ethiopia may well sustain the programmatic dimensions of DD.

Only time will tell where the politics of “Democratic Developmentalism” will go with the new leadership. Zenawi may well have been perceived dictatorial but Africa has lost an intriguing, even enigmatic leader and spokesperson. This loss will be hard to replace.

Charles Abugre works for the UNDP in Addis Ababa. He writes this article in his personal capacity and the views expressed should not be attributed in any way to the United Nations.

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