Zenawi's regime will be remembered for holding Ethiopia
together as one country even under the centripetal ethnic
Any recent visitor to Ethiopia would be struck by the
ubiquitous billboards commemorating the late Prime
Minister's life, two months after his demise. Meles Zenawi's
photo form the backdrop to the TV screens and adorns the
streets of all the major towns and villages.
These sights were supplemented by the chorus of Africa
leaders that attended the PM's funeral and who lavished
praise on this "dedicated son of African soil". He was
depicted as the untiring leader who toiled for the
upliftment of the indigent peoples of Ethiopia and Africa.
Among this choir were African presidents and prime ministers
whose own policies have degraded the lives of their people.
The least distinguished of these visitors were the former
President and Prime Minister of Somalia whose tenure in
power was marred by their total subservience to the Ethiopia
One wonders if this orchestrated and well managed public
love of the late Zenawi reflects the thoughts and feeling of
the peoples of Ethiopia and the neighbouring states where
the PM's policies had the greatest footprint.
Putting aside the propaganda of the Ethiopian governing
party, the admiration of his cohort of political friends and
partisan Ethiopian critics, most objective analysts would
agree that, unlike the visiting African leaders, Zenawi left
behind a record that deserves critical scrutiny.
Zenawi's legacy can be viewed through two analytical lenses:
a) his domestic footprint; (b) and his regional impact.
To assess the PM's legacy, we need to understand the
political and economic context of Ethiopia and the Horn of
Africa when Zenawi and his party, the Tigray People's
Liberation Front (TPLF), came to power in 1991.
First, Ethiopia was devastated by a brutal military
dictatorship that massacred hundreds of thousands of people,
while it also presided over the catastrophic famine of 1984
that devastated several regions of the country.
Additionally, the military regime wasted Ethiopia's meagre
and precious resources to oppress the legitimate struggle of
the Eritrean people, as well as others inside Ethiopia, such
as Tigray, Somali and the Oromos, to mention a few. War,
famine and oppression were the hallmark of Ethiopia in 1990,
and the regime was exhausted and had run out of ideas and
energy to move the country beyond multiple calamities.
Then came the last drive of the Eritrean resistance against
the regime since they already controlled the entire
countryside and surrounded the capital Asmara. Their ally in
Ethiopia (TPLF) then pushed towards Addis Ababa and within a
couple of months, it became clear that the regime's days
Given the ethnic character of the TPLF, it was not clear
whether its takeover of the capital will induce a new civil
war with the Oromo liberation Front and other communities.
Concerned about the possibility of having another failed
state in the region, with all the attendant problems such as
a tidal wave of refugees, the United States brokered an
agreement between the regime and the TPLF. This pact allowed
for a "peaceful" takeover of the capital and Mengistu's
departure for exile.
The TPLF brought with it a client group of ethnic political
parties, the so-called PDOs (People's Democratic
Organisations), who jointly formed what became known as
EPRDF. But there has never been any doubt that TPLF
controlled the levers of power in the country.
The junior partners of the "coalition" were supposed to
provide national legitimacy for the new ethnic authority,
however, the Ethiopian public largely considered the PDOs as
lackeys. The independent Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), which
initially joined the ruling coalition, failed to understand
TPLF's militarist agenda and paid the ultimate price as the
latter swiftly destroyed its military base.
After this defeat, OLF went underground where it has
virtually become inconsequential. Establishing the new order
and consolidating TPLF's power took nearly a decade after
which the regime turned more of its attention to other
After 21 years in power, we can emphatically state that
Zenawi's regime has been a Janus-faced order. Its political
rhetoric exuded democracy, peace, national harmony and
development, but behind that façade was a determined
security apparatus that crushed even the most democratic
attempts to challenge its authority.
This rhetoric proved seductive enough for outsiders, but all
indications are that it has failed to sway a majority of the
population. It is these two faces of the regime that the
remaining section of this brief will focus on.
But I must first provide an explanatory note about the
nationalist character of the regime. I can categorically
state that the late Premier Zenawi was an Ethiopian
nationalist, despite the claims of some of the opponents
that he was building Tigray for an eventual secession, if
Many critics of the TPLF regime claim that it exploited the
resources of most regions in Ethiopia to develop its home
province. There is a grain of truth to this assertion, but I
would suggest that to be a nationalist does not exclude a
regime from internally differentiating regions by
privileging some over others.
Most critics do not understand that there are two kinds of
nationalists: civic and sectarian nationalists. Civic
nationalists genuinely try to treat all regions and citizens
alike and fairly. In contrast, sectarian nationalists
protect the territorial integrity of the country but also
establish a hierarchy of power which privileges certain
groups and political factions.
Zenawi and his regime represented the latter version of
nationalism and are not alone in this regard in the
Zenawi's group and those they invited to take part in the
political conference in the early 1990s produced a
constitution which nominally privileged ethnic identity.
They subsequently divided the country into ethnic provinces.
There is little doubt that this political architecture gave
modest advantages to most ethnic groups in the country who
were the subjects of the empire, but such gains belied the
fact that Addis Ababa remained the decisive power centre of
More critically, a small group of TPLF cadre and the
security establishment they strategically controlled have
had the final say about all the major issues. Even when the
affiliates of the TPLF became senior ministers, they
remained pliant cadre without a backbone.
I have witnessed the humiliation that comes with such
status. The absence of any degree of autonomy on the part of
those affiliates manifestly demonstrates that belonging to
EPRDF has been like George Orwell's Animal Farm where "All
animals are created equal, but some animals are created more
equal than others".
Despite cowering their partners and most of the population,
Zenawi and his regime can legitimately claim several major
accomplishments. First, the regime has created a physical
infrastructure for the country that is better than what was
left behind by all the previous regimes combined. The road
network that spans to most regions of the country can
facilitate national integration and development if
Second, the number of public universities has increased
substantially over the last decade and this has allowed many
young Ethiopians to gain access to some form of higher
Third, the electrically grid of the country has been
expanded and more hydroelectric dams have been built or are
under construction and this has expanded the country's
energy supply. Some of these dams were initiated illegally
because other riparian countries that have a stake in the
rivers were not consulted and no agreements were reached to
satisfy all parties. Despite such illegal and unethical
preemptions, the growth in electric production bodes well
for the country's economic growth.
Fourth, an intensive regime of mineral exploration has been
put in place which could deliver dividends for the country
in the long run.
Fifth, Zenawi and his team have not ameliorated the
population's vulnerability to famine, but fortunately the
country has avoided the catastrophic famines that used to
take hundreds of thousands of lives.
Finally, there has been an increase in the volume of foreign
investment in the country and the rate of economic growth
has been substantial despite starting from a very low base.
The regime's liabilities are also numerous, but here is a
sample of the major ones. First, in spite of the seemingly
smooth transfer of authority to the Deputy Prime Minister,
power is still wielded by individuals without legitimate
institutional anchors. As such, authority in Ethiopia is
extremely concentrated in two nodes that completely overlap:
the TPLF core and the security establishment.
The ultimate anchor of power is the security apparatus which
has been loyal to the TPLF rather than the country and the
constitution. Such concentration of power has enfeebled all
other institutions and has created a political culture and
society deeply marooned in fear rather than genuine loyalty
and respect for national institutions. The political and
social consequences of this republic of fear are far
Second, although the economic sphere has been somewhat more
liberalised, loyalty to the regime is still central to an
entrepreneur's ability to succeed. In many instances, party
connections are essential to start a major business, and
important sectors of the economy are dominated by the party
and its friends.
Third, the republic of fear has suffocated the entire
political spectrum through its unwillingness to tolerate
even a minor political opposition. By claiming to win over
95 per cent of the votes in the last election, the regime
has created a make-believe world where it is adored by all.
Fourth, in some parts of the developing world, academics are
not free to present their ideas/work regarding their
countries' ailments, and Ethiopia appears to be the model of
academic unfreedom. This has been accomplished through the
elimination of tenure or long-term contracts for faculty and
the appointment of political loyalists to top academic
If a professor indulges in critical analysis of the
political and development affairs of the country, there is
little chance that his or her contract will be renewed. Fear
is the life blood of this system and compels productive
academics to either leave the country if they can, or
languish in the margins, or simply become sycophants of the
regime to maintain their livelihoods. Nevertheless, there
are a few courageous scholars who have stayed true to the
ethos of the academy and still remain in the country against
Fifth, poor people dominate the landscape of Ethiopian
cities and towns, and the UN has reported that over 80 per
cent of the building structures of the capital are of slum
Mindful of this image, the regime has embarked on urban
renewal that will ultimately remove most of the poor from
the city and allocate the "freed" spaces to shopping malls
and investors. It intends to house the indigents removed
from those areas in apartments built on the outskirts of the
city without examining alternative schemes that will keep
these residents in their neighbourhoods.
Finally, the collective effect of these liabilities is that
public institutions in the country are beholden to the
individuals in power rather that embodying national ethos.
The shameless use of the security forces to retain power or
intimidate the political opposition, and the culture of fear
this engenders means that Premier Zenawi and his regime
reinforced institutions the public fears but they have
failed to create legitimacy for the post-1991institutions.
Without legitimate institutions that are autonomous from
particular leaders, the country remains in danger of fully
sliding into an ethnic political strife.
The regional impact
The "winds of change" in the Horn of Africa in 1990/1991
created opportunities which could have produced a bright
future for all. Post-1991, Eritrean and Ethiopian leaders
were cut from the same political cloth since they closely
collaborated in the battle field to dislodge the Mengistu
Nevertheless, one major factor separated the two movements:
one was mainly a national liberation movement while the
other was primarily an ethnic liberation project. On the
Eastern front, Somalia provided material and diplomatic
support for the leadership of both the Eritrean and
Ethiopian liberation fronts, and the Somali people keenly
followed the advances of the two fronts against Mengisu's
military while they also hoped for the fall of the Somali
I remember visiting the border regions of Ethiopia and
Somalia after the fall of Siyaad and Mengistu where I saw
the population relish their new freedoms on either side of
the border. The hope was that a new and more progressive
political chapter for the region was in the offing.
But the new lords of Ethiopia were steeped in a sanitised
imperial orthodoxy. During the first decade in power, Zenawi
and his subordinates adopted the same ethnic political
logic, tested in Ethiopia's ethnic provinces, to manipulate
Somali affairs in the old Republic.
The authorities in Addis Ababa made no effort to reach out
to Somali civics, but instead chose warlords and sectarian
political actors as their best collaborators. Once the
Somali people realised Ethiopia's new strategy of "divide
and rule", old animosities resurfaced and the Ethiopian
occupation of parts of the Somali Republic and its invasion
of their country and capital in 2006-08 dashed the last
residue of good well. Nearly all Somali civic nationalists
now see Ethiopia as an enduring enemy.
In the north, the Ethiopian and Eritrean leaders who claimed
to be the best of friends slowly drifted towards conflict
and imposed a horrible, costly and unnecessary war on the
population. The goodwill which has been nurtured in the
battlefield of liberation vanished.
After a devastating war which wasted over 100,000 lives, the
two regimes consented to arbitration. An international
boundary commission was set and both governments guaranteed
to accept the commission's findings.
Eritrea immediately embraced the findings once the
commission rendered its verdict. Unfortunately, Ethiopia is
yet to honour its commitment as it introduced new conditions
to the process and the international community has failed to
enforce the commission's ruling. Consequently and
unfortunately, the two countries remain in a virtual state
There is little doubt that history will judge Premier Zenawi
as one of the two major leaders in Ethiopian history. His
regime will be remembered for holding Ethiopia together as
one country even under the centripetal ethnic order which
his regime officially introduced.
Second, Ethiopian nationalists will celebrate him as the man
who invaded Somalia and occupied Mogadishu. Third, his
government will be regarded for developing the country's
physical and educational infrastructure, and for
refreshingly having the ambition of becoming a developmental
What Ethiopian democrats will not forgive is the regime's
failing to establish a political order and national
institutions that have earned the loyalty and respect of the
people. The conflation of the regime's interests with the
national cause and the use of the security forces to
domesticate the population is not a sustainable strategy if
Ethiopia is to ever evolve into a vibrant democracy. The
republic of fear must give way to the rule of law to thwart
a more foreboding future.
On the regional front, posterity will not be kind to the
Zenawi regime as it has totally squandered the opportunity
to forge a more peaceful and collaborative relations with
Eritrea and Somalia given the goodwill of these two peoples.
Allowing Somalis the opportunity to rebuild their government
and society in a democratic fashion would have eliminated
traditional hostilities between the two countries and
boosted their mutuality. Further, this approach would have
shifted hundreds of millions of dollars from the war machine
to development which is desperately needed.
Instead of building on that goodwill, the regime embarked on
a reign of terror to destabilise Eritrea and keep Somalia in
its catastrophic condition. Sadly, the attempt to impose
regional tyranny will ricochet on Ethiopia and shall
perpetuate the misery of all the peoples in the region. It
is not too late to change course and anchor developments on
the significant and positive elements of the last two
decades, but will there be the wisdom and the will in Addis
Abdi Ismail Samatar is professor of geography at the
University of Minnesota and a research fellow at the
University of Pretoria, South Africa.
The opinions contained in this article are solely those
of the writer, and it does not represent the editorial
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