By: Hermela Yifter
August 20, 2013 marks a year since the sudden and tragic death of the late Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi. The anniversary will be commemorated nationally to mark the former Premier’s legacy. It will pay tribute to the brilliant and life-long achievements as an untiring and unforgettable leader who made an outstanding contribution to the current renaissance of Ethiopia. He was the architect of the country’s National Security Policy and Strategy and played an influential role in the construction of the policies. His astute knowledge, negotiating skills, and an uncanny capacity for communication allowed him to become a major influence in the development of Africa and in the engagement of the continent’s international diplomatic efforts. Meles Zenawi had an unyielding conviction of the importance, and the necessity, of reconciliation, peace building, and above all - trust. He devoted his life to the peace and security of Africa, particularly the Horn region. His brilliance as a politician was commended and recognized by many of his peers on an international level. It inevitably raised Ethiopia’s diplomatic and economic influence not only in Africa but in many international fora.
Poverty can be said to be one of mankind’s worst enemies; and no one can deny that Ethiopians have seen the worst of it. Indeed, the country’s name even became synonymous with poverty. By the same token, Ethiopia has never seen a leader who worked so tirelessly to fight to overcome the country’s level of impoverishment, a major source of shame. Zenawi was a man who strongly believed that development and democratization were the keys to success, but he was not someone who merely followed ideological concepts. He believed that development should bring tangible benefits to the people at home. His economic policies were designed to lead to the economic developments that also led to the construction of schools and health stations. The results were that millions were lifted out of poverty.
Zenawi was a modern leader in the best sense of the word. He believed that increasing women’s participation and the protection of their rights necessarily contributed to a healthier socio-economic path for Ethiopia. The pro-poor economic policies that he pursued and his vigilant fight against corruption and other malpractices enabled Ethiopia to register one of the fastest growing economies in the world for a decade. His vision allowed Ethiopia to establish a strong developmental state, a success story for other African countries to emulate. It was designed to lift the country out of poverty and foster the country’s ambition to be a part of the group of middle-income countries by 2025.
The Growth and Transformation Plan is a prime example of Zenawi’s legacy. In its first two years, the performance of the plan has been highly successful, forming a sound basis for what needs to be done to sustain and ensure its continued success over the next three years. Its success underline’s the World Bank’s analysis that in the last decade under Meles Zenawi’s leadership, Ethiopia experienced strong and broad-based growth, experiencing 9.9 percent per year in 2004/5-2011/12 compared to the regional average of 5.4 percent. This was essentially due to the expansion of the agricultural and services sectors. This economic growth brought positive trends in reducing poverty, in both urban and rural areas, reducing the number of Ethiopians living under extreme poverty by 9 percent within five years. Overall it also made considerable progress in most of the human development indicators: primary school enrollments quadrupled, child mortality cut in half, numbers of people with access to clean water doubled, and the fight against malaria and HIV/AIDS strengthened dramatically. The flow of FDI to the country in 2012 reached a billion US dollars, making Ethiopia second only to South Africa as a recipient. In other words, the country has become one of the most attractive destinations for Foreign Direct Investment in Africa.
Zenawi’s efforts to begin the construction of the Ethiopian Grand Renaissance Dam and the move to take greater advantage of the Nile River are another major example of his successes, and will be one of his greatest legacies. It is a project that will not only bring about economic growth and stability for Ethiopia, but will have the additional effect of increasing Ethiopia’s hydroelectric power export leverage throughout north-east Africa, and also launch major social changes in Ethiopia by increasing the usage of cleaner energy, bringing electricity into rural areas, and elevating the standards of living for Ethiopians and its neighbors.
Ethiopia still faces a marathon struggle to eliminate poverty, but it has experienced nearly a decade of double-digit annual economic growth. Under Zenawi’s governance, Ethiopia’s economic growth has been described by the IMF as “the fastest for a non-oil exporting country in Sub-Saharan Africa.” His efforts in the war on poverty and backwardness gained him a plethora of international commendations. In 2005, Tabor 100, a U.S. based NGO, awarded him its prestigious Crystal Eagle International Leadership Award for his contribution toward economic and social transformation in Africa.
Significantly, the former Prime Minister also made great strides in democratizing Ethiopia. For most of the 20th century, Ethiopia was ruled by highly centralized governments. This changed abruptly when Zenawi and the EPRDF came to power in 1991, launching an ambitious reform effort to initiate a transition to a more democratic system of governance and decentralizing authority within a federal structure. Other elements of change included the introduction of a private media for the first time. His critics might disagree but for most Ethiopians the arrival of Zenawi and EPRDF, on Ginbot 20 1991, can be described as the “birth of democracy” in Ethiopia. His efforts for the promotion of democracy, for the creation of a democratic developmental state, did not go unnoticed in the international community. He was awarded the Good Governance Award of the Global Coalition for Africa for his leadership during the challenging period of transition in Ethiopia.
Called one of Africa’s strongmen by the international media, Zenawi’s powerful leadership skills were recognized regionally throughout Africa and internationally. He was widely appreciated for his efforts against terrorism and providing security to the Horn of Africa. He also gave much attention to consolidating the role of a peacemaker in the region, and more widely. His mediation efforts between Sudan and South Sudan were impressive, and he did much to stabilize Somalia as the mandate of the Transitional Federal Government came to an end, as well as contributing to the UN peacekeeping forces to Liberia, Rwanda, Sudan and Burundi. His achievements in promoting peace and stability in Africa were widely recognized not only within Africa but also internationally. In 2009, he was awarded Rwanda’s National Liberation Medal, the “Uruti,” for helping to liberate Rwanda and end the genocide in the country; and he was also given the World Peace Prize for his contributions to global peace and his efforts to stabilize the Horn of Africa through the work of the regional Inter-Governmental Authority for Development.
Meles Zenawi was chosen to lead and represent a number of regional and international organizations. He was a co-chair of the Global Coalition for Africa, which brought together senior African policy makers to build consensus on development issues. He served as the Chairman of the Organization for African Unity, the present day African Union, and in 2007, was elected by the AU to chair the executive committee of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development NEPAD, leading the organization for nearly a decade. He also had the honor to represent Africa at G8 and G20 Summits.
His contributions were not limited to economic, social and diplomatic exchanges. He was internationally recognized for his efforts to bring world attention to climate change and its impacts in Africa. His role in negotiations identified him as a leader that stood up for Ethiopia and the rest of Africa in these forums and highlighted the way a few developed states were severely crippling the many and indeed damaging the world by pollution. Indeed, from 2009, Meles Zenawi played a major role in developing the African Union’s position on climate change. He was selected to lead the African Delegation to the Global Conference on Climate Change at Copenhagen in 2009, to present an African consensus on climate change. His interventions received widespread support especially from the European Union; and the following year he was named as co-chair of the Advisory Group on Climate Change Financing by the UN. He promptly proved his value by producing a study of an alternative financing mechanism for developing countries that had been critically damaged by climate changes to which they had never contributed.
The former Prime Minister’s diplomatic skills allowed him to play a significant role in a number of international fora and summits, producing a series of successful economic alliances. He co-chaired the Beijing Summit, which led to the adoption of the Beijing Action Plan for China-Africa relations, and attended G20 and G8 Summits on behalf of Africa. The results of these led to significant economic progress, cultural exchanges, and support for Africa’s development of international political, economic, trade, and financial systems.
Meles Zenawi was a man of the people. He was always at the forefront of the perilous journey undertaken to uproot the repressive regime of the past on the battlefield. Once in office, he led the efforts to democratize the nation and ensure equality and prosperity for the Ethiopian people. His intellectual qualities, his magnanimity and humility, together with his energy, vision, and determination, put him at the forefront of safeguarding the interests of Ethiopia and of Africa to achieve freedom and prosperity. He left a huge legacy for the Ethiopian people to encourage them to continue on the path of peace, stability, unity, progress, and cohesion. With his vision to be carried on, his untiring devotion would be rewarding.