Meles Zenawi is the cleverest and most engaging Prime Minister in Africa – at least when he talks to visiting outsiders. When he speaks to his fellow Ethiopians, he is severe and dogmatic. But he entertains western visitors with humour and irony, deploying a diffident, self-deprecating style which cleverly conceals an absolute determination to control his country and its destiny, free of outside interference.
He was one of four African presidents to be invited to the Camp David G8 meeting last weekend. The aid donors love Meles. He is well-informed, highly numerate and focused. And he delivers. Ethiopia will get closer to the Millennium Development Goals than most African countries. The Ethiopian state has existed for centuries and it has a bureaucracy to run it. So the aid flows like a river, nearly $4 billion a year. And Meles is the United States’ policeman in the region with troops in Somalia and Sudan. He also enjoys a simmering enmity with his former ally, now the bad boy of the region, President Isias Afwerke of Eritrea. “It’s Mubarak syndrome,” a worried US diplomat told me. “We only talked to Mubarak about Egypt’s role in the region, never about what was happening inside Egypt. It’s the same with Ethiopia.”
In the 2005 election when the opposition won the capital, Addis Ababa, and claimed to have won nationally, the government arrested its leaders and tried them for treason. Some were imprisoned, others fled into exile. Now with 99.6% of the vote, the ruling Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has created a virtual one party state. In an interview last week Meles told me he did not know of a single village in the whole country that voted for the opposition.
This is subtle totalitarianism, dubbed ‘Authoritarian Developmentalism’ by some. If you do what the government says, you get assistance – land, water, services. If you don’t, you get nothing. The basic principles of political freedom enshrined in the constitution are frequently undermined by subtle edicts from government departments. Press freedom is clearly spelt out and recently a minor ruling stated that printers must take responsibility for everything they publish and can refuse to print anything the government might consider illegal. Hardly a devastating blow to press freedom you might think until you discover that the only presses in Ethiopia capable of printing newspapers are government-owned.
Meles’ remarkable achievement since he took power in 1991 has been to attract foreign companies to Ethiopia through a policy of low taxes and a free hand. Growth has been between 8 and 11 percent over the past eight years thanks to the private sector (both western and eastern.) The economy has doubled over the last five years. Meles is rushing to develop the country as fast as he can. Using the Chinese model he has attracted foreign investors to develop agriculture and manufacturing. As he told me: “The criticism we had in the past was that we were crazy Marxists. Now we are accused of selling the family spoons to foreigners. It’s a balance.”
Meles has leased more than 4 million hectares of land to foreign or domestic companies to grow food or flowers. And to provide them with water and power he has built dams which he says are environmentally much better than power stations since they are built in gorges with little water loss through evaporation. But it is not a completely free market solution. There are government monopolies in banking and telecoms. Nor will the government give people title deeds. All land is state owned. Meles has made it clear he will keep it that way.
“Have we created a perfect democratic system? No it’s a work in progress. Are we running as fast as our legs will carry us? Yes. And it’s not just Addis but also the most remote areas. Unlike previous governments we have really created a stable country in a very turbulent neighbourhood. Our writ runs in every village. That never happened in the history of Ethiopia. The state was distant, irrelevant.”
He fiercely defends his policies, in the face of Western NGO criticism, that this development is environmentally unsound and indigenous people have been removed forcibly from their land. He insists that in every case they were consulted, dismissing a report by the Oakland Institute in the US which said people had been forcibly removed as “bullshit”. When I suggest that pastoralists should be allowed to continue their nomadic way of life, he says I am a romantic westerner. But he adds that it is their right to continue their way of life.
It is the same with the politics. Having taken power by force in 1991 and coming from a minority, Meles created a safety valve by writing into the constitution the right of every “nation” in Ethiopia to declare independence. Whenever there are local political problem he re-asserts that right to leave but it is unlikely the clause will ever be put to the test through a referendum.
The current trouble spot is the southern region of Gambela where land has been given to agricultural businesses. Meles is defensive about reports of recent forced removals. “We are making sure that the Gambela people are settled and have land and that young people can go to farms not as guards but as farmers,” he said, assuring me that the people who have been moved were consulted. Only when all those in the region who want to work have jobs will other workers be recruited from other parts of Ethiopia.
Is the Meles plan for rapid, state directed capitalism working? At the recent World Economic Forum meeting in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa earlier this month, criticism came, not from western NGOs , but from China, Ethiopia’s closest ally. Gao Xiqing of the China Investment Forum, warned Meles: “Do not necessarily do what we did”. Policies of “sheer economic growth” should be avoided, he said. “We now suffer pollution and an unequal distribution of wealth and opportunities… You have a clean sheet of paper here. Try to write something beautiful.”
Has any Chinese official ever publically criticised an African leader in such terms before?
And some foreign investors are not happy either. They have driven Ethiopia’s growth but now the government and Ethiopian firms are desperate for a greater slice of the profits. Flower and horticultural companies have been suddenly ordered by the government to only use Ethiopian companies for packing their produce, transporting it to Addis Ababa airport from where only the state-owned Ethiopian Airlines must be hired to fly it to Europe. As the distraught owner of one of the biggest flower farms told me last week: “Ethiopia does not have such companies yet”. But if they refuse, their licences will be withdrawn. It appears that having lured foreign businesses into Ethiopia, the government is now tying them down and taking their profits.
Meles is caught in a bind, under pressure on several fronts with problems that economic growth may not solve. Inflation is coming down but has been running at almost 50 percent. Everyone I spoke with in Ethiopia said that the cost of living was the highest they had ever known. There is real hardship among the poor as the staple grain in Ethiopia, teff, has quadrupled in price recently. The universities are pouring out graduates but there are few jobs. One recent graduate I spoke with said she was one of about 10 out of more than 100 in her class who had a job. The government’s hope is that it can grow the economy even faster. It is promising mining as the next bonanza and Meles hinted last week that oil has been discovered.
But this is the scenario he may soon be facing: a mass of urban poor hurt by the price rise of the staple food and large numbers of educated but unemployed urban youth. Sounds familiar? The Arab Spring was watched closely by Ethiopians. And, it appears Meles senses it is coming. He told the World Economic Forum meeting: “The going is going to get tough so Ethiopia needs a tough leader, a leader prepared to say no. You can’t please everyone.”
Richard Dowden is Director of the Royal African Society. He blogs here.