ByÂ Thor HalvorssenÂ and Alex Gladstein
With the dust beginning to settle on yesterdayâ€™s death ofÂ Meles Zenawiâ€”ruler of Ethiopia since 1991â€”Western leaders have been quick to lavish praise on his legacy. A darling of the national security and international development industries, Zenawi wasÂ applaudedÂ for cooperating with the U.S. government on counter-terrorism and for spurring economic growth in Ethiopiaâ€”an impoverished, land-locked African nation of 85 million people. In truth, democratic leaders who praise Zenawi do a huge injustice to the struggle for human rights and individual dignity in Ethiopia.
Meles Zenawi at the WorldÂ EconomicÂ Forum summit in Addis Ababa in May 2012 (Photo: WEF)
U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said Zenawi â€œleaves behind an indelible legacy of major contributions to Ethiopia, Africa, and the world.â€ Gordon Brown called Zenawiâ€™s demise â€œa tragedy for the Ethiopian people,â€ whileÂ David Cameronremembered him as an â€œinspirational spokesman for Africa.â€Â Bill Gatestweeted that he â€œwas a visionary leader who brought real benefits to Ethiopiaâ€™s poor.â€ Abdul Mohammed and Alex de Waal took to theÂ New YorkÂ TimesÂ op-ed pages today in perhaps the mostÂ unspeakably sycophantic eulogyÂ of Zenawi, declaring that the dictatorâ€™s death â€œdeprives Ethiopia â€” and Africa as a whole â€” of an exceptional leader.â€
For years, the diminutive Zenawi had been a fixture on the Davos circuit, charming Western leaders with statistics of human development and business expansion. Under his control, Ethiopiaâ€™s average annual GDP growth rate more than doubled to a gaudyÂ 8.8 percent over the past decade, and trade and investment with the West boomed. He worked with the U.S. to capture terroristsâ€”even invading Somalia to help oust an Islamist governmentâ€”in return netting roughlyÂ a billion dollars a yearÂ in American aid. Ethiopia had been to hell and back in the 1970s and 1980s with famine, war, and genocide. For someone who came to power as a freedom fighter and liberator, who gave one of the poorest countries on earth China-esque economic growth, and who became a key ally of the U.S., what was not to like?
First off, many of the rosy development statistics given out by the Ethiopian governmentÂ are simply fraudulent; independent sources still rank Ethiopia at the very bottom ofÂ povertyÂ indexes. Second, what genuine economic and public health transformations Zenawi did bring to Ethiopia were achieved with aÂ top-down modelÂ that mirrored the statist command he implemented over all other aspects of Ethiopian life.
Zenawi built a totalitarian state, guided by Marxist-Leninism, complete with acult of personalityÂ and zero tolerance for dissent. Like Saddam Hussein or Bashar al-Assad, he filled the countryâ€™s top political and economic positions with men from his own Tigaray ethnicity. When elections did occur, he won them with Saddam-like numbers, most recently,Â 99 percent of the vote. Civil society organizationsÂ were harassed into submission or banned. Hisgovernment only allowedÂ oneÂ television station,Â oneÂ radio station,Â oneinternet-service provider,Â oneÂ telecom,Â oneÂ national daily, andÂ oneÂ English dailyâ€”all churning out government propaganda. Zenawi used this information hegemony to heavily censor news available to Ethiopians, taking special delight in preventing them from hearing news from exile groups outside the country.
Zenawiâ€™s critics were jailed, killed or chased out of the country: in fact, more journalists were exiled from Ethiopia in the last decade thanÂ any other country on earth. Letâ€™s restate that: Zenawi kicked out more journalists than any other tyrant on the planet, thereby monopolizing control over information. His favorite tactic was labeling dissidents as terrorists. JournalistsÂ risked up to 20 years in prisonÂ if they even reported about opposition groups classified by the government as terrorists. The most emblematic case is that ofÂ Eskinder Nega, a PEN-award-winning author sentenced to 18 years in prison this July for questioning the governmentâ€™s new anti-terrorism laws.
Many in the West like to credit Zenawi with â€œkeeping Ethiopia togetherâ€ despite ethnic differences, war, famine and regional instability. Dissidents, however, maintain that Zenawi wasÂ always at war with his own people. When towns and villages rose up against Zenawiâ€™s military regime, they wereÂ put down brutally. There was, and still is, a climate of fear. With 85 million Ethiopians suffering under his thrall, Meles Zenawi constructed one of historyâ€™s most depraved states in terms of numerical human suffering.
So why is this monster being celebrated? Some, like Bill Gates and Ambassador Rice, choose to remain blind to Zenawiâ€™s systemic human rights abuses. He was, undoubtedly, charming. Others, perhaps more worryingly, excuse his tyranny for his development and economic acumen.Â ForeignPolicyâ€™s managing editor illustrated this point of view while tweeting that â€œMeles Zenawi was a dictator but was better for his country than many democratically elected leaders.â€
This kind of mentality is a dangerous one.Â There is noÂ such thing as a benign dictator. Only those with a fascist mindsetâ€”who want to cut corners, who complain how messy and inefficient democracy can be, and who overlook two thousand years of political historyâ€”can believe in this chimera. From Cuba toKazakhstan, the story is the same.
For instance, Pinochet took Chile from being a run-of-the-mill right-wing statist dictatorship to an economic success story with the same liberalization principles that the Chinese tyranny has employed to transform itself into a world power. Is the Pinochet-Beijing model of a police state with economic freedom, attempted by Zenawi for Ethiopia, an acceptable one in this day and age? TheÂ New York Review of BooksÂ reminds us that this sort of ideology brought Ethiopia â€œappalling cruelty in the name of social progress.â€ Anyone stating that they â€œlikeâ€ the economic results from the Pinochet-Beijing model must accept thousands of tortured and disappeared in Chile and tens ofmillionsÂ dead in China (and 8 million political prisonersÂ languishing in the LaogaiÂ as of today). Perhaps those admiring a strongman can accept such a condition with a John Rawls-typeÂ veil of ignoranceÂ without knowing what it is like to live under a dictatorship. It is easy to tolerate torture and disappearances if it isnâ€™t happening to your daughter, your brother, your mother, or you.
Those in the West heaping praise on Zenawiâ€”all living in societies that suffered so much to achieve individual libertyâ€”are engaging in dramatic hypocrisy by praising this thug. Would Bill Gates live in a country that denies people basic political freedoms? Whose government arrests and kills its critics en masse? Would he trade places with an Ethiopian university student who believes in free expression and whose stance will lead to certain prison and possible execution?
Any arguments that Zenawi was mellowing (after 21 years in power!) are false. The past few years saw new sweeping â€œanti-terrorismâ€ laws andÂ stronger Internet censorship. In 2005, Ethiopia even saw its ownÂ Tiananmen Square. That year, Zenawi decided to hold freer elections, but the opposition won a record number of parliamentary seats, including all those in the capital, Addis Ababa. Throngs took to the streets to celebrate. In response, ZenawiÂ lashed out brutally, arresting the oppositionâ€™s entire leadership and sentencing them to life in prison for treason; shuttering five newspapers and imprisoning their editors; murdering 193 protestors, injuring 800, and arbitrarily jailing 40,000 other men, women, and teenagers in a show of raw tyranny. According toÂ The Telegraphâ€™s David Blair, who wasÂ reporting from the scene, â€œa crackdown on this scale has not been seen in Africa for 20 years and the repression exceeds anything by President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe for the past decade at least. Apartheid-era South Africaâ€™s onslaught against the black townships in the 1980s provides the only recent comparison.â€
It is startling thatÂ so manyÂ consider ZenawiÂ an â€œintellectualâ€ leader, when he needed such bloody policy to enforce his rule. When Western leaders consider this dictatorâ€”who rapaciously treated Africaâ€™s second-largest nation as his personal propertyâ€”worthy of not just condolences, but pure adulation, something is very wrong with their value systems.
One politician, the Norwegian foreign minister,Â made a slight nodÂ toward individual rights in his obligatory comments about Zenawiâ€™s passing: â€œNorway and Ethiopia have an open and frank dialogue on political and social issues, including areas, such as human rights, where we have diverging views.â€
@ThorHalvorssenÂ is the founder and president of the New Yorkâ€“based Human Rights Foundation. AlexÂ @GladsteinÂ is HRFâ€™s Director of Institutional Affairs.http://www.forbes.com/sites/thorhalvorssen/2012/08/22/requiem-for-a-reprobate-ethiopian-tyrant-should-not-be-lionized/2/