Ethiopia: Regional Strength and Economic Growth

Meles Zenawi
Meles Zenawi is one of Africa's strongest leaders

Outmanoeuvring opponents in Eritrea while bringing allies into play in Somalia, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is looking for an international role.

This has been a good year for Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, at home and abroad.

Economic indicators vindicate his developmental state model, with international institutions writing complimentary reports. Internal opposition to his regime has remained muted. He has also consolidated Ethiopia’s position in the region.

The premier is chair of the regional Inter-Governmental Authority for Development (IGAD), a position he has held for the past two years. Meles has used the position to persuade other IGAD countries to isolate Eritrea.

Eritrea suspended its membership of IGAD following Ethiopia’s involvement in Somalia in 2006, and its request to reactivate its IGAD membership last year is awaiting IGAD Summit consideration. It is unlikely to be granted.

Ethiopia gets virtually all of its refined petrol products from Sudan and any interruption would cause problems, particularly in the case of a conflict with Eritrea.

Meles has therefore devoted considerable effort to assisting mediation between Sudan and South Sudan, hosting the African Union’s (AU) High Level Implementation Panel series of talks in Addis Ababa as well as providing the troops for the United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei.

Meles has managed the difficult task of remaining on good terms with both states, expanding cross-border links and meeting with Juba as well as Khartoum. On Somalia, Meles has also managed to persuade regional peers to follow his line, allowing Ethiopia to keep its current involvement to a minimum.

Some problems remain, including questions over the Gilgel Gibe III dam on the Omo River and the possible threat to Lake Turkana in Kenya, as well as the still unresolved concerns of Egypt over the Renaissance Dam on the Abay River (Blue Nile).

President Bashir has, however, recently said that Sudan now understands the benefits that will accrue from the dam. And negotiations with Egyptians have not yet hit an impasse.

Meles’ confidence has also been apparent in the AU, which he persuaded to go along with calls for sanctions against Eritrea. He has been helped by the loss of Eritrea’s main ally in Africa, Libya. This strengthened Ethiopia’s position in the AU, as it had always had to keep an eye on Libya’s efforts to get the AU headquarters moved from Addis Ababa.

Meles’ role on the continent has been boosted by his articulating Africa’s concerns on climate change at the Copenhagen and Durban summits. He has been a vocal champion on the need for mitigation and adaptation at these meetings, at G8 and G20 meetings, and most recently at Davos.

Ethiopia hosted the meeting of the World Economic Forum in Africa in May. Recent events in Africa, including the Arab Spring, troubles in Kenya and Nigeria’s concentration on internal issues, have increased Ethiopia’s role, as has its 8 percent -11 percent annual economic growth over the past eight years.

The UN has defined Ethiopia as “undergoing a major strategic shift to a transformational growth trajectory”.

Civil rights to follow

It’s all part of Meles’ vision of Ethiopia as a successful “democratic developmental state”, using South Korea or Taiwan as models.

Ethiopia, however, believes that civil and political liberal western human rights need to follow on from economic, social and cultural rights that can provide for food, water, housing and similar necessities.

Meles Zenawi remains firmly in power in Ethiopia, as he has for 20 years.

Inevitably, he is now accused of increasingly autocratic behaviour.

Meles still appears determined to retire in 2015, even if his ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front tries to persuade him to stay.

He probably will go, but he will hope for, and expect, some international recognition.