Lessons From The Life Of Former Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi
The late Meles Zenawi

AFRICANGLOBE – For me, even more so for Ethiopians and many other Africans, talking about Meles Zenawi’s contribution goes beyond the boundaries of Ethiopia and encompasses the whole continent of Africa and beyond. He championed not only Ethiopia’s, but Africa’s cause in various international forums with passion and conviction, and to great effect.

We recall, for instance, his commitment, together with other colleagues, to the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD). That dedication to Africa, among others, reflected his thinking on Africa’s development. NEPAD was, and still is, for many a collective vision for Africa’s renewal and progress. It is an expression of our common desire to construct a framework for development fully-owned and mainly driven by Africans.

We shall remember Meles Zenawi as a moderniser who dedicated his life to advancing the liberation and socio-economic transformation of his country and our continent. He was able to achieve a lot because he was a man of strong convictions. That strength derived from his ability to subject issues and situations to thorough study and analysis from which he was then able to chart a clear path to development based on domestic realities and home-grown solutions.

On the strength of that analysis, he challenged and rejected conventional development models where they were not suitable.

Today, as during his life, Meles Zenawi is associated with the concept of a developmental democratic state which he articulated as the most appropriate vehicle for development at our current level of economic evolution.

For Meles Zenawi and other like-minded African leaders, in a developing country where both social and finance capital are very low, the state must play an active role in marshalling and directing development effort. It has to intervene in sourcing and directing investment to where it will have the greatest impact.

It is the only institution with the ability to build the physical and social infrastructure needed for the desired transformation of the country. The state has the mandate and should empower its people, especially rural communities, to participate fully in the country’s political and economic activities. In so doing, solutions to national challenges are understood and owned by the people and become more effective and sustainable.

We have indeed experienced how this partnership with the people builds confidence for further achievements. This is the essence of people-centred, inclusive governance that Meles Zenawi espoused and which many others in Africa would practice.

Equally, it is only the state that has the ability to mobilise international backing, both public and private, to support domestic choices and solutions to national challenges. Let me state, however, that this does not exclude working with others. It only means that the state has the primary responsibility and that cooperation is built on meaningful partnerships that recognise national choices.

Actual practice in a number of our countries has shown that it is an efficient state that is able to drive the development effort. Success for this requires continuous building of its institutions that can guarantee efficient performance, stability and continuity of policies.

Meles Zenawi had the intellectual ability to formulate and argue the case for a developmental democratic state, historical proof of its success elsewhere in the world and the boldness to push it through. He was able to institute land reforms to rationalise land use, increase agricultural production, raise levels of food security and empower rural populations and transform their economy as we know it.

Similarly, education has been able to play a transformational role through expansion, both in terms of infrastructure and access. Perhaps the most visible area of growth has been in infrastructure development. Dams have been built for generating electricity so crucial for industrialisation and improved living standards. Roads within the country as well as linking Ethiopia to neighbouring countries have been built and a thriving construction industry exists.

However, he did not conceive or even prescribe the concept of a developmental state as the model for all nations for he knew only too well that none fits all situations. Nor is there ever a consensus about any one answer to an issue like this. Solutions are contextual. That is why other Africans practice variations of the concept based on local conditions in their countries and may get equally good results.

It is evident to many of us that for a developing country, choices designed to accelerate development and growth are essentially politically driven and require the appropriate political set up for effective implementation. And that is to be provided by an actively and appropriately involved state.

This single-minded pursuit of a development agenda, as indeed Meles Zenawi and others have done, has often led to a deliberate or ignorant misinterpretation of their intentions by some in the international community. And invariably, the question has been raised about whether the emphasis on development and the role of the state in it is not done at the expense of democracy and people’s rights.

For those who share Meles Zenawi’s approach to development, there cannot be any contradiction between the two. They are actually mutually reinforcing – sustainable socio-economic development gives rise to greater democracy and political rights can best be exercised and enjoyed in a climate of growing prosperity and improved quality of life.

In any event, Meles Zenawi believed, and other African leaders have a similar view, that democracy is built and grows and makes sense if it creates conditions for stability, continuity of policies, freedom, and the protection of gains that have already been made. Genuine democracy can never be equated to election cycles only as he emphasised. It has to do with the popular engagement of ordinary citizens in making and implementing choices that affect their lives – so true.

Successful governance systems are those that organically grow from local realities and reflect and respond to specific experiences. They do not have to be measured against arbitrary external standards, but can relate to them.

Part Two