Thursday, April 26, 2007

Horn of Africa Week: Meet Meles Zenawi

Horn of Africa week continues here at Dictators of the World with an examination of Isaias Aferwerki's archenemy, Ethiopian strongman Meles Zenawi.

Meles Zenawi was a 22 year old medical school student when Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown in a coup d'etat orchestrated by a group of military officers known as the Derg. The hostility of the Derg towards the people of Tigray prompted the young Zenawi (being Tigrinya himself) to join, and eventually lead, a Marxist resistance group called the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front who were bent on driving out the Derg, especially the eventual Derg chairman, dictator Haile Mengistu Meriam.

After decades of fighting, (and compliated political mergers) Zenawi got his big break when the Soviet Union collapsed, and Mengistu's primary source of military and economic aid completely dried up. By May of that year, the Zenawi led Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front chased Mengistu into exile, and Zenawi took power first as "transitional president" until 1995, when he took the title of Ethiopia's first elected Prime Minister.

"This is not your run of the mill demonstration. This is an Orange Revolution gone wrong."
- Meles Zenawi

Once in power, Zenawi became the darling of the industrialized west, who hailed him as a reformer and a democrat. While it was certainly true that Zenawi's rule was far more democratic than that of his predecessor, it's also true that he's either arranged or tolerated a wide array of "voting irregularities" that keep his party in power. His government has also been widely condemned for ordering an incredibly violent police crackdown on a crowd protesting the rigged elections in 2005 that left nearly 200 people killed, countless injured, and resulted in tens of thousands of arrests. Zenawi was quick to dismiss these condemnations, saying that the protesters in questions were harboring rioters armed with guns and hand grenades, an allegation denied by some eyewitnesses.

And then there's the war. In 1998, the former Ethiopian province of Eritrea led by former colleague Isaias Aferweki, led soldiers into the Ethiopian town of Badme. In no time at all, what had been a minor border dispute turned into a full blown war. During the conflict, the Zenawi government began to expel deporting Ethiopians of Eritrean descent across the deadly front lines to Eritrea, a flagrant human rights violation. Zenawi also used the war as a pretext to begin cracking down on his political enemies, throwing unknown thousands of dissidents in jail and harassing journalists deemed unfriendly to the government.

While less autocratic than his rival in Eritrea, Zenawi has certainly made it clear that he intends to stay in power, and does not mind resorting to vote rigging and political persecution to do so. Ethiopia's cooperation in the fight against Islamic militancy in Somalia has also led to a key alliance with Washington in the war on terror. This alliance has provided Zenawi with access to military and economic aid that might otherwise be denied, and has also caused Washington to look the other way when it comes to Zenawi's abuse of political and human rights in Ethiopia. Zenawi's dictatorship, while not entirely legitimized by the United States, European and African Unions, is tolerated, if only because they find his abuses of political and human rights "less egregious" than those in Eritrea, and because of Ethiopia's ability to keep rebel movements that are deemed to be even nastier in check. Zenawi's critics have rightly alleged that Zenawi has his hands dirty as well when it comes to sponsoring rebel armies in neighboring countries, and it is further suggested that should Zenawi ever find himself at peace at home and abroad he would face uncomfortable demands for political reform from his western patrons. A cynic might even suggest this provides Zenawi with motivation to pursue military solutions to problems that could be resolved peacefully, but as you all know by now, I'm certainly no cynic.

All of this leads us to the current fighting in the Horn of Africa. Will Zenawi or Afewerki come out on top in their proxy war in Somalia? Will they go back to the negotiating table, or simply declare war again?


Anonymous said...

As I write today (Thursday) the Ethiopians have laid seige on the capital for the 8th straight day. The city is sealed, and there is no press or any foreigners inside. Killings are occuring with impunity. There is no food, water or aid being allowed in to the people. What kind of a 'government' would allow it's people to suffer like this. This is the 'government' that the 'international commuinty' says the Somalis must accept. The Ethiopians are backed to the hilt by Bush & Co.

What is happening in Somalia is a true travesty of injustice.

Anonymous said...

American duplicity has to stop, if there is to be any chance for democracy in Africa. Americans can not talk Democracy and aid dictators at the same time.

It amazes me when Americans naively ask why do they hate us ?