Ethiopian leader Meles Zenawi shows it is hard to sustain democracy.
NAIROBI, Kenya — It has proven notoriously tricky for Africa’s rebel armies to transform themselves into democratic governments and Ethiopia offers perhaps the clearest case study on the continent of how and why this transition so rarely happens.
Ethiopia, under rebel fighter turned political leader Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, attracts huge donor support for its aid programs and no-holds-barred criticism for its human rights record.
In May 2010 the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition won all but two of the seats in the 547-member national parliament, a 99.6 percent landslide.
Often seen sporting a flatcap and glasses, Meles cuts a slight figure and looks more like a 1960s intellectual of the sort that might be found smoking Gauloises and discussing Foucault outside a Parisian cafe than a ruthless guerrilla fighter and military tactician.
Now aged 56, Meles seized power 20 years ago at the end of a long armed struggle to overthrow Mengistu Haile Mariam, who led the notoriously bloodthirsty “Derg” regime.
Before his 20th birthday Meles gave up medical studies to join the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) which was part of the EPRDF anti-Mengistu alliance which rules the country today.
Meles set about rebuilding his country under a system he called “ethnic federalism” which would devolve power from the center and prevent domination and oppression by any single ethnic group.
Like Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, Meles argues that with economic growth Ethiopians will eventually become rich enough that tribe no longer matters.
The Ethiopian economy has grown impressively, at about 5 to 7 percent a year recently, albeit from a very low base. Helping Ethiopia along Meles’s path are international donors who see in Meles someone they can do business with and who talks their language.
The United States is one of Ethiopia’s biggest backers giving close to a billion dollars in aid in 2008 and in 2009, a figure that was expected to fall to between $500 to $600 million in 2010 and 2011 as food aid was reduced dramatically.
The aim of the aid is to improve the livelihoods of Ethiopia’s 82 million people by funding boreholes (deepwater wells), schools, hospitals, seed and fertilizer particularly in the rural areas where the specter of famine — such as the one that hit Ethiopia and Western television screens in 1984 — is never far away.
But late last year Human Rights Watch, a New York-based pressure group, criticized the delivery of hundreds of millions of dollars of foreign aid. It alleged that the Meles’s EPRDF party uses the aid as a political tool, selectively disbursing foreign-funded support to party members or using the threat of withholding aid to coerce people to join the party.