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Blog: Strongman Down

Statement

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Date:
Location: Washington, DC

Big news out of the Horn of Africa this morning -- Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has died. His failing health had been a mystery for months. He was only 57, but had ruled Ethiopia for a quarter century.

Like other African leaders, Meles came to power after his rebel group dislodged a repressive regime. By the late 1990s, Bill Clinton hailed him as part of the "new breed" of African leaders that had overthrown dictators and would bring in democracy.

But as the years passed, Meles consolidated power and his reputation soured with human rights groups. Journalists were a particular target of his, as I wrote in this letter a couple months back. Meles is a cautionary tale in not personalizing diplomacy.

While those focused on human rights couldn't stand him, Meles won praise from so called "development experts." "He's managed to do what no other African strongman has done. He was the living embodiment of the developmental state," said one today in an odd sort of tribute. Ethiopia's economy is growing about 9 percent a year.

Meles did earn points in the U.S. for his country's help on counterterrorism efforts in the Horn of Africa -- points he used to lighten any U.S. democracy and human rights pressure. Counter terrorism cooperation isn't expected to change as the deputy prime minister takes over.

In the end, Bill Clinton's vision of a leader who would respect term limits and embrace political pluralism and civil society never materialized. Meles ended up like other African rulers, too repressive and in the presidency too long. Uganda's Museveni and Eritrea's Isaias are in the club too.

Meles is dead. But the hope for an Ethiopia leader that lets his economy flourish, is an ally, and gives his people the governance they deserve lives.


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