How Meles rules Ethiopia

By Richard Dowden

Meles Zenawi is the cleverest and most engaging Prime Minister in Africa – at least when he talks to visiting outsiders. When he speaks to his fellow Ethiopians, he is severe and dogmatic. But he entertains western visitors with humour and irony, deploying a diffident, self-deprecating style which cleverly conceals an absolute determination to control his country and its destiny, free of outside interference.

He was one of four African presidents to be invited to the Camp David G8 meeting last weekend. The aid donors love Meles. He is well-informed, highly numerate and focused. And he delivers. Ethiopia will get closer to the Millennium Development Goals than most African countries. The Ethiopian state has existed for centuries and it has a bureaucracy to run it. So the aid flows like a river, nearly $4 billion a year. And Meles is the United States’ policeman in the region with troops in Somalia and Sudan. He also enjoys a simmering enmity with his former ally, now the bad boy of the region, President Isias Afwerke of Eritrea. “It’s Mubarak syndrome,” a worried US diplomat told me. “We only talked to Mubarak about Egypt’s role in the region, never about what was happening inside Egypt. It’s the same with Ethiopia.”

In the 2005 election when the opposition won the capital, Addis Ababa, and claimed to have won nationally, the government arrested its leaders and tried them for treason. Some were imprisoned, others fled into exile. Now with 99.6% of the vote, the ruling Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has created a virtual one party state. In an interview last week Meles told me he did not know of a single village in the whole country that voted for the opposition.

This is subtle totalitarianism, dubbed ‘Authoritarian Developmentalism’ by some. If you do what the government says, you get assistance – land, water, services. If you don’t, you get nothing. The basic principles of political freedom enshrined in the constitution are frequently undermined by subtle edicts from government departments. Press freedom is clearly spelt out and recently a minor ruling stated that printers must take responsibility for everything they publish and can refuse to print anything the government might consider illegal. Hardly a devastating blow to press freedom you might think until you discover that the only presses in Ethiopia capable of printing newspapers are government-owned.

Meles’ remarkable achievement since he took power in 1991 has been to attract foreign companies to Ethiopia through a policy of low taxes and a free hand. Growth has been between 8 and 11 percent over the past eight years thanks to the private sector (both western and eastern.) The economy has doubled over the last five years. Meles is rushing to develop the country as fast as he can. Using the Chinese model he has attracted foreign investors to develop agriculture and manufacturing. As he told me: “The criticism we had in the past was that we were crazy Marxists. Now we are accused of selling the family spoons to foreigners. It’s a balance.”

Meles has leased more than 4 million hectares of land to foreign or domestic companies to grow food or flowers. And to provide them with water and power he has built dams which he says are environmentally much better than power stations since they are built in gorges with little water loss through evaporation. But it is not a completely free market solution. There are government monopolies in banking and telecoms. Nor will the government give people title deeds. All land is state owned. Meles has made it clear he will keep it that way.

“Have we created a perfect democratic system? No it’s a work in progress. Are we running as fast as our legs will carry us? Yes. And it’s not just Addis but also the most remote areas. Unlike previous governments we have really created a stable country in a very turbulent neighbourhood. Our writ runs in every village. That never happened in the history of Ethiopia. The state was distant, irrelevant.”

He fiercely defends his policies, in the face of Western NGO criticism, that this development is environmentally unsound and indigenous people have been removed forcibly from their land. He insists that in every case they were consulted, dismissing a report by the Oakland Institute in the US which said people had been forcibly removed as “bullshit”. When I suggest that pastoralists should be allowed to continue their nomadic way of life, he says I am a romantic westerner. But he adds that it is their right to continue their way of life.

It is the same with the politics. Having taken power by force in 1991 and coming from a minority, Meles created a safety valve by writing into the constitution the right of every “nation” in Ethiopia to declare independence. Whenever there are local political problem he re-asserts that right to leave but it is unlikely the clause will ever be put to the test through a referendum.

The current trouble spot is the southern region of Gambela where land has been given to agricultural businesses. Meles is defensive about reports of recent forced removals. “We are making sure that the Gambela people are settled and have land and that young people can go to farms not as guards but as farmers,” he said, assuring me that the people who have been moved were consulted. Only when all those in the region who want to work have jobs will other workers be recruited from other parts of Ethiopia.

Is the Meles plan for rapid, state directed capitalism working? At the recent World Economic Forum meeting in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa earlier this month, criticism came, not from western NGOs , but from China, Ethiopia’s closest ally. Gao Xiqing of the China Investment Forum, warned Meles: “Do not necessarily do what we did”. Policies of “sheer economic growth” should be avoided, he said. “We now suffer pollution and an unequal distribution of wealth and opportunities… You have a clean sheet of paper here. Try to write something beautiful.”

Has any Chinese official ever publically criticised an African leader in such terms before?

And some foreign investors are not happy either. They have driven Ethiopia’s growth but now the government and Ethiopian firms are desperate for a greater slice of the profits. Flower and horticultural companies have been suddenly ordered by the government to only use Ethiopian companies for packing their produce, transporting it to Addis Ababa airport from where only the state-owned Ethiopian Airlines must be hired to fly it to Europe. As the distraught owner of one of the biggest flower farms told me last week: “Ethiopia does not have such companies yet”. But if they refuse, their licences will be withdrawn. It appears that having lured foreign businesses into Ethiopia, the government is now tying them down and taking their profits.

Meles is caught in a bind, under pressure on several fronts with problems that economic growth may not solve. Inflation is coming down but has been running at almost 50 percent. Everyone I spoke with in Ethiopia said that the cost of living was the highest they had ever known. There is real hardship among the poor as the staple grain in Ethiopia, teff, has quadrupled in price recently. The universities are pouring out graduates but there are few jobs. One recent graduate I spoke with said she was one of about 10 out of more than 100 in her class who had a job. The government’s hope is that it can grow the economy even faster. It is promising mining as the next bonanza and Meles hinted last week that oil has been discovered.

But this is the scenario he may soon be facing: a mass of urban poor hurt by the price rise of the staple food and large numbers of educated but unemployed urban youth. Sounds familiar? The Arab Spring was watched closely by Ethiopians. And, it appears Meles senses it is coming. He told the World Economic Forum meeting: “The going is going to get tough so Ethiopia needs a tough leader, a leader prepared to say no. You can’t please everyone.”

Richard Dowden is Director of the Royal African Society and author of Africa; altered states, ordinary mircles.

19 thoughts on “How Meles rules Ethiopia

  1. menilik on

    He did not say anything abount his racism, which is inseparable from the economy and distribution of wealth.

    • balekinew on

      My bro, he mentioned it in a tactical way. He mentioned about Gambella reported by Oakland university, which reports “>75% of the land is given to tigres in the name of foreigners.” The writer mentioned that foreigners are forced to share profit and use local packing which not available there, if there is it is from the minority tribe. Or the foreigners have to pay corruption money to those meles gangs arranged by that shameless banda.He also mentioned he is from minority,which clears that he is an inferior tribal chief. The over all idea of the writer is: The barbaric minority banda is smooth mouthed to the west to begg in the name of oppressed ethiopians and he is the nomadic and evil ruler of the country in the interior. In history of the country, life have never been expensive and hard; in the history of the world china government has never critisized an african leader whoever barbaric is, but they do it to this banda as he is the lowest infected bullshit they have ever seen. He wants them to start and he surrounded them by tigres as a share holder. Foreigners and other ethinic investers are needed until they make the difficulties smooth to tigres,’which’ they acted as parasites until the companies become ready made. Finally, ethiopian should start the Arab spring style demonstration and the westerns are aware of that to happen as right moment.

      about the word ‘racism’ I don’t agree with you bro. Because the right word is tribalism, because they have no different race rather a tribe. They are not even homegeneous tribes, but a “Dikalas” that range from kunama to agame…. So there is no race called” kunama” or “agame” rather tribes who used the moment to pay back the time when they were in the jungle, which they believe and infererize themslves that they were not considered as human beings by the previous regimes of ethiopian history,which is a half myth.

      • Alula on

        All what you are saying is not written. You are negative and filled with too much hatred towards the tribe you are referring to. The tribes you hate so much will thrive no matter how much you hate them. They do not hate you. You hate them. Your hatred with kill you from inside yourself. Racist and you claim your are not racist? read your writing again, you are the most rustic racist and you do not even see it. Leba

        • harrar on


          The woyane are violent thugs who are divisive and hateful. It is the woyane who have devised a plan to divide the Ethiopian people on ethnicity/race and tribal background, and who are inciting inter-ethnic and reelegious violence. The woyane love chaos and love to create chaos out of nothing, because it is only by divide and rule that they can sustain power.

          99% of the top positions in the so called Ethiopian army is occupied by woyanes. How could this be unless the woyane are hateful, corrupt, violent and dictatorial.

          The woyane are 99% employed and looting the country, not because they have ability or more education than other groups of people, but because they happen to be woyanes. They employ their kits and keith in every government institution by discra=iminating against other Ethiopians simply because they are not woyane or supporters of woyane.


    • Anonymous on

      Ayeeeeeeeegud! anche bilo Oromo, Oromos and other ethnic Ethiopians can identify typical Woyanes like you from oppressed Ethiopians.

    • peace on

      When Weyanes start to worry, they intensify the propoganda divison and they start to post acting like they are Oromos saying Free Oromia! Like Tezibt above and also bring the issue of Eritrea to divert attention from Weyane. However there are Eritreans indeed (not sure Tigreans born and raised in Eritrea or real Eritreans) but there are are Eritreans also working with TPLF against Ethiopians for their own self interest.

      • peace on

        There is a game going on. The GDP is not measured by the livelihood of the pepole, it is how much money the leader has stolen and reported as GDP growth, it is the actual liquid money owned by Meles/TPLF that represents as if it is for Ethiopia which in actuallity is not. Meles/TPLF don’t have to prove it to the world because the world elite are part of the scam working along with Meles/’TPLF .

  2. Anonymous on

    History has shown that a good speaker doesn’t make a man/woman a good leader. Adolf Hitler was also a good and charismatic speaker. Dictator Meles will say and do anything to get what he wants. He is a master of lies and deceptions. The Bible tells that Satan is also a master of lies and deceptions. It us unfortunate that some people confuse a man or a woman with Satanic behavior and mentality as a sign of great leadership, case in point the mindless TPLF thugs and the rest of selfish hodam money worshipers who do anything to have some of the money that are socked with the blood of countless number of innocent Ethiopians.

  3. on

    Yes,mr. Zenawi,it is a tough tme and Ethiopia need a tough leader,if you tkink that leader is you,when 80 pesont of the people want to leave the country because of your bad leadership,you are some one no body liked from the very begining,I grew in Mekelle with people from Adwa as loved neibours and I like Adwa for other reason ,the battle of Adwa,but you,having been in school in the 1960s,you hijacked the revolution because of your narrow mindedness,I knew Ras werk Ketsla,I am sure he came with a good intention,and did not know the petty trick of you and people like Sebhat or Weldeslassie Nega,you have lied to us enough and made us once to see great people like prof.Asrat as an Amhara chevenist,we will destroy the enemy before our noble country is threatened,we will always fight you,knowing this emperror Haileslassie always loved and respected the Tigrean people.

  4. Aleslash on

    This stupid foreigners don’t stop to think about the figures they brandish as facts. Why would a country that has been growing 8 – 11% a year need an aid package of $4billion? How, in the face of that accelerated GDP growth, is the living standard of 80 million Ethiopians deteriorating by the day. Not to mention the 12million needing food aid. China has been growing by that rate and the evidence is there for everyone to see where as in ethiopia, these idiots are peddling what Meles is feeding them.

    • Anonymous on

      I just want to concurred on your point,Chinese growth for the past 5 years is not more than 7% according to world bank and IMF growth projection,but you can see the growth reflect in Chinese people life.

  5. Saba on

    This report is a mixture of Good and Bad for Ethiopians. The Good side of it is that it shades some light that the Current Government is in trouble in certain aspects of political, economic and social aspects.

    The bad aspect of it is the following:
    “Meles’ remarkable achievement since he took power in 1991 has been to attract foreign companies to Ethiopia through a policy of low taxes and a free hand. Growth has been between 8 and 11 percent over the past eight years thanks to the private sector (both western and eastern.) The economy has doubled over the last five years. Meles is rushing to develop the country as fast as he can”
    This part falls short of discussing the fact that Meles is rushing to rob the country’s resources, he is handing over the economic benefits to his favorite individuals and companies, to his “beloved” political members of the TPLF, to the undercover agencies and looters. Corruption and bribery are the day to day activities of the system. Poverty is at its highest level in Ethiopian history.

    How about the political front. Meles says ” Ethioopia needs a tough leader” Are you really kidding me? The same thing has been said about Mengistu and same thing is repeated now. Tough in what? In putting journalists in prison? the hate mongering against all other ethnic groups? A ” no one should benefit” policy of the TPLF?

    We Ethiopians know woyane and the TPLF more than any body else. They came to power by force and they are intending to stay in power by force. We know them from the start until now. The leadership members are not Ethiopians. If some one has no love and respect for the country’s people, culture and history then he can not be a leader.

    The Italians built bridges, roads and buildings while they occupied Ethiopia. That does not mean that they can rule the people and the country.

    We need our freedom back where our religions, culture, history, flag, lands, jobs, etc etc are protected and respected by our elected leaders.

  6. AMBBO on

    The woyane gujile have infested Ethiopia from top to bottom.

    In addis all the so called new building projects are owned and run by TPLF ‘tegadalay’ who have now taken positions as military generals and officers.

    All of the ‘governemnt offices’ are staffed by woyane gujile from the door man to the top man running the office.

    Corrution of the woyane gujile is rife. They drive so called government vehicles, take fuel as much as they wanted and use government property as if it is their personal belonging.

    They take bank loans whenever and as much as they liked.

    They have banished mercato traders in Addis and have taken over the place.


  7. Grum on

    A second Blow to Meles Zenawi within a week. At the request of ethiopians in south africa, the government of south africa denied Meles Zenawi to deliver a speech at African union meeting in Johannesburg. Professor mamo Muchie has played a major role for this victory. Please give your Salute to Prof. Muche !

    • peace on

      People please,

      As we know, the TPLF thugs have stretched their tentacles not only in Africa but U.S. If this happened, it is piece of cake for TPLF to hire unemployed South Africans and have these prominent Ethiopians assasinated. So stop with names. Ethiopians should protest without leaders. I am sure there will be no one to protect Ethiopians if TPLF sends its killing squads.

  8. Anonymous on

    Is Meles Zenawi the right person for the right time over a deserving people? Finding the answer to this question might make it easier to rationalize and accept the realities of the last 20 years. King Saul was not popular during his reign but he was the right person for the right time. The creator scans the future and He is aware of the past, whereas humans are ignorant and forgetful. There are very bad elements in Ethiopia who, given the the chance to rule, are as bad or worse than Meles and his posses. So, we should not prove ourselves the worst foolish generations ever by repeating our follies. The one simple solution would be admitting our ignorance with repentance and asking the Almighty to give us the right person.

    The Islamist candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood will face former President Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister in a runoff to become Egypt’s first freely elected president, several independent vote counts concluded Friday morning. Out of a broad field of more than a dozen candidates, the runoff will pit the two most polarizing figures against each other in a reversion to the decades-old power struggle between Egypt’s secular-minded military elite and its longstanding Islamist opposition. It was clear as early as Thursday night that a plurality of votes went to Mohamed Morsi, the American-educated engineer nominated by the Brotherhood, the secretive 84-year-old revival group that became the wellspring of political Islam around the world and already dominates the Parliament. But it was clear only Friday morning that second place went to Ahmed Shafik, a former Air Force general who briefly served as Mr. Mubarak’s last prime minister. A late entry into the race, he was a dark horse campaigning on promises to use a firm hand against the protests and lawlessness that have prevailed since Mr. Mubarak’s ouster. He presented himself as a strong check on the rise of the Islamists. Of all the candidates in the race, Mr. Shafik came closest to promising a restoration of the old order and aroused both vocal support and threats of a “second revolution” if he should win. Mr. Shafik’s law and order message resonated with voters, helping him to overtake the two candidates previously considered, along with Mr. Mursi, to be the front-runners. One was Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister under Mr. Mubarak and former head of the Arab League, who had offered a softer but similar message. In the final weeks of the race, Mr. Moussa’s support appears to have all but collapsed in favor of Mr. Shafik.

    – Brotherhood Candidate to Face Former Prime Minister in Egyptian Runoff

    • peace on

      What does this mean for us? We know that stable strong Egypt which has been for many years had impoverished Ethiopia and had financed groups like TPLF, Shaebia and OLF against Ethiopia. Which the very inception of these groups against their own people and country except perhaps Shaebia is a wake up call for Ethiopoians to destroy them from the face of the earth. Egypt is also strengthened by U.S and Israel to make it stable.

  9. Observer on

    Listen to this excellent advice!!!!!!!!

    Ethiopia’s closest ally. Gao Xiqing of the China Investment Forum, warned Meles: “Do not necessarily do what we did”. Policies of “sheer economic growth” should be avoided, he said. “We now suffer pollution and an unequal distribution of wealth and opportunities… You have a clean sheet of paper here. Try to write something beautiful.”

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