The Reckoning

The Man Who Saved Ethiopia

Prime Minister of Ethiopia Meles Zenawi on a trip to India in 2009

Photograph by Raveendran/AFP/Getty Images.

The death this week of Meles Zenawi, the longtime leader of one of Africa’s most important countries, Ethiopia, provides a good opportunity to consider the generational shift now under way on a continent that will soon have as many people as China and India combined.

Yes, that’s right, according to the United Nations Population Division, 2 billion people will live on the continent by midcentury, representing 21 percent of the global total and a doubling of its current population. This, more than any other reason, is why the succession in giant Ethiopia (population 84 million) is important to the world.

Meles’ obituaries—being written as I type—likely will touch on all the significant phases of his political life: his role in overthrowing the murderous socialist dictatorship of the Derg regime in 1991; his early tenure in the 1990s when he pledged to lead market and democratic reforms of the country, aligning it with the United States; the futile war Ethiopia fought for years with Eritrea in an (unsuccessful) effort to prevent the latter’s independence; and finally an ugly turn toward despotism after it appeared he would lose a re-election bid in 2005. His mass arrests and the shooting of hundreds of demonstrators that year permanently scarred his reputation, even in Washington, for whom Meles proved a willing proxy in battling Islamists in neighboring Somalia.

For all the ups and downs, he did some things very well, and in the face of the surge of humanity that Africa will produce in the next 40 years, it is important to remember what works today in Ethiopia as a result of Meles even as we hope his successor will emerge peacefully and ultimately embrace a more open form of government.

Meles should be remembered primarily for the transformation of Ethiopia’s economy. The very definition of a basket case when he took power in 1995, it has grown an average of 11 percent every year since 2004. Ethiopia still has poverty, and its fragile ecosystem leaves it vulnerable to drought. Meles, by opening the economy and insisting on rational monetary and fiscal policies, has made a recurrence of the famines that scarred his nation for centuries much less likely.

To the extent that Ethiopia evokes anything in the average American’s mind, it remains primarily an association with the horrific 1983-85 famine that killed about 1 million people. Maybe one of the country’s fantastic distance runners caught your eye during the Olympics, or perhaps you’ve had a sweetly talkative Ethiopian taxi driver with an advanced engineering degree, but more likely it is the Live Aid/Band Aid rock-and-roll famine relief movement that introduced the country to average folks.

Today, decades later, Africa has made progress in improving the metrics outsiders use to measure its economic and social welfare. Annual GDP and per-capita GDP growth are both up drastically. Infant mortality, malnutrition, HIV/AIDS, and malaria rates are all down drastically. A middle class is emerging that is holding governments accountable. Africa’s financial markets and banking sector have become a serious destination for global investors, requiring upgrades in regulation and transparency that have helped curb corruption.

Understand, all the old ills still exist. It’s just that the trajectory is almost all positive. One of my favorite statistics: Transparency International ranks Nigeria a poor 2.4 (out of 6) on its corruption perceptions index for 2011. Clearly, work to be done. But that’s the same rank as Russia (tied for No. 143 globally), and just barely worse than the Philippines, Vietnam, and Mexico, all serious targets of Western investment.

Setting the bar low, of course, hardly constitutes a success. Nigeria’s finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, has a book coming out titled Reforming the Unreformable about her success in reducing corruption in Nigeria’s banking system. And that system is, indeed, regarded as an increasingly attractive target for foreign investment. But as her title suggests, she’s under no illusion that the job is done—only that it is, in fact, doable and that progress has been made.

So, why do we care? The speed with which Africa will double its population over the next 40 years demands that we care. Some thinkers—Paul Collier, for instance, or Robert Kaplan of the Atlantic—have long worried about Africa’s sustainability, with Collier (like me) on the optimistic side.

Kaplan, in his 1994 essay “The Coming Anarchy,” foresaw a world that would essentially implode and become the incubus of mass dislocation and violence all over the planet. This was just in the wake of the collapse of the U.S. intervention in Somalia and amid the carnage of Rwanda’s genocide.

“Given that oil-rich Nigeria is a bellwether for the region—its population of roughly 90 million equals the populations of all the other West African states combined—it is apparent that Africa faces cataclysms that could make the Ethiopian and Somalian famines pale in comparison,” Kaplan wrote. “This is especially so because Nigeria’s population, including that of its largest city, Lagos, whose crime, pollution, and overcrowding make it the cliché par excellence of Third World urban dysfunction, is set to double during the next twenty-five years, while the country continues to deplete its natural resources.”

Nearly two decades later, you could argue that Democratic Republic of Congo or Afghanistan proved his thesis. But Nigeria has defied his dire predictions, so far digesting its admittedly daunting population and religious challenges. Even including the violence in Liberia and Sierra Leone, nothing approaching the disasters of Ethiopia or the state collapse of Somalia has recurred. Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone are on the mend and growing. Even Congo has stabilized somewhat—though it remains torn by warlordism.

Still, in most African countries now, a very clear picture of progress can be traced through World Bank or U.N. or IMF or WHO statistics—or conversations with anyone who visited the region 20 years ago and again today.

The wider view would be to remember that, at various points in the history of virtually every nation state, the process of settling scores domestically makes waves internationally, whether that’s a medieval schism within Christianity, the U.S. Civil War, the Russian Revolution, or the well-meaning dislocation of Muammar Qaddafi, which has unleashed a flood of military-grade weaponry to the tribal and Islamic militants who roam Africa’s Sahara. Why would the 300-year process endured by Africa—slave trading, colonization, proxy wars, and resource merchantism—be any different?

Even the worst places present a happier prospect today than Kaplan’s early ‘90s view—which, I’m quick to add, was quite reasonable at the time. Zimbabwe will succeed eventually once Mugabe dies. Libya, I would argue, is better off without Qaddafi in spite of the chaos the rising sowed. Sudan and South Sudan have so far avoided the worst in their divorce, and recently signed the oil-sharing agreement we’ve all been waiting for that should lay the basis for growth in both. Somalia, still troubled, nonetheless continues to exist in spite of our “failed state” label. A new book by my former BBC colleague Mary Harper, Getting Somalia Wrong, points out how life goes on even there.

In Mali, DR Congo, and elsewhere, of course, troubles persist. But they seem containable today, and one great sign is that unlike earlier periods of phony “solidarity,” their African neighbors appear to understand the stakes. Mali has been suspended from regional groups because of its coup, and there are continuing threats of an intervention if new elections don’t restore democratic government soon.

And so, back to Meles. A man of his generation—the generation that casts off foreign rule, or overthrows a bloody dictatorship—does not often turn out to be a model democrat. He put on a good act in the 1990s during the post-Berlin Wall euphoria, but his stupid war with Eritrea cost him domestic support, and then his real instincts took over. Awful decisions, especially when war with Eritrea began in 1998, cost thousands of lives. But on the life-and-death issue of creating a viable economy for his nation, he got it just about right, arguably saving millions of lives. If we want to avoid Kaplan’s world, other quasi-democratic states around the continent would do well to take note of Meles’ victories as well as his mistakes.