09/02/2012 02:51 EDT | Updated 10/31/2012 05:12 EDT

Ethiopia's Late Prime Minister: Dictator or Freedom Fighter?

The late Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has been described as both a dictator and a progressive leader. But one cannot measure Ethiopia by Canadian or American standards. The fact is that most western civilizations did not start out as unified nation we see today and the fact is that democracy is a process.


A week ago, Prime Minister Stephen Harper paid tribute to the late Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi on his sudden death. The Canadian Prime Minister remarked how the the late Prime Minister helped move Ethiopia into the ranks of the fastest growing economies in Africa as well paving the way for poverty reduction and food security in the East African nation.

Harper joined a slew of leaders in this tribute. The late Prime Minister has been described in many terms by his fans and detractors including being a dictator and for many, including myself, as being a progressive reformer. His critics have hammered him for cracking down on dissent as well as favoring his own ethnic group. However, these allegations appear highly exaggerated and sometimes blinded by identity politics.

One cannot measure Ethiopia by Canadian or American standards. The fact is that most western civilizations did not start out as unified nation we see today and the fact is that democracy is a process. Ethiopians who had never lived in a democracy before experienced self-government only under the current Ethiopian government.

Meles presided over Ethiopian politics for over two decades and became one of Africa's most influential leaders. He began his political involvement early in life, dropping out of the prestigious Addis Ababa University Medical School at the age of 20 to help found the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) in the fight against the Communist Derg regime in 1974. He then rose to lead TPLF and marched into Addis Ababa and ousted the bloody dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991.

He then brought Ethiopia out of a difficult period, opened it to the outside world and rebuilt its economy. He served as president of the transitional government from 1991 to 1995 and was sworn in as prime minister in 1995.

Ethiopia's economic growth under Meles' regime won international praise. He played a critical role in Ethiopia's social welfare development, reducing infant mortality, malnutrition, malaria and HIV/AIDS rates. Under his leadership, Ethiopian financial markets and banking sector have attracted global investors, after enacting upgrades in regulation and transparency that have helped curb corruption.

The International Monetary Fund in 2008 reported that Ethiopia's economy had grown faster than any non-oil exporting country in sub-Saharan Africa. Ethiopia had previously been a global symbol of African despair but Meles, by opening the economy and insisting on rational monetary and fiscal policies, ensured that less and less of the population suffered from lack of food. Women gained more rights. The country registered rocketing growth in education and infrastructure with construction of new schools and universities.

As president and then prime minister, Meles turned Ethiopia into a key player in regional security affairs. He helped mediate several regional disputes, including conflicts between Sudan and South Sudan. He was also actively involved in the efforts to end the conflicts in Somalia. Meles' made exceptional contributions to the advancement of the objectives of the African Union and the promotion of Africa's interests in the global forum.

According to the African Union Commission, Meles worked effectively to promote peace and security in Africa, both within the framework of the AU and the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD). Meles oversaw the deployment of Ethiopian peacekeepers to Burundi, Liberia and Abyei, as part of AU or United Nations Missions, and extended support to the Somali authorities and AMISOM in their efforts to defeat terrorism and extremism in Somalia and pave the way for lasting peace and reconciliation in that country.

The Executive Secretary of the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) Mahboub Maalim noted the IGAD region greatly benefited from Meles' wise leadership. During Meles' Chairmanship, IGAD shone in the international arena due to his successful management of the volatile situation affecting the region.

Maalim pointed out that Meles tirelessly worked for peace in Somalia, Sudan, Rwanda, Burundi and Liberia. His vision of regional economic integration and infrastructural development including the Great Renaissance Dam inspired many. New respect for Ethiopia in the diplomatic arena was partly the product of social and economic success at home, but also due in part to the pure force of Meles' personality.

Meles picked and chose foreign allies as it suited Ethiopia's best interests. He strongly supported the U.S. in its struggle against terrorism. Meles shared America's objective of a stable Somalian government free of radical Islamists, and he allowed the Pentagon to set up Special Forces bases and drone airstrips inside Ethiopia.

Reports say that al-Shabab Islamist militants in Somalia, which Ethiopian troops crushed twice under Meles' tenure, burst with gladness on the news of his death, while Africa's youngest state, South Sudan, announced a three-day national mourning for the Ethiopia's leader.

He seemed to have been on the right side of history!