Skip to main content

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, who died last week after a long illness, liked to portray his country's leadership as collective. But there was never any doubt about who was in charge.

As dictators go, he had much going for him. Stunningly smart, strategic, practical, he cared about his country and, by all appearances, resisted the kind of graft and corruption that has plagued many African nations. During his rule, Ethiopia's economy expanded significantly, and he played an important role in the wider region.

But Meles' death points up the limitations of autocratic rule. Because he failed to establish the rule of law and set up strong democratic institutions, Ethiopia is likely to face a period of uncertainty, and possibly one of serious upheaval. The odds of finding another strongman of comparable skill are remote.

I had two lengthy meetings with Meles before he took ill. In neither case did I mince words about the increasing severity of his repression: the thousands of political prisoners, the widespread torture, the counterinsurgency atrocities, the suppression of independent journalists and nongovernmental groups. He seemed to enjoy the opportunity to spar, as if tired of the sycophants surrounding him.

During the first meeting, in his office in Addis Ababa, he was accompanied by a single aide who left halfway through the meeting. At the second, during a conference in Munich, he summoned me to his hotel suite while his aides waited outside. Meles was not one to need help managing difficult subjects.

When I fired questions at him, he answered quickly and decisively, never conceding a point but always remaining calm:

Why was he blocking foreign funding for civil-society groups? Because they should rely on domestic support the way his student group did during his university days, and besides, the activists were just looking to get rich.

Why did he accept massive international aid to the government but refuse to allow international aid to Ethiopian nongovernmental groups? Because the government could stand up to foreign manipulation while private organizations wouldn't be able to.

If Meles wasn't corrupt in the traditional sense — no fancy cars, Swiss bank accounts or foreign villas — he did have ways of rewarding the faithful. As a detailed on-site Human Rights Watch investigation showed, the ruling party tended to steer donor-supplied benefits such as seeds and fertilizer to party supporters while punishing opponents by withholding services. Meles told me he opposed this manipulation, but he refused to announce his opposition publicly so local officials could hear it. "We have other ways to communicate," he told me, but his government didn't stop the practice.

International donors were complicit in this sleight of hand. U.S. officials and their European counterparts dismissed or ignored what they didn't want to see. They prized the "stability" that Meles promised. He helped to negotiate peace in Sudan and sent peacekeepers, aided counter-terrorism efforts in Somalia and, though ruthlessly, kept the lid on Ethiopia's multiethnic society.

So rather than send investigators to the field the way Human Rights Watch did, Western donors commissioned a "desk study," which concluded from a distance that donor safeguards were sufficient to prevent such manipulation from happening, so it must not have occurred. Aid continued to flow without reprimand.

Donor nations found Ethiopia attractive because, even if the aid was used as a political weapon, it was delivered to at least some people in need. Moreover, highlighting Meles' repression might undermine support at home for large aid budgets, so the donor agencies kept quiet.

Even Meles' economic success wasn't without its troubling aspects. Another Human Rights Watch study found that, in the name of development, the government forced some 70,000 farmers and pastoralists off their land into under-serviced villages while agribusiness investors waited in the wings. Local protests might have yielded fairer treatment of the displaced, but government repression made that impossible.

One problem with investing in an autocrat is the lack of a Plan B. The fate of Africa's second-most populous country, more ethnically divided than ever before, with a crushed civil society and stillborn democratic aspirations, now rests with interim Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, who served as deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs under Meles. He is expected to hold the reins until elections in 2015, but behind the scenes powerful figures will be jockeying for ascendancy. The new leadership may be tempted to employ even more brutal measures to suppress dissent, most recently, protests by Muslims. Without Meles' smooth facade, Western donors will have a harder time ignoring that grim reality.

Better late than never; it is time for the international community to insist on respect for the basic rights that it never should have abandoned in the first place.

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Region / Country