It says much when the long-time rulers of two of Africa’s largest, most important nations, Egypt’s Husni Mubarak and Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi, had to fly to Europe for critical medical treatment because their own nations lacked facilities and specialists.
Meles’ untimely death at 57 last week in a Belgian hospital – probably from cancer – has left Ethiopia reeling. He and a junta of Tigrayans ruled Ethiopia’s 90.8 million people with an iron first since 1991 after they overthrew the murderous Communist Derg regime of Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam. Mengistu’s Red Terror is said to have murdered tens of thousands and starved to death a million peasants.
Assessing Meles’ rule is difficult. He was one of Africa’s smartest, most sophisticated leaders. Meles maintained a reputation for financial integrity and personal austerity that was unusual in Africa, though his government was accused of widespread corruption.
Under him, desperately poor Ethiopia enjoyed a stellar growth rate of 7-10% per annum, thanks in part to investments of $5 billion apiece from India and China that incudes major rail projects. Large dams were built on Ethiopia’s mountain rivers that boosted crops, but brought threats of war from downstream Sudan and Egypt.
However, the most important boost to Ethiopia’s economy came from annul infusions of some $1 billion in US military and economic aid. Under Meles, Ethiopia became America’s policeman of the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia had played the same role under Emperor Haile Selaisse until his overthrow and murder in 1975 by Mengistu’s Derg.
Western human rights groups accused the Meles regime of gross human rights violations, political repression, and silencing media. Washington closed its eyes to Ethiopia’s repression, as it did with Mubarak’s regime in Egypt.
Ethiopia and Mubarak’s Egypt became the twin pillars of US influence over Africa and close Israeli allies. Israel blocked criticism of their human rights records in Washington.
Egypt and Ethiopia formed an entente with four other close US allies, Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya and the new, US-engineered state of South Sudan. The first three are now sending troops into Somalia, financed by Washington. US drone aircraft now fly from Ethiopia.
Ethiopia’s 138,000-man armed forces, backed by Cuban troops, battled neighboring Somalia in the 1970’s Ogaden War and then breakaway Eritrea in the 1990’s. In recent years, Ethiopia has twice sent its army into turbulent Somalia in an attempt to establish a non-Islamic regime aligned with US policy.
In 2006, a moderate Somali government, the Islamic Courts Union, was overthrown by the Bush administration and Ethiopia, resulting in creation of the extreme Shebab movement against which the US and its allies are still fighting.
Addis Ababa faces a bigger challenge than Somalia’s quagmire. Ethiopia has been called Africa’s last colonial empire. Its minority Amhara and Tigrayan mountain tribes – about 32% of the population - have long ruled over a restive majority of lowland Muslim Oromo, 40% of the population, as well as Sidamo, Somalis in Ogaden, and other minorities.
Though renowned as one of the cradles of Christianity, Ethiopia is today a majority Muslim nation. Yet it remains ruled by a Christian, Amhara/Tigrayan-speaking minority, supported by the western powers.
Ethiopia’s voiceless majority Oromo have been seething with rebellion for decades. So are democrats and regional movements. There is a real risk Ethiopia could unravel, losing some of its lowland territories conquered by its 19th-Century warrior emperors.
For Washington, which is increasingly involved in Africa’s affairs and energy resources, Ethiopia’s powerful army polices the strategic Horn of Africa and overlooks America’s new clients in Central Africa. Equally important, Ethiopia is one of Africa’s most important water sources and controls the headwaters of the mighty Nile. Its airline, Ethiopian Airways, is regarded as Africa’s safest and most reliable.
Historically, Ethiopian armies have crossed the Red Sea to invade Yemen and Arabia, and invade Sudan. European powers and the Ottomans have sought to enlist Ethiopia as an ally since the 1500’s. Though landlocked after losing Eritrea, Ethiopia remains a major power in the Red Sea region.
Ethiopia may try to escape the long era of despotism, as Egypt is doing. But given its internal instability and foreign power interests, it’s likely Ethiopia may continue under authoritarian rule.
Too bad. Ethiopians, one of Africa’s most capable people, deserve much better.