At the relatively young age of 57 Ethiopian Prime minister Meles Zenawi passed away leaving behind a somewhat mixed legacy for his supporters and critics to chew over.
Along with President Yoweri Museveni, Eritrea’s Isaias Afewerki and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, Zenawi was described as one of a new generation of African leader by former US President Bill Clinton in the mid-nineties.
The sheen has come off this “elite” group of African leaders in subsequent years as they have come under attack for human rights abuses, less than perfect election wins and for sliding back into the big man politics blamed for the continent’s current woes.
If the eighties were Africa’s lost decade then one can understands the appeal for the “New Generation” of leader, men of action who were quick to embrace the changing reality of the post-cold war era by allying with western donors to jumpstart their economies, while demanding to retain the right to determine their own development paths.
Zenawi oversaw an economy that averaged 7.7% growth in recent years, diversified the economy away from coffee and beef to now include floriculture, beverages and car manufacturing and is now in the process of building the largest power dam on the continent that will generate 6000 MW of power on completion in four years’ time.
He proved a useful ally in the fight against terror sending troops into Somalia to root out Al Shabab.
Zenawi would never be mistaken for a liberal democratic. He tolerated no dissent, his government jailed the political opposition and harassed the press.
Nothing is black and white. You find not only that are there grey areas but that even those come in many shades of grey.
So this is the challenge of leadership particularly in our part of the world.
In an environment where there is little or no institutional capacity the incentive for one man to fill the void and become the alpha and omega is probably irresistible.
Driven by the ambition to do well by your people the temptation to paper over institutional failure with presidential edict in order to get things done, becomes the normal order of business, centralizing the final say in one man’s hands.
The net effect of this is that institutions are stifled while a powerful personality cult emerges.
In the development of the societies institutions became necessary as faceless, impartial arbiters of disputes.
So whereas previously it was just a group of families hunting and gathering and therefore disputes could be settled face to face, settled on the strength of the mutual respect for an elder or recognized authority figure, in larger societies where kinship is not widely shared an independent arbiter whose authority is respected by the general society was required.
Zenawi was not blind to the issues of governance and maybe to the inadequacies of his own style of leadership —even if only on an intellectual level,
“We believe that democracy, good governance and transparency and fighting corruption are good objectives for every country, particularly for developing countries. Where we had our differences with the so-called neoliberal paradigm is first on the perception that this can be imposed from outside. We do not believe that is possible. Internalization of accountability is central to democratisation. The state has to be accountable to the citizens, and not some embassy or foreign actor,” he once told Peter Gil, author of the book “Famine and Foreigners: Ethiopia since Live Aid”
The challenge then is how does one build institutions? The experience even here in Uganda is that effective institutions cannot be written into existence. To be effective institutions have to backed by the potential to censure offending parties.
In a situation like Ethiopia where Zenawi straddled the political scene like a colossus institutions were unlikely to flourish. Even the best intentioned of leaders faces this dilemma.
And this where the tension lies. Human nature is such that we cannot and should not allow power to be centralized in a single individual however much they act in our best interests, the challenge is how do you prevent this from happening?
Those waiting for a quick and ready solution will be sorely disappointed.
The history of the world shows that the process of evolution from the rule of the personality cult to more inclusive government is a long one taking generations even centuries of contestation between various often evenly matched power centers, to materialize into the form we are now familiar with in western democracies.
Zenawi’s legacy shows that the days of pigeonholing African leaders into ogres or saints are long gone and in judging their achievements be prepared for brain wracking ambiguity.