Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi died on Monday of an as-yet unspecified illness. Zenawi, writes the New York Times‘s Jeffrey Gettleman, “lifted his country from the ruins of civil war and transformed it into one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies and one of the United States government’s closest African allies.”
In reality, Zenawi, who ruled Ethiopia first as president and then as prime minister for more than 20 years, after leading the putatively Marxist-Leninist Tigrayan Peoples’ Liberation Front to victory over the previous regime, was a premier example of the modern managerial statist.
The economic and political fusions he orchestrated in Ethiopia — between state socialism and multinational corporations the one hand, pan-Africanism and US client statism on the other — are the textbook case of a dying form (the Westphalian nation-state) jumping directly from semi-feudalism to complete political vapor lock at the expense of its people.
In theory, Zenawi was committed to land reform: Abolishing both the old feudal relations and the Soviet-style collective farming of the former junta-ruled “people’s republic” in favor of “Land to the Tiller.”
Those reforms were mostly stillborn. At first, many of the previously state-operated “parastatal” farms were retitled not to those who actually worked them, but to functionaries of Zenawi’s party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front. Starting in 2008, the state began leasing “empty” (read: Inhabited and worked by the same serfs who had worked it under the monarchy and the “people’s republic”) farmland to foreign “investors” (read: Multinational corporations looking for cheap land and cheap labor, courtesy of political connections).
Ethiopia’s post-junta constitution holds that “the right to own rural and urban land as well as natural resources belongs only to the state and the people.” But it can’t belong to both. Zenawi opted for the former rather than the latter, then began selling off the Ethiopian people’s birthright for a mess of foreign patronage. Tens of thousands of Ethiopians have been forcibly relocated from those “empty” lands to make room for international Big Ag monoculture.
Similarly, Zenawi yoked his regime to US foreign policy in Africa, allowing Ethiopia to serve as host and military proxy — up to and including invasion and occupation — for the transparently US-imposed “transitional government” of Somalia, which couldn’t under any circumstances be allowed to go on its own stateless way (the way that had made it the fastest-improving economy in eastern Africa, without a dime of the $500 million to $1 billion dollars in annual US aid from 2005 on that has artificially boosted Ethiopia’s claim to that title).
Naturally, none of these things could be done without arousing criticism — so after initial gestures toward press and media freedom, the Zenawi regime reverted to type, arresting journalists and shutting down outlets which the state found inconvenient to promulgation of its own propaganda.
This is the man whom you’ll hear lionized in western media this week for his commitments to “democracy” and “freedom.” Don’t buy it. His regime has been, and will likely continue to be, a mutant marriage of the Mengistu junta’s state socialism to the west’s crony capitalism, accentuating the worst features of both. Ethiopians’ only hope for true freedom is to throw off the state altogether.