Zenawi’s death spells out Africa’s conundrum
He’d been rumoured to have died long before this morning’s announcement on Ethiopian state television. My contacts confirm that he had cancer, but the Ethiopian people were never told.
The prime minister had not been seen in public since June. A nurse at a hospital in Belgium told a friend of mine that he had been unsuccessfully treated there for cancer in July – the same month that the government admitted he was taking a break to deal with “ill health”.
His failure to appear at the African Union summit in Addis in the middle of last month sparked the claims that he was already dead.
The secretive end of Meles Zenawi speaks volumes of his life. He did much to modernise Ethiopia in his 17 years in power.
I met and interviewed him in Addis some 10 years ago. A small, dapper, clever man, he had no doubt that he was the only man good enough to lead his country. Consequently he has died with no succession plan in place.
Like Rwanda’s Kagame, Zenawi emerged from ethnic strife to unite and, to some extent, heal his divided nation.
Like Kagame, he was the classic new breed of “African democrat” beloved of the likes of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. Indeed he led the Africa Commission that Blair helped establish in 2005.
But Zenawi reportedly fiddled the system to stay in power, not least in the course of the country’s most recent elections.
Like Kagame, as his despotism became more and more apparent, those same western leaders kept any misgivings they might have had about him to themselves.
Ethiopia, bedevilled by famine and poverty, grew 11 per cent on Zenawi’s watch. But journalists and opposition politicians alike lived in fear of his casual relationship with the concept of human rights.
Human Rights Watch confirmed as recently as 2011 that hundreds of journalists and politicians were arbitrarily arrested and jailed in constant fear of torture.
Zenawi’s act will be a hard one to follow. His death leaves us with that age-old question: if our imperfect model of democracy in the “north” is wrong for Africa, what’s right?
Is the Zenawi brand of autocracy really the only way for poorer nations like Ethiopia to progress?
Follow @jonsnowC4 on Twitter