x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Meles's legacy leaves mark on troubled region

At home and abroad, Ethiopia's late president leaves behind a country vastly different - some would say better off - than the one he took over in 1991.

Ethiopia's president Meles Zenawi, who has died after a long illness, came to power in 1991 in a political landscape very different from the one he leaves behind. The Horn of Africa, a region dominated by its largest country, Ethiopia, has undergone immense changes in that time.

But while Meles made great strides in developing Ethiopia, he was unable to resolve the region's long-running wars. If his greatest success was the economy, his greatest challenge was foreign policy.

Meles came to power against the backdrop of fading Communist influence in East Africa. The Soviet Union was disintegrating, and its support for Mengistu Haile Mariam, Ethiopia's long-reigning Communist leader, collapsed. And so did the Ethiopian government. Meles, though a Marxist, set about reforming the economy and aligning his country's foreign policy with the West, in particular the United States.

Meles' reforms overhauled Ethiopia's economy. Land was sold off to foreigners and money ploughed into infrastructure: roads, schools and hospitals were built. Ethiopia's economy became one of the fastest-growing in Africa. Yet behind the growth was repression: political opponents and journalists were regularly jailed and police routinely crushed protests. In that respect, Meles' legacy is at least mixed. For millions of Ethiopians, life after two decades of his rule is immeasurably better, but it came at a heavy price.

Arguably, Meles' greatest failure was diplomatic. The civil war in Ethiopia that preceded the end of the Mengistu era spilled over into Somalia - triggering a civil war in 1991 that still burns - and led to the independence of Eritrea, also in 1991, leaving Ethiopia landlocked.

Meles was unable to resolve the conflict with his small neighbour, Eritrea: neither diplomatically, nor militarily, when the countries went to war between 1998 and 2000. Indeed, Meles viewed his regional policy strictly through a security lens: he squabbled with Eritrea, intervened in Somalia and argued with Egypt over the Nile.

Under Meles, Ethiopia certainly punched above its weight in the region, but it was never able to form close, warm ties with its culturally similar neighbours. At the close of the Meles era, Ethiopians are on the whole richer, but still too divided from their neighbours.