As Ethiopians and other Africans mourn the death of the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, the question that will likely follow is whether he was the kind of leader suited for the African condition. Mr Zanawi died last Monday at the age of 57 after ruling his country for 21 years. The stability provided by his regime is said to have led to impressive economic development in the country that is famous for its famine and aid dependence. According to the International Monetary Fund, the Ethiopian economy is said to have posted an 11% growth every year. The late Prime
Minister was passionate about development projects like the 4.5 billion dollars Millennium Dam project that when completed will provide 6,000 Megawatts of electricity, far more than the needs of his country. On the political side, however, Mr Zenawi was far from a model worthy of emulation. According to the New York based Human Rights Watch, the late Ethiopian leader had a terrible record of abuses and intimidation. Human Rights Watch said his rule saw a deterioration in civil and political rights leading to restrictions on freedom of expression, association and assembly with periodic crackdown like the one which followed the 2005 election.
There is little doubt that for most of that time, Mr Zanawi was Ethiopia's absolute ruler, his rule was like that of the Nigerien leader, Hamani Diori of whom one of that country's folk singers, Gawo Filinge, said and I quote, "makiyanka su da Niger har abada su dawo" roughly translated as your opponents(who have fled abroad) will never return to Niger. In the recent case of the Ethiopian Prime Minister, many of his country's opposition figures got the news of his demise from their places of exile in Europe and America. They will be hoping that the death of Mr Zenawi could provide the opportunity for a less authoritarian style of governance now that their tormentor will soon be many feet under the ground after losing his battle with a yet unclear ailment. His death also recalls that of Nigeria's military ruler, General Sani Abacha who died suddenly in June 1998. Like Zenawi, Sani Abacha ruled Nigeria with what many considered an iron fist although credited with some infrastructural renewal and economic stability. Abacha was on the verge of transforming himself into a civilian ruler when he died at the State House without the benefit of a long reign like the late Ethiopian leader.
Mr Zenawi came to power after his Tigrayan Peoples Liberation Front fighters captured the capital, Addis Ababa, and much of the rest of the country driving out then military ruler, Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991. Apart from his record on the economy, some analyst also point to the impressive military machine that has been built under his reign. It is probably that military machine that gave Ethiopia under its late leader the basis of its 2 invasions into Somalia, one of which is said to be at the behest of his American ally to drive out the Islamic courts that brought some stability to that failed state.
The Ethiopian Prime Minister is the fourth African leader to die in office this year, following the earlier deaths of Guinea-Bissau's President Malam Bacai Sanha, the Malawian President, Bingu Wa Mutharika and more recently, President Atta Mills of Ghana. It is likely that the latest death of an African leader will generate more debate about the model of leadership suitable for the continent. Does the situation in Africa calls for more authoritarian rulers who build on the economy or those who toe the line of the current mantra of democracy? Is it leaders like Zenawi who go through the motions of election but always winning with huge margin as in the case of Ethiopia that could salvage the continent? Is it heads of governments like Uganda's Yoweri Museveni and Rwanda's Paul Kagame who are both like Mr Zenawi having taken power through the barrel of the gun and "democratised" their rule while managing to hang on to power for decades? Much closer home, will Nigeria's lot have been different if someone like General Sani Abacha or Muhammadu Buhari had remained in power for decades?
The sobering argument on the flip side however is that unlimited tenure like that of Mobutu Sese Soko could leave the state weakened and unable to hold together easily as in the Democratic Republic of Congo. There is also the recent example of Libya where the forced departure of long time ruler, Muammar Gaddafi has plunged the country to greater uncertainty.
It remains unclear whether the path set out by Ghana's first President, Kwame Nkrumah, of "Seek ye the political kingdom and all else will be added onto you." Or that unconsciously set by the recently deceased Ethiopian leader of seeking first the economic kingdom before freedom from arrest and intimidation are added to citizens of the different countries of Africa will triumph as a model worthy of emulation.
Mohammed wrote from Gwarimpa Estate, Abuja.