This week brought a few high-profile deaths to this part of the African continent – namely Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) General Paulino Matip. Both men played crucial roles in their countries (and in Meles’ case, further abroad), and their deaths spurred some very impassioned, divisive dialogues on the controversial roles they played during their lifetimes.
I followed the dialogue on Meles via various blogs, twitter accounts, and news outlets and was rather dismayed that most of the coverage tried to cast him as either good or evil, while a small minority of these sources avoided this trap and tried to characterize him as a complex, multifaceted leader who could not be reduced to a simple dichotomy.
My take was that, on one hand, Meles had done some very positive things for Ethiopia and the region, such as:
- heading the guerrilla movement that toppled the dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam who perpetrated the Red Terror in the 1970s in which up to 500,000 people died, and whose counterinsurgency campaign exacerbated the 1983-1985 famine in which over 400,000 people died;
- raising Ethiopia’s profile on the global stage by becoming a leader of the Global South in fora such as the G8 and G20 summits;
- reducing the percentage of Ethiopians living in extreme poverty from 45% in 1991 to just under 30%;
- inaugurating aggressive development schemes – most notably the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam; and
- acting as a peace broker between Sudan and South Sudan during post-referendum negotiations.
At the same time, Meles had done some very negative things for Ethiopia and the region, such as:
- cracking down on the opposition for contesting the results of the 2005 elections;
- ensuring that the ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), secured a commanding majority (99%) of seats in the federal and regional legislative assemblies during the 2010 elections;
- waging brutal counterinsurgency campaigns against the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF);
- aggressively offering land leases to Saudi, Chinese, and Indian firms that have resulted in the displacement of pastoralist communities with ancestral ties to the land;
- capitalizing on the United States’ Global War on Terror (GWOT) crack down on internal dissent – mostly recently by meddling in the affairs of the country’s Muslim minority;
- refusing to accept the decision of the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) and cede occupied territory to Eritrea;
- invading Somalia to displace the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which catalyzed the emergence of al-Shabaab; and
- pursuing hydroelectric schemes that could drastically reduce the supply of water that reaches the Shabelle River in southern Somalia and Lake Turkana in northern Kenya, and could have a catastrophic impact on the ecosystems and livelihoods in those countries.
In all likelihood, I’ve omitted something positive or negative that Meles did, but you get the picture.
That good-or-evil dichotomy was on my mind over breakfast the next day when news of Matip’s death broke. As he was not as well-known outside of South Sudan as Meles had been outside Ethiopia, I gauged the range of reactions to his death based on my interactions with both South Sudanese and the expat community here. As it turns out, to some, Matip had been a Khartoum-supported warlord during the civil war who fought against the SPLA and had been responsible for much of the South-South violence that took place in oil-rich Unity State. One person told me that the government had to continually pay Matip off in order to ensure that he was not a spoiler during the post-Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) and post-independence periods. To others, he was a unifying force for agreeing to integrate the South Sudan Defence Forces (SSDF) into the SPLA when he signed the Juba Declaration with President Salva Kiir in 2006. One person contradicted the statement about Matip being a spoiler and said that in signing the Juba Declaration, Matip had given his word that he would not defect from the SPLA (and in fact, he did not), and thus, rumors of the government needing to pay him off were false. Regardless of how he is being remembered in death, without Matip bringing the SSDF over to the SPLA, and without his subsequent influence over integrated forces, many believe that the internal security situation in South Sudan would have been far worse.
What I take away from the deaths of Meles and Matip is that it is often not possible to reduce leaders to a simple dichotomy when their actions and contributions to their countries are fluid, complex, and can be perceived as simultaneously positive and negative.
Meles Zenawi, the repressive but visionary prime minister of Ethiopia, died on Tuesday after months of speculation on his health. His death has created a power vacuum in the Horn of Africa and will undoubtedly have numerous implications for the region. This development prompts several questions with which international observers will now grapple; yet the question receiving the most attention may be what impact his death may have on the situation in Somalia.
Under Meles, the Ethiopian government has played a major role in the Somalia conflict. In 2006, when Somalia was briefly under the rule of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), it was Meles who claimed that the ICU were associated with al-Qa`ida. This led to a U.S.-supported Ethiopian invasion of Somalia, resulting in what many experts call the destruction of Somalia’s greatest hope of restoring peace and order since 1991. Although the Ethiopian invasion inaugurated a new phase of conflict and destruction in Somalia, Meles played a central role in the regional and sub-regional organizations that attempted to stabilize Somalia, including but not limited to the Inter-governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the African Union (AU). Without Meles, Ethiopia’s political and diplomatic leadership in these organizations may not be as pivotal as it once was.
Since Ethiopia’s withdrawal from Somalia in 2009, Ethiopia has returned to fight the al-Qa`ida affiliated al-Shabaab both inside Somalia and in the region adjacent to its common border with Somalia. Yet unlike the previous invasion, Ethiopia’s recent involvement has been less antagonistic not only due to the population’s exposure to al-Shabaab’s violent extremist ideologies, but also due to Ethiopia’s increased reliance on Somali proxy militias this time around. But, will Ethiopia’s military involvement in Somalia diminish with Meles’ demise? This will depend both on whether Ethiopia’s security forces will be needed to quell any instances of internal instability or cross-border incursions from Eritrea, as well as on the continuation of military assistance that Ethiopia receives – mainly from the United States. Nonetheless, considering the importance of Somalia in Ethiopia’s regional calculus, it is likely that the country’s military involvement in Somalia will continue along its current trajectory.
Lastly, one must not forget the implications for the Somali Regional State (SRS) in Ethiopia’s largely Somali populated Ogaden region. Will the SRS, the second largest state and the region with the most unprecedented economic growth in the country, have a strained relationship with the center? Realizing the need to reconcile with Ethiopian Somalis in this state, Meles has afforded the SRS a level of political autonomy under the controversial figure of regional President Abdi Mohamud Omar. The SRS’ mostly technocratic local government has shown significant economic development vis-à-vis Jigjiga (the capital of SRS) centered growth, and has proven to be of economic importance due to its potential for energy resources. Many have stressed that this amicable relationship with the SRS is Ethiopia’s best hope for establishing peace with the separatist rebel group, the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF). Meles has played a key role in most of these developments with the SRS. The new prime minister, Hailemariam Dessalegne should continue to play a positive but stern role, similar to that of Meles, with the SRS in order to avoid any desires of the state to secede from Ethiopia.
Rahma Dualeh is an independent consultant who works on the Horn of Africa’s political, socio-economic, and security risk analyses. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for comments.