Meles Zenawi, Africa’s intellectual giant

In the March 2013 issue of African Business, Anver Versi highlighted the important issue of intellectual discourse on Africa’s political and economic models. His editorial, based on a conference organised by the UN Economic Commission on Africa (UNECA), discussed the developmental state paradigm for Africa’s growth and the contribution made to the debate by a […]


In the March 2013 issue of African Business, Anver Versi highlighted the important issue of intellectual discourse on Africa’s political and economic models. His editorial, based on a conference organised by the UN Economic Commission on Africa (UNECA), discussed the developmental state paradigm for Africa’s growth and the contribution made to the debate by a number of African scholars.

While this was a very welcome and timely article and while it has reinforced the thought-leadership role that African Business has taken on itself, I was disappointed to see that no reference at all was made to one of Africa’s intellectual giants, the late Meles Zenawi who was the Ethiopian leader before his untimely death.

This is especially so as Meles was the first initiator of the idea of democratic developmental state model in Africa and the one who was pushing hard African states to pursue this model of development. At any international forum, he argued in favour of this model and against the neoliberal paradigm, which he says has failed the continent over the last three decades. Speaking about this issue Meles said, “The last three decades, which could be described as the decades of emergence and triumph of neoliberalism in key centres of global power throughout much of the world, have been bad decades for Africa. They are simply the lost decades of Africa.”

So, to elaborate on Versi’s editorial and to set the record straight, I would like to add my observations on the late Meles Zenawi’s tremendous contributions to the African intellectual space. Meles was the first African leader who dared to reject the neoliberal policy prescriptions and the first African leader to state openly that Africa needs a paradigm shift away from the predatory state and neoliberal paradigm to a home-grown and more progressive one, i.e. the democratic developmental state.

Professor Akbar Noman of the Colombia University in his interview with Ethiopian Television says, “As far as I know, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was the first head of government to criticise many of the neoliberal prescriptions very early. The Washington consensus-type policies are accountable for the lost quarter century of Africa. It is now widely accepted that there were lots of mistakes made in the kind of conditionality imposed in Africa in the 1980s in particular.”

Meles believed that if you don’t understand the problems in your own terms and in your own logic, if you won’t have the intellectual ability to grasp the problem from where you are,       you will never be the master of that problem. Rather the problem will master you.

Meles has shown Africans how to become masters of their own destiny in his unpublished but widely spread thesis, African Development: Dead Ends and New Beginnings that has contributed a new thought to the existing knowledge of political economy in the world.

According to his thesis, “As Africa stands today it doesn’t have comparative advantage in any agricultural and manufacturing products. Therefore, if the policy prescriptions of the Washington consensus are applied, the state will be reduced in size and in its capacity to direct the economy.

“What liberalisation then would mean would simply lead the business sector and the politics of every country to rent seeking, because that is where the profit lies. In this way Africa will not develop. It will simply become a poor, rent-seeking appendage to the rest of the world economy. Therefore, in order for Africa to develop, it needs to follow a different model, which is directed by a political leadership that uses the instruments of the state for its development.” Meles named this alternative model as ‘democratic developmental state’.    

Meles’ influence across Africa is huge. The President of the Pan-African Parliament, Bethel Amadi, says, “Meles was able to enhance a clear vision on how Africa should plan for the next millennium in terms of infrastructure and human capital development, peace and security, agriculture and food security, environmental protection, and in terms of our relations with the international communities. His contribution was very immense.”

His efforts in establishing peace and security on this continent were enormous. Despite the scarce resources he had at home, Meles managed to send peacekeeping troops to many conflict areas in Africa such as Rwanda, Burundi, Liberia, Somalia, Darfur and Abye. “Meles thought that Africa’s peace and security was the absolute bedrock of its development. Without that, he said the continent will be in a position of weakness, vulnerability and poverty,” says the World Peace director Alex De Waal.

In terms of the AU, “he believed that Africa’s integration must continue; that the people of Africa need to be united. Africans, whether they are at home or in the diaspora, have a common history and a common destiny. Our future is bound together. It is only a united and strong Africa that will be able to move us forward. For us in the continent, he was a leader par excellence. Meles was a shining example of what leadership should be in Africa. He wasn’t just a leader of Ethiopia, but of the rest of Africa,” says Amadi.  

The AU and the Economic Commission for Africa are now continuing discussions on Meles’ democratic developmental state paradigm among others. As part of this effort, an ad hoc expert group within the ECA has begun to organise sessions that discuss the developmental state paradigm in Africa and drive forward Meles’ development model.

Fighting Africa’s corner

Perhaps what is little known is that Meles was at the forefront of climate change mitigation negotiations. He represented the continent in the consecutive climate change conferences held in Copenhagen, Cancun, and Durban.

The popular figure of $100bn for Africa the world has been discussing since 2009 was proposed by the African spokesman, Meles Zenawi, in Copenhagen in COP15. In his proposal he also mentioned that 40% of that $100bn be given for a Green Facility for Africa (GFA) to be created within the AfDB to administer Africa’s climate fund.

He was able to make Africa speak with one voice on this issue, says the AU commissioner for Rural Economy and Agriculture. “Africa is a continent of many minds, but Meles was able to get Africa to be one. In diversity he was able to have that union of mind. Talking with one voice on Africa’s viewpoint and presenting it to the world was a big achievement for Africa. And that was realised by Meles. If he wasn’t there, we wouldn’t have managed it. His ideas are very important – they can lead Africa to greater heights. I think if his qualities are emulated by other African leaders, our continent will shine. ”

The $100bn proposal was crucial in narrowing the differences observed between the developed and the developing world. Once this money was proposed by him for climate change impact mitigation and adaptation in the poor countries, the agendas in the next series of climate conferences have been focusing on its implementation.

Before the COP16 held in Cancun, Meles, along with the Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, was chosen by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to identify the sources of the finance proposed in Copenhagen as well as the way on how to channel it to the users.

Then in the Cancun meeting, he reported his group’s finding that it is possible to mobilise $100bn from the public and private sectors even at the time of financial crisis. His report also suggested that a green climate fund (GCF) should be established to administer and channel this finance to the developing countries that are affected first and most by climate change impacts.

In the next climate conference held in Durban, South Africa, the two key talking points were about renewing the Kyoto protocol and establishing the GCF. In this conference Meles saved the Kyoto protocol, which was about to collapse, and paved the way for the establishment of the climate fund in Doha in the next climate conference.

From this, we can conjecture that all the main points in the series of climate negotiations are his ideas.

Ideas are the most important factor in human progress and we should cherish and celebrate those among us who come up with them and use their positions to push them forward. Meles was one such champion; his ideas will last long after his passing.
I salute African Business on its efforts to disseminate African thought to a wider audience and I hope my observations will fill the gap in knowledge that your editorial inadvertently left.

Rest in peace, our hero Meles Zenawi; Africa shall always remember you.

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