In 1995, Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s prime minister, told a gathering of editors at the Washington Post, as he nodded to an open door: “I would love to be the African leader that steps down, that would do away with the idea of a Big Man ruler. I don’t want to stay in office forever.”
Held back by vexing mortality, Meles, as he is known by his countrymen, stayed in power for a mere 21 years. He died earlier this week from what to date remains an undisclosed illness. Throughout his long career, he was a major US ally and the beneficiary of close to $1 billion (Dh3.67 billion) in annual subsidies, compliments of American tax payers.
Who was this Zenawi? A run-of-the-mill autocrat who clamped down on his people? A strongman ready and willing to do America’s bidding in the Horn of Africa in return for diplomatic, economic and military support? A repressive ruler who made a mockery of President Barack Obama’s notion that “Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions”? Zenawi was all of the above, and then some.
His excesses are legendary. “Mr Meles was undoubtedly a strongman”, wrote the New York Times last Wednesday. “Despite being one of the US’ closest allies on the continent, Meles repeatedly jailed dissidents and journalists, intimidated opponents and their supporters to win mind-bogglingly one-sided elections, and oversaw brutal campaigns in restive areas of the country where the Ethiopian military has raped and killed many civilians”.
Following those 2005 national elections, his police massacred 193 protesters. Under his reign, Ethiopian prisons, said Amnesty International, “packed to the seams with suspected political opponents, from urban intellectuals to rural farmers”, and the Ethiopian media was the most restrictive in the world, where even Skype was criminalised. In 1998, Meles led his country of 75 million people to war with Eritrea which, within two years, had cost 100,000 lives.
Yet this man remained throughout a close ally of the US, which had opted to turn a blind eye to his violations of the human rights of his people, in exchange for the African autocrat’s cooperation in the fight against ‘extremists’. But how do you reconcile that with two successive administrations’ contrite admissions — one by a secretary of state and the other by a president — that America had erred when it ‘pursued stability at the cost of democracy’? And now things will be different, honest.
In Cairo, in June, 1995, Condoleezza Rice, the then US secretary of state, gave a speech before an audience of 600 at Cairo University, which everyone at the time naively listened to in earnest, where she averred: “For sixty years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the cost of democracy in this region, here in the Middle East, and we achieved neither. Now we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people”. She assailed the Egyptian government for locking up protesters and called on then president Hosni Mubarak to hold “free elections”.
Exactly four years later, at the same academic venue and in the same Arab capital, Obama stood before an audience of 3,000 and spoke of his “unyielding belief” about the sanctity of the rule of law, about how a people should have a say in how they are ruled, about how a government should be transparent — and the rest of it.
Neither Rice nor Obama matched the soaring rhetoric in their speeches with action. Both administrations they represented continued to support Zenawi and other dictators, and their foreign policy stance continued to derive from expedience, not morality, realpolitik considerations or democratic concerns.
When Washington calls for “free elections” and these free elections bring in elected officials not to Washington’s liking, what happens then? Ask the Palestinians who in 1996 went to the polls to vote in elections that the US itself had pushed on them, and democratically chose Hamas over the pampered Fatah, whose bureaucrats had for years ruled with a sense of entitlement. Washington then not only blacklisted the Islamic group — starving it of funds and thus rendering it hors de combat — but finally launched a CIA-engineered coup against it whose divisive consequences Palestinians continue to live with to this day.
And we need not go into all the other coups that the US sent the boys from Langley to engineer against democratically elected governments all the way from Iran in 1953 to Chile in 1973.
The fact of the matter is the US is a big power, and a big power does not conduct its foreign policy based on ethical premises but self-interest. Given its status, it cannot and will not act otherwise. That’s the way it has been since Machiavelli, the founder of modern political science, wrote The Prince, his opus about power and its exercise by influential, wealthy and ascendant nations.
So it is not surprising that the US, a nation that advances itself with a straight face, as a beacon of democracy, constitutional rights and free media, should at the same time have supported the likes of Zenawi. What is surprising is for peoples in struggle around the Third World to take seriously the protestations of solidarity from a big power that, in pursuit of realpolitik, has been backing autocratic regimes all along. And never mind that by doing this a big power places itself on the wrong side of history. To a big power, history is shadow, self-interest is substance.
Zenawi will be missed not only by the US, but also by Israel, whose interests this African strongman has served ardently. Israeli Prime MInister Benjamin Netanyahu issued this statement last Tuesday: “Zenawi was a beloved leader in his country. He was also a true friend of Israel. During his tenure, Ethiopia became one of Israel’s closest friends”.
Well, we all choose our friends, don’t we? And that in turn says a lot about us.
Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile