When Ethiopian police opened fire on anti-government demonstrators after the last election, they not only killed 193 people, but also seriously damaged the reputation of the election winner, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
Quite what happened is unclear. Protestors say they were only complaining that the election had been fixed. (International observers concluded that the election was fair but with many irregularities). Mr Meles insists that those on the streets, who killed six police, were trying to stage a coup.
Either way the response of the police was disproportionate and created a human rights blot on the otherwise admirable record of a leader previously seen as one of the great hopes for change in Africa.
Meles Zenawi, a one-time trainee doctor, entered Addis Ababa at the head of a rebel army in 1991 after two decades in the bush to overthrow Ethiopia’s blood-thirsty Marxist dictator, Col Mengistu Haile-Mariam. Since then he has made enormous progress, instituting democracy, devolving power to the federal regions, restoring independence to the judiciary and pushing equal rights and opportunities for women.
He is a pragmatist. In power he jettisoned his previous Albanian-style Marxism and embraced the pro-market reforms recommended by the World Bank. He liberalised agriculture and fulfilled the conditions to qualify Ethiopia for massive debt cancellation.
But the economic prescriptions of “the Washington consensus” have, over the last 20 years, failed to generate the economic growth promised in Africa. Seeing that he has resisted pressures for land reform and refused to privatise the national airline or telecomms industry.
Instead he has developed an imaginative compromise designed to reform the predatory nature of African government and address the continent’s macroeconomic imbalances – but at the same time to create “a strong developmental state” which will “not intervene in the market in a wanton fashion” but acts to address “pervasive market failures”.
To that end he has just secured from China $1.5bn of investment in telecomms. Mobile phones are proving “a licence to print money in Africa”, he says. “The issue is how do you use that money. Do you use it to build less profitable but in [the] long term more important infrastructure?”
Thanks to his army’s recent victory over a coalition of Islamists in Somalia, Mr Meles is back in the good books of the US and UK who are restoring their aid. For all his failings Mr Meles is still one of Africa’s best hopes for the future.