Leading article: Ethiopia faces an uncertain future

 

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The death of Meles Zenawi, the prime minister of Ethiopia, at the relatively young age of 57, is a grave blow not just to the country which he rescued from the brink of recurring famine. It is a blow to the whole African continent and to the wider international community.

Mr Meles was far from perfect. In his later years he became increasingly intolerant of dissent and presided over human rights violations. To his credit, however, was his transformation of one of the poorest countries in the world into a place of modest prosperity.

In his youth, Ethiopia was held in static feudalism under the Emperor Haile Selassie. Then came the bloody terror of the Soviet-backed regime of Colonel Mengistu. Mr Meles emerged as the brightest of the group of revolutionaries which overthrew Mengistu in 1991, and over the next two decades the charismatic leader who began as an Albanian-style Marxist embraced a controlled capitalism which made Ethiopia a model for economic growth. He also became a leading light in the African Union and was one of the seminal thinkers in Tony Blair's Commission for Africa.

Under Mr Meles, Ethiopia received nearly $4bn of aid each year, mostly spent to good effect. The economy has been growing by near-10 per cent a year for a decade and foreign capital has flooded in. Indeed, Mr Meles became what Liberia's Ellen Johnson Sirleaf described as the "intellectual leader for the continent".

Not all his actions found universal favour. He has maintained a one-party system in Ethiopia. Some 200 people died in street demonstrations that followed the 2005 elections. A number of critics have been locked up by a controlling politician who kept a tight grip on even minor details of government. Most recently he tried to control what was being said in mosques, fearful of the growing influence of salafists and wahhabists.

When challenged in private over his intolerance of dissent, Mr Meles hinted that there were more extreme views within his ruling party which he had to appease. Now that he has gone, Ethiopia, Africa and the world will wait with trepidation to see if that was true.

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