Despite their cultural and ethnic similarities, Ethiopia and Eritrea have had their differences, divergences that even spilled into war when Eritrea invaded Ethiopia in 1998. The late Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is an example of cooperation between the two adversaries--his mother is from Eritrea, his father is from Ethiopia. Despite this mixed genealogy, Mr. Zenawi’s loyalty has unquestionably lain with Ethiopia, and he was even awarded a medal for his leadership during the aforementioned conflict with his mother's homeland.
Like Che Guavera, Mr. Zenawi abruptly ended his medical studies to join a political movement- he became part of the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF), one of the armed groups that eventually knocked Ethiopian strongman Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991 into exile. In the subsequent years, Eritrea voted to secede from Ethiopia and relations between the two countries deteriorated, culminating in the war in 1998. Before this war, however, Mr. Zenawi had secured the Prime Minister job in an election in 1995.
Arguably, Mr. Zenawi's biggest legacy is his transformation of Ethiopia into an economically vibrant nation in a region of Africa bedeviled by conflict and adverse climate. Relying on parastatal structures known as "endowment companies," Mr. Zenawi's government boosted agriculture, which accounts for 45% of total national output and 85% of employment, and other sectors of the economy. In addition, he has boosted water security in his country and made energy supply more reliable than in the past.
On the international front, Mr. Zenawi significantly increased Ethiopia's clout in regional politics. His alliance with the US in fighting terrorism has won him many friends in Washington. However, some of his critics hold that his cordial relationship with the US is one of the reasons why the Western world turns a blind eye to his said crackdown of political dissension in Ethiopia. Some observers claim that Ethiopian jails are full of political activists who do not see eye to eye with Mr. Zenawi and his policies. With Meles's death, perhaps the fate of these people might change--although the new Prime Minister Haile Mariam Desalegne is not expected to deviate from Mr. Zenawi's domestic policies.
Perhaps one can summarize the story of Mr. Zenawi and Ethiopia over the past decade in the words written in a blog in March by this same TheAFrican correspondent: "Relying on Chinese technology and state capitalism philosophy, Mr. Zenawi has presided over a fast-growing Ethiopian economy. The country's capital, Addis Ababa, is headquarters to the Africa Union, and due to the country's location and relative stability, it is the point of contact for the United States in mediating the crisis-prone region of the Horn of Africa. Far East-ward, Mr. Zenawi has allies, too. China has already part-financed the Grand Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia; another three more dams will soon be built on the Blue Nile, and this will make Ethiopia the leading power exporter in Africa. Furthermore, Ethiopia is set to host an international security conference in April, adding to the country's growing prestige." Mr. Zenawi may be gone now (at a relatively young age of 57) but his legacy both in Ethiopia and on the broader African continent might live on for a while.