Better late than never, I suppose.
The editorial board of the New York Times used some of their space on Sunday to condemn Meles Zenawi’s increasingly dictatorial governance of Ethiopia and to ask Tony Blair to remove Zenawi from his Commission for Africa, where he serves in his personal, not official, capacity.
While I’m glad to see the editorial page of the “paper of record” taking notice of what’s going on in Ethiopia, the timing seems a little odd. There was widespread violence in Addis earlier this month, as Zenawi’s police and army put down street protests with live ammo, killing at least 46 people. As this weekend’s editorial writer puts it, “Has Meles never heard of tear gas?” This editorial would have been far more timely then.
Just a few days ago – November 18th – Times correspondent Marc Lacey offered an overview of “African-style Democracy”, in a piece titled “By Fits and Starts, Africa’s Brand of Democracy Emerges”. While Lacey is disappointed by the authoritarian tendencies Zenawi, Kagame and Museveni have been displaying, he’s careful to point out that they’re “holding together troubled countries”, and are better than their predecesors: “Mr. Meles, Ethiopia’s hard-line prime minister, is a far cry from the dictator he ousted, Mengistu Haile Mariam.”
That’s true: Mengistu was fond of detaining tens of thousands of members of the opposition and killing thousands at a time, while Zenawi “only” detained 11,000 and has released 8,000 of his opponents. And his kill ratio is quite low, slaying only dozens of protesters at a time. Still, we might choose to set the bar a little higher before suggesting that Zenawi might be “another type of leader” rather than a dictator. I’m guessing the four opposition figures who’ve declared themselves on indefinite hunger strike while in detention are having some trouble understanding the fine distinctions between Zenawi’s “African democracy” and tyranny.
With the defeat of the Kenyan constitution, there appears to be the beginnings of a movement in the Western press to question the leadership of the “new generation” of African leaders – those that President Clinton, visiting the continent, declared “Africa’s great hope”. As Simon Robinson points out in an excellent article in the European edition of Time, “Within months of Clinton’s visit, Rwanda and Uganda had invaded Congo, and Eritrea and Ethiopia had gone to war with each other. While some leaders — notably Museveni and Zenawi — still did enough to remain darlings of Western donors, even they have now begun to slide.”
Robinson goes on to point out that there’s some good news outside of East Africa, as Ghana, Senegal and Zambia have all had elections where the opposition has peacefully taken power. And the fact that Kibaki’s constitution was defeated without prompting any presidential intervention is very good news for democracy.
There’s a tendency, though, to try to attribute trends to a whole continent. With Zenawi showing his dark side and Museveni cracking down on the opposition, it’s too easy to conclude that Africa’s not ready for real democracy and that citizens wil need to settle for some sort of authoritarian “African Democracy”. People deserve so much more. And it’s important that we focus our attention, as people who care about Africa, on the successes as well as the tragedies, recognizing both for what they are.