Meles Zenawi: Why we must remember this intellectual giant of our times

If there was one take away from the Meles Zenawi Symposium on Development, held last week in Kigali, it was this: Meles Zenawi - the deceased Prime Minister of Ethiopia - was a man of ideas.

If there was one take away from the Meles Zenawi Symposium on Development, held last week in Kigali, it was this: Meles Zenawi - the deceased Prime Minister of Ethiopia - was a man of ideas.

Africa’s cachexia – as understood by Zenawi and comrades Paul Kagame, Thabo Mbeki, and Olusegun Obasanjo – was, more than anything else, intellectual in nature. It is a condition that, in turn, imposed on them lifestyles that were dedicated to a double pursuit: the demands of state house and those of the mind.

It was a devotion to thought and practice – they didn’t just think; they did, too. Thus, the quartet would point to conditions of improved socioeconomic outcomes in their countries to urge the rest of the African leaders that a new way of doing things was possible, and that they too could do the same for their people.

Theirs was not a dogmatic gospel. It was a conviction borne out of policy choices whose catalytic effects had catapulted millions of people in their respective countries from conditions of debilitating poverty.

This foursome had no doubt whosoever that Africa has been misled for far too long. And that some of this was ‘self inflicted’ because African leaders had allowed outsiders to do their thinking for them. Africa, consequently, had become a place where “lessons are taught, but we never graduate,” President Paul Kagame told the audience. Moreover, he noted, “We allow ourselves to be managed, to be held by the hand,” with that “deference far often mistaken for agreement [of tutelage].”

With Africa allowing itself to be treated as a laboratory for testing development theories came an imposition of prescriptions for curing its development ailments. Initially, African leaders were told that the reason their countries were not developing was because there was too much government involvement in their economies. According to Donald Kaberuka, the outgoing President of the African Development Bank, African leaders were consequently given economic fundamentalist ‘advice’ that basically said that ‘the state is bad; the market is good,’ which effectively “dismantled the state into a night watchman.”

But this was not true. There was no evidence of the inherent badness of the state. It was as if they were saying, President Kagame points out, “get rid of the state and I will fill the void for you.” Worse still, the President continued, this thought was never challenged at all, thereby legitimising its false logic and making it pervasive, as a fact about development.

Neoliberalism, as a strand of thought and liberalism as economic policy – like any fundamentalism – “became a religion which tried to baptise African leaders,” according to Hailemarian Desalegn, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia.

But it didn’t do what it said on the tin. By the 1990s it had become clear that its policy-based prescriptions had produced “miserable results,” observed Desalegn. What is surprising, however, is that the apparent failure of the market fundamentalism did little to temper the confidence of the prescribers.

Instead, they shifted goal posts: the problem was not the market dogma; it’s the African state, its lack of capacity and governance, which was a tacit concession that “the state was missing,” Kaberuka observed.

The writing was on the wall. It said that if Africa was to pull itself out of this quagmire, it’d better start thinking for itself. Only tone deaf, insisted Desalegn, refused to see that “it was not just the African state that had failed, but the neoliberal prescriptions that had been given as a cure had also failed.”

Those with eyes had seen enough. It was as clear as daylight that development is politics. That despite their dressing in ‘technical expertise,’ policy prescriptions were not necessarily ideologically neutral; and  that ‘experts’ were people practicing politics in the name of development, to further the strategic interests of their countries and organisations, etcetera.

But a lot of damage had already been done. The effects of prescribed policy mumbo jumbo had taken a debilitating toll on people’s lives, with poverty rising to record levels as a result of the retreat of the state.

African leaders needed space: to do things on their own, to graduate, to let go the patrimonial hand, to refuse to be an experiment, to reject being perpetual learners who never graduate, and to reject the notion that advice can only ‘go in one direction.’ They needed to seize and reclaim the policy space in order to determine for themselves what it is they wanted to pursue in each sector of the economy and to actually got about doing it. However, policy space – because it is a form of power – is never handed over without struggle.

So they rebelled. Let’s listen to President Kagame. “Meles,” Kagame fondly recalls the ideas of his departed comrade, “rejected the false choice between the state and markets.” Kagame emphasises Zenawi’s refusal of the “orthodoxy of reducing the state to a minimum and replacing it with non-state actors … umn … what they call NGOs and the like, [which] left Africa with no viable path out of poverty,” before concluding that for his friend, Meles, “a third way had to be found.”

Courtesy, humility, and conscientiousness could not allow President Kagame to point to himself along with Meles Zenawi as comrades-in-arms in pursuit of this third way. They were. And he is. If you want to find evidence just look at the practice of development in both countries, and how this informs their mutual “obsession” to liberate their people from poverty, itself conceived by both as the basis of indignity.

In addition to honouring the intellectual giant that is Meles Zenawi, the symposium sought to spread the gospel of his well articulated treatise that offers a “conceptual clarity that Africa can have a developmental state that is democratic.” In it are a set of ideas that helped shape “The Third Way” or the African Democratic Developmental State, a new development paradigm that seeks to build an effective state that is capable of propelling Africans out of poverty.

It is the stuff that legacies are made of. One question, however: Will the paradigm benefit from the support, goodwill, and the benefit of doubt with which African leaders embraced the market fundamentalism it seeks to replace? Let’s wait and see.  

Follow: @LonzenRugira


Have Your SayLeave a comment