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Ethiopia's Meles Zenawi is unwell and so is Africa

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By MWENDA wa MICHENI

Posted  Friday, July 20   2012 at  14:42

It started as another rumour and some of us quickly dismissed it. He had just hosted some guests in Addis on the sidelines of the African Union Summit, it couldn't have gone that fast.

But there were unanswered questions. It was unlike him to be that absent from the spotlight.

After hours of uncertainty, the truth, just like light emerges at dawn, finally came out.

It was confirmed that Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was admitted to a hospital in Brussels, the capital of Belgium and the European Commission. At the time, the official line was clear: He is in hospital but doing well. On social media and other public spaces, the unofficial line was: He is in hospital in a critical condition. Some even went to the extreme. My official line on the same was and remains: He is unwell, and so is Africa, the continent whose leaders were in Addis last week.

Earlier in the year, rumour mongers speculated that Meles's cousin and enemy number one, Eritrean President Isaias Afeworki, was also unwell. Just like in the Meles's case, the rumour was quickly dismissed as untruth, by his handlers.

Birds of a feather, some would describe the pair and indeed in more in how they tightly manage their information. It is a the old school way of doing things: Presidents never went down with a cold, even in the cold months; court jesters were regular features and public accounting totally absent, something that locked the continent's potential for decades.

But even as the continent strives to get unchained, a few leaders are stuck in the mud. A few have been pushed out by protests; others by elections and a few by deaths. But there are remnants that need to go.

In the case of Eritrea, press freedom remains absent. The country has on a number of times appeared on the journalists' rights group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) rankings, just below North Korea as the worst nation in the world for press freedom. And not just that.

Deadly elements

Eritrea remains the bad boy in the region, with several accusations of supporting deadly elements like Al-Shabaab and others flying from her neighbours, including Kenya, Ethiopia, Yemen, Sudan even Djibouti, where the US has military bases.

Internally, Eritrea remains at war with itself. On average, 1,300 Eritreans leave their country for Ethiopia every month, according to government statistics. Most of these are young educated men who could be oiling the wheels of the country's economy, fleeing forceful conscription into the army.

Due to the fear of renewed attack from Ethiopia, after the failure to agree on the boundary after secession, the country has turned to its youthful population for security, just in case, through mandatory National Service training. Serious violations of Human Rights are committed a long the way, plus many other sins, including political repression and limiting citizens' participating in public affairs.

In Ethiopia, Meles remains another interesting story. The West loves him, especially due to the country's strategic geopolitical location.

He has a number of flagship projects to his credit: The infrastructure, food security efforts that are yet to bear fruits for the largely malnourished country; and other achievements in terms of the MDGs. But the other side of things is not very juicy.

The highly decorated man, who has served, both as President and Prime Minister, has a way of charming foreigners. This way, his dictatorial tendencies back home are easily ignored.

The fact that his country hosts the African Union headquarters accords him more powers.

Roving eye

Having introduced a semblance of multiparty system in Ethiopia, helped boost his credentials. But controversial elections have also clearly shown where he remains, in democracy terms.

That my colleague, a Nairobi-based analyst well versed with African affairs, could not name Ethiopia's President Girma Wolde-Giorgis, desperate having appeared in the news last March after it was claimed that he was on the death bed, tells you the kind of a leader that Meles has been.

A muzzled opposition plus how he treats journalists critical of his actions, completes the picture. And there are figures that suggests he has roving eye. Under his watch, Ethiopia lost 14.0 per cent of its forest cover between 1990 and 2005, or around 2,114,000 hectare. According to a recent UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) report, 35 million Ethiopians or about 44 per cent of the total population are malnourished, and that the country has the largest proportion of malnourished people in the world!

But even worse is the way he betrayed Africa at the Copenhagen Talks in 2009 where he was entrusted with the African position on Climate Change. The French and Americans were definitely impressed by his performance.

At this point, my question of the week: Aren't these, Meles and his brother Afeworki, the kind of leaders that this continent could do without?

Email: mmicheni@ke.nationmedia.com/Twitter: wamicheni

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