by JEFFREY GETTLEMAN
LIBREVILLE, Gabon — There was probably no leader on the African continent who exemplified the conflict between the American government’s interests and its highest ideals better than Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia.
Mr. Meles, who died on Monday after more than 20 years in power, played the American battle against terrorism
brilliantly, painting Ethiopia, a country with a long and storied Christian history, as being on the front lines against Islamist extremism. He extracted prized intelligence, serious diplomatic support and millions of dollars in aid from the United States in exchange for his cooperation against militants in the volatile Horn of Africa, an area of prime concern for Washington.
But he was notoriously repressive, undermining President Obama’s maxim that “Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.”
Mr. Meles was undoubtedly a strongman. Despite being one of the United States’ closest allies on the continent, Mr. Meles repeatedly jailed dissidents and journalists, intimidated opponents and their supporters to win mind-bogglingly one-sided elections, and oversaw brutal campaigns in restive areas of the country where the Ethiopian military has raped and killed many civilians.
No matter that Ethiopia receives more than $800 million in American aid annually. Mr. Meles even went as far as jamming the signal of Voice of America because he did not like its broadcasts. Human rights groups have been urging the United States to cut aid to Ethiopia for years.
So now that he is gone, will the gap between American strategic and ideological goals narrow at all in this complex, pivotal country?
“There is an opportunity here,” said Leslie Lefkow, a researcher with Human Rights Watch. “If donors are shrewd, they will use the opportunity that this presents to push a much stronger and bolder human rights stance and need for reform.”
Most analysts do not expect any sudden moves, however. After Mr. Meles’s death, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton praised his “personal commitment” to lifting Ethiopia’s economy and “his role in promoting peace and security in the region.” But she made no mention of his rights record and gave only a veiled reference to supporting “democracy and human rights” in Ethiopia. She also made it clear that the interest in “regional security” had not changed.
One senior American official said Tuesday that “this does not affect policy in the short term,” but he added that “there are a number of unknowns.”
One relative unknown is the man now picked to lead the second-largest country in Africa, Hailemariam Desalegn, who was the foreign minister, deputy prime minister and a Meles acolyte. Though he is from a different ethnic group, the Welayta, he is believed to be a safe choice to protect the interests of Mr. Meles’s Tigrayan minority, which has dominated the Ethiopian economy and political scene since 1991, leading many other ethnic groups to complain about being boxed out and some even to take up arms.
Dan Connell, an American author and professor, interviewed Mr. Meles in June and said it sounded as if he was preparing to die. “He seemed focused on wrapping up a number of major projects as if he were aware the end was near,” Mr. Connell said.
The projects included the modernization of the country’s road network and building big dams; pushing large-scale foreign investment in agriculture (which many rights groups say threatens fragile indigenous groups); and trying to wrap up the war with Eritrea, once a province of Ethiopia that broke away and declared independence in the 1990s.
“Meles knew his days were numbered,” Mr. Connell said.
It is hard to overstate Ethiopia’s role in the region — it was never a colony, after all, though it was briefly occupied by the Italians — and the respect Mr. Meles carried around the continent.
“Whether one was a friend or critic of Mr. Meles,” said Johnnie Carson, the assistant secretary for African affairs at the State Department, “the consensus around Africa is that Africa has lost one of its greatest intellectual leaders.” Mr. Carson added that “no question there was a need for greater democratization” and “yes, more work needs to be done in that area.”
Recently, Mr. Meles had been pushing the leaders of Sudan and South Sudan to make peace. On Tuesday, the government of South Sudan declared three days of mourning, with flags flown at half-staff. “His actions will be missed,” said Barnaba Marial Benjamin, spokesman for the South Sudanese government.
Ethiopia is hardly alone in raising difficult questions on how the United States should balance interests and principles.
Saudi Arabia is an obvious example, a country where women are deprived of many rights and there is almost no religious freedom. Still, it remains one of America’s closest allies in the Middle East for a simple reason: oil.
In Africa, the United States cooperates with several governments that are essentially one-party states, dominated by a single man, despite a commitment to promoting democracy.
John Prendergast, co-founder of the Enough Project, an anti-genocide effort, said that Mr. Meles’s death “accentuates a vexing policy quandary” that the United States faces with Rwanda, Uganda and South Sudan. “All of them have served American interests or have a strong U.S. constituency, but all have deeply troubling human rights records,” he said.
Ethiopia has never been an easy place to rule. It is big, poor, famine-stricken, about half Christian and half Muslim, surrounded by enemies and full of heavily armed separatist factions. Ethiopia’s own increasingly outspoken Muslim population is one reason Mr. Meles saw eye to eye with the United States on Somalia next door.
But when the United States and Ethiopia teamed up in late 2006 and early 2007 to oust an Islamist movement that had gained control of most of Somalia, the Islamists morphed into a more dangerous group, the Shabab, getting support from all the Somalis who were furious that Ethiopia had invaded their country.
Donor nations, including the United States, then ended up working with several of the Islamist leaders they previously had been trying to kill or capture, after it became clear that the Islamists had the most popular support inside Somalia.
Seeye Abraha Hagos, a former medical school classmate and rebel colleague of Mr. Meles who later split with him and was imprisoned for six years, said: “He was, in a way, the law of the land. He was the court of the land. There was no check and balance in the government.”
Mr. Hagos said it was not clear what was going to happen next. “They can take this as an opportunity for reconciliation, by relaxing the prohibitive environment,” he said. “Or they could try to maintain the status quo, and the country could be in trouble.”