Death, Divergence, and Division

This week brought a few high-profile deaths to this part of the African continent – namely Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) General Paulino Matip. Both men played crucial roles in their countries (and in Meles’ case, further abroad), and their deaths spurred some very impassioned, divisive dialogues on the controversial roles they played during their lifetimes.

I followed the dialogue on Meles via various blogs, twitter accounts, and news outlets and was rather dismayed that most of the coverage tried to cast him as either good or evil, while a small minority of these sources avoided this trap and tried to characterize him as a complex, multifaceted leader who could not be reduced to a simple dichotomy.

My take was that, on one hand, Meles had done some very positive things for Ethiopia and the region, such as:

  • heading the guerrilla movement that toppled the dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam who perpetrated the Red Terror in the 1970s in which up to 500,000 people died, and whose counterinsurgency campaign exacerbated the 1983-1985 famine in which over 400,000 people died;
  • raising Ethiopia’s profile on the global stage by becoming a leader of the Global South in fora such as the G8 and G20 summits;
  • reducing the percentage of Ethiopians living in extreme poverty from 45% in 1991 to just under 30%;
  • inaugurating aggressive development schemes – most notably the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam; and
  • acting as a peace broker between Sudan and South Sudan during post-referendum negotiations.

At the same time, Meles had done some very negative things for Ethiopia and the region, such as:

  • cracking down on the opposition for contesting the results of the 2005 elections;
  • ensuring that the ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), secured a commanding majority (99%) of seats in the federal and regional legislative assemblies during the 2010 elections;
  • waging brutal counterinsurgency campaigns against the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF);
  • aggressively offering land leases to Saudi, Chinese, and Indian firms that have resulted in the displacement of pastoralist communities with ancestral ties to the land;
  • capitalizing on the United States’ Global War on Terror (GWOT) crack down on internal dissent – mostly recently by meddling in the affairs of the country’s Muslim minority;
  • refusing to accept the decision of the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission (EEBC) and cede occupied territory to Eritrea;
  • invading Somalia to displace the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which catalyzed the emergence of al-Shabaab; and
  • pursuing hydroelectric schemes that could drastically reduce the supply of water that reaches the Shabelle River in southern Somalia and Lake Turkana in northern Kenya, and could have a catastrophic impact on the ecosystems and livelihoods in those countries.

In all likelihood, I’ve omitted something positive or negative that Meles did, but you get the picture.

That good-or-evil dichotomy was on my mind over breakfast the next day when news of Matip’s death broke. As he was not as well-known outside of South Sudan as Meles had been outside Ethiopia, I gauged the range of reactions to his death based on my interactions with both South Sudanese and the expat community here. As it turns out, to some, Matip had been a Khartoum-supported warlord during the civil war who fought against the SPLA and had been responsible for much of the South-South violence that took place in oil-rich Unity State. One person told me that the government had to continually pay Matip off in order to ensure that he was not a spoiler during the post-Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) and post-independence periods. To others, he was a unifying force for agreeing to integrate the South Sudan Defence Forces (SSDF) into the SPLA when he signed the Juba Declaration with President Salva Kiir in 2006. One person contradicted the statement about Matip being a spoiler and said that in signing the Juba Declaration, Matip had given his word that he would not defect from the SPLA (and in fact, he did not), and thus, rumors of the government needing to pay him off were false. Regardless of how he is being remembered in death, without Matip bringing the SSDF over to the SPLA, and without his subsequent influence over integrated forces, many believe that the internal security situation in South Sudan would have been far worse.

What I take away from the deaths of Meles and Matip is that it is often not possible to reduce leaders to a simple dichotomy when their actions and contributions to their countries are fluid, complex, and can be perceived as simultaneously positive and negative.

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