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Friday, December 02, 2005

"Look, that tall new building belongs to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's wife"

Old habits die harder
Radio Netherlands

The changing of the old guard at the beginning of the 1990s in a number of African countries led to new optimism. Tyrannical dictators were overthrown and the "new leaders" embraced modern policies and values. Fourteen years later, the guerrilla fighters-turned-presidents have fallen foul of those that applauded their arrival as they exercise the same kind of corruption and nepotism they once criticised. The only hope is that they'll be replaced by a new generation of African leaders.

A short walk through the Ethiopian capital will suffice to show the connection between power and money, and the huge interests that are at stake. An Ethiopian friend led me around Addis Ababa recently. "Look, that tall new building belongs to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's wife", he said and pointing his finger at another building:

"that one over there belongs to high party officials close to the government. And that very expensive hotel and that factory, they belong to a Saudi-Arabian business partner of the government. And do you see those lorries, they belong to the Effort fleet, a semi-state company belonging to the party."

After 14 years in government, Prime Minister Meles' party now has huge business interests. Which doesn't make it easy to give up power.

President Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia
O ld habits die hard
Earlier this year, I talked to one of President Yoweri Museveni's relatives in the Ugandan capital Kampala. "His wives, children, grandchildren and cousins all profit from his position and they don't want to give up their lifestyle," he told me. Museveni's brother Salim Saleh is a notoriously corrupt businessman. Museveni's son Muhoozi had a meteoric career rise in the army. And his wife Janet is standing in next year's parliamentary elections.
When President Museveni came to power in 1986, he was initially reluctant to become president: he wanted to form a "collective leadership" of fellow guerrilla fighters. A member of staff from back then says Museveni has since developed an enormous ego. Twenty years ago, Yoweri Museveni fired poisoned arrows at Africa's old guard, at the kleptocratic Daniel Arap Moi of Kenya and Mobutu in Zaire.

"Today's corruption in Uganda can be compared to that in Kenya in the latter days of President Moi," says the former member of staff. "There is no difference anymore between the treasury and Museveni's housekeeping money. His farms are guarded by civil servants, his cows looked after by government troops."

Popularity erodes
In Ethiopia, Prime Minister Meles' party has never been popular throughout the country. Just three days after his guerilla fighters had overthrown the despised regime of military leader Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991, there was a demonstration in Addis Abeba against the new regime. The people in the capital felt they had been liberated by the wrong liberators. Meles reacted calmly but arrogantly: "The townspeople do not yet understand our peasants' movement, the right political education will make it clear to them".

Rwandan President Paul Kagame
Former US President Bill Clinton called the guerilla-fighters-turned-presidents "the new leaders". He praised them for organising their economies on the basis of International Monetary Fund policy. Africa's new guard was seen to support democratic values because they had overthrown ruthless dictatorships. Besides, they were well-educated village leaders who had climbed their way up. Their no-nonsense approach was a product of their time: in their chronically instable countries, they fulfilled a historic and necessary role.

Arrogance of power
Leaders such as Presidents Meles, Museveni and their Rwandan counterpart Paul President Kagame are all scholarly, self-assured and arrogant. After a long period in power, they believe their positions are God-given and only their policy is the right one. Their families and staff stimulate this delusion, because in Africa there's a lot of money to be made in the power monopoly.
We've come full circle: those who drove the dinosaurs from the African political arena have now become an obstacle to progress themselves. The only hope is that their successors will be better able to deal with power.


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