In Memoriam of Ethiopia’s Man for All Seasons: Meles Zenawi

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By Dilwenberu Nega
London 12th August 2013

A year ago this month, Ethiopians from far and near paid their last respects to the “Man of the People” with rivers of tears. Today, preparations are at their final stages to commemorate the first year of the death of the first Prime Minister of FDRE, H.E. Meles Zenawi MP with various activities which are aimed at reflecting and honouring his extraordinary legacy.

But, as former UK Prime Minister, The Rt. Hon. Gordon MP who spoke at a London memorial service for Meles rightly pointed out, “There will be many memorials to Prime Minister Meles … There will be statutes, there will be streets and schools named after him, there will be institutes, there will be scholarships, but the memorial that he would welcome most, in my view, is that millions of people who will never have met him, millions of people who never know his name perhaps, millions of people in Ethiopia have opportunities, options, choices and chances that they never could have had without him. That is the memorial that he and his family would value.”

I had the good fortune and, indeed, honour of meeting Prime Minister Meles Zenawi for the first time at a meeting organized by the Embassy of the FDRE in London on the 25th February 2003. Meles was in town on his first official visit to the UK, and the Brits had rolled out the red carpet for an Ethiopian whom Tony Blair had described as “a man to do business with.” The seed of mutual respect and trust which Meles had sowed at that visit has today produced bilateral relations unheard of in annals of Ethiopia and the United Kingdom.

Ethiopia stands out as the largest recipient of UK aid which currently stands at £1.3 billion over five years.
There was, of course, a sense of great excitement and anticipation among the participants as Meles took centre stage flanked by the then Minister of Foreign Affairs and his confidante since the inception of TPLF, Seyoum Mesfin, and the then Ambassador of Ethiopia to the UK, Fisseha Adugna. For the great majority of attendees, it was their first time to be under one roof with an Ethiopia prime minister.

At the meeting, not only did Meles appear the picture of good health, but he also had his wits about him. He was at his elements as he reminded the audience that “now the Ethiopia which the Derg had left for dead, has conquered death by ushering in durable peace, equality, fraternity, justice and democracy on the embers of a brutal military dictatorship, its time for you to return home.” A decade on, thousands of Ethiopians from Birmingham in England to Birmingham in Alabama, from Australia to Austria and from Cape Town to Cairo are firmly ensconced in an Ethiopia which – to borrow Sir Bob Geldof’s description – “has changed beyond recognition.”

And by the time the Q&A kicked off, I jumped to my feet to ask something which had bothered me for a while: “Why did the outcome of EPRDF’s 2002 prolonged Gimgema fail to allay public fear and concern of a ruling party that had lost its campus? Has the EPRDF run-out of steam? Is your party – for want of a better word – decaffeinated?”

After a broad smile and sipping a glass of Ambo Water, Meles grabbed the Ambo water bottle and said: “It would be wrong to liken the EPRDF to coffee, but if people insist on using a drink analogy to describe EPRDF, then one should liken us to wine – the older the wine the better.” Today the EPRDF which Meles had led from its inception to his death is seen ploughing ahead by delivering its promises to the people. So the older the EPRDF the better!

Incidentally, I feel one aspect of the legacy of Meles which had not attracted enough attention which it warrants, is the pivotal role Meles had played in first making EPRDF – which was portrayed by Derg’s 24/7/365 propaganda machinery as “ ragtag and bobtail” – electable; and secondly by securing three consecutive election wins for his party.

It is not my intention here to indulge into an argument on who created who: did EPRDF produce Meles or was EPRDF Meles’ handiwork? Yet, when we sift through the histories of China, Russia and Cuba, we find out to our surprise that the star of the leader of a ruling party seems to shine brighter than the torch of the Party. There again, to portray Meles larger than EPRDF would be an insult to the memory of Meles, for we must not lose sight of the fact that the Meles Ethiopians know all too well not only eschewed publicity, but was a leader who avoided the penchant for imposing a cult of personality like a plague. This, however, does not prevent us to acknowledge the near-to-indispensable-role Meles had played in winning elections.

At Election 2015, EPRDF will go to the polls with Meles no longer in the party, and no longer on planet Earth. Hence, the challenge for both EPRDF and Prime Minister Haile Mariam Desalgn would be not to give in to complacency especially now the talk is that Ethiopia’s fractured opposition parties will be drowned by the anticipated tsunami of sympathy votes at the next election.

R.I.P. Meles Zenawi!