Shifting To See Meles Zenawi in a New Light


By Addis Alem

There had always been charismatic Ethiopian leaders who are loved and revered by all Ethiopians, almost as if they were mythical figures right out of the holy books: Tewodros agitating to modernize the newly unified nation, igniting in the process a conflict with a European powerhouse, and then taking his own life as the ultimate gesture to his people, defiantly denying queen Victoria of Great Britain the ultimate prize of her successful military campaign – his captive hands; Yohannes paying his own Royal life to buy his people protection from foreign invaders; Menelik II, in a first for Africa, defeating a major European army in Adwa, his awe inspiring victory ushering in a new sense of self confidence for the whole continent, which it later employed to free itself from European colonization; and now, yes, let’s talk about Meles. I won’t be offending his own sensibilities by refereeing to him as the “great leader” over and over again as if he were one of those robotic North Korean leaders. The goal here is to have a quick pick at his legacy that is at once honest to the facts on the ground, and indifferent to both his blind detractors and admirers.

I would like to begin by describing what it was like for me as a young kid in Addis to witness Meles’ forces taking over the capital in 1991. My first instinct at that time was to run, my heart beating at me, to a near by Kebele office so that I can inspect the old flag pole. Was the Ethiopian flag still flying in its place? I was dying to know. I still distinctly remember the pleasant surprise I felt to find the old flag safe in its place; oh, what a relief, the Ethiopian national flag had not been removed and replaced by something foreign. I wanted to go back to that day in 1991 not for simple dramatization, but to use it as a real temporal reference, from which point I would try to honestly follow the evolution of my thoughts on Meles. You will see what I mean later on. But I still am not quite sure if I could say that the old ambivalence I felt as a young man about two decades ago had vanished altogether. There is no denying that faithful day had changed the nation dramatically; and frankly, some of them were changes we could have lived happily without. For example, the bitterness the civil war created under the mismanagement of those murderous and illiterate Derg officials proved too strong to keep Eritrea as part of Ethiopia.

Close at home, Meles reorganized the former regional borders along ethnic lines, and installed a new constitution that gave them the right for self determination – up to secession. The nation, still dizzy with the trauma of letting Eritrea go, just gasped; wondering out laud what was there to stop our old strategic enemies from corrupting the newly formed ethnic based regions to follow the route Eritrea had chosen. The angst the nation felt was palpable on the streets. Was Ethiopia slowly edging towards overdosing with freedom? Why can’t we simply sanction unrestricted individual freedom in the new constitution and leave it at that? To make matters worse, somebody asked Meles about the Ethiopian national flag, and he proceeded to answer the question with what sounded like a condescending tone; and with that, the national angst pervading the streets almost melted into a sigh of despair.

The new wind of change had also brought a strange phenomenon. The murderous former Derg officials who were deservedly taking all the beating so far, went through a sudden metamorphosis to become exclusively Amharas, endowed with a supernatural power that was menacing to everyone who heard of it on the radio; and nobody liked these super human Amharas at all. Disparaging the “neftegna” Amharas thus become a national sport nobody can resist, making them feel like intruders even as they sat bewildered in their own dilapidated village huts. I would argue that the massive resentment this unfortunate national sport left behind had been, and is still being used by some of Meles’ detractors as an anchor from which they launched a blistering critique of everything that bear his name. Everything Meles happened to engage in were quickly made suspect against a background of his highly controversial political decisions. And I am afraid some of the criticisms leveled at Meles have more merit in them than they have malice, still today.

In those early days, questioning Meles’ loyalty to Ethiopia seemed to have extended even to foreigners. Many appeared to have concluded that the tanks that rumbled into the heart of the nation’s capital mercilessly squashed the very viability of the Ethiopian state; and therefore, plotted to replace it as the seat of the headquarter of the African Union; prompting Meles to launch a passionate defense of Ethiopia, employing his characteristic tenacity and cutting wit. Here I am talking about a video scene from 1991, in Lome, Togo, depicting a gathering of African leaders, where Meles represented Ethiopia. “We were alone on the table of the Europeans during the Leage of Nations,” Meles said to the gathering, “And we know what happened to us. Now we are not alone. We have fifty three African countries.” By saying so, Meles artfully placed the Ethiopian DNA at the very center of the Union’s conception and formation, thus making Ethiopia its uncontested natural home. After watching this video, I can’t help but see the new glittering Chinese built headquarter of the African Union in Addis as a monument standing tall to honor Meles’ successful efforts to place Ethiopia at the center of African diplomacy. There is no question that Meles’ bookish and workaholic nature paid great dividends for Ethiopia in the crucial arena of world diplomacy too. With the exception of the gangs in Asmara and their manipulators in Cairo, Meles masterfully allied Ethiopia with important regional and global players to serve the nations security and economic interest. Suddenly, peaceful Ethiopia was busy buying influence for itself helping other troubled African nations achieve theirs. Meles was so good at this that he remained a trusted friend to the Sudan even during the challenging climax of its long running civil war that culminated in the secession of South Sudan.

Unlike many African leaders who followed the gun to their palace residence, Meles never deluded himself into believing that the risk he had already assumed to his own personal safety to get there was good enough to make him an awesome leader in and of itself; and, therefore, he enrolled himself into school, and buried himself in books to better prepare himself for the difficult task ahead. There was a lot of work to be done. After three thousand years of existence, the nation was still waiting for its basic infrastructure to be delivered. Ethiopia was like a nation in a hammock, blissfully vacillating between two different worlds – the nostalgia for its illustrious distant past and the empty swagger in its contemporary sense of itself. Somebody has to divorce the nation from the hammock and force it to envision what it really wanted to make of itself. I think it’s this difficult task that left Meles restless, and at times appear out of patience. Our national pride was like a kite soaring high up in the stratosphere with its strings still tied to crushing poverty in the ground. Meles wanted Ethiopians to lower their eyes from the empty blue sky and go to work. People responded. This ancient nation of proud, decent, and hard working citizens was at last brimming with confidence to once again take charge of its own destiny. Ethiopia was on the move, and people could no longer afford to just sit and stare at the blue sky without risking being left behind.

But the nation was embarking on its march to progress from a truly humble beginning. The combined negative effects of wicked interference from our strategic enemies in our internal affairs, the consequent devastating civil war, and our isolating independence meant that the only infrastructure our consecutive central governments can afford to send out to the far corners of the nation was sadly limited to shortwave Radio signals. You take away those radio signals, and the country might as well never had a central government to run its affairs. But everyday, early in the morning and late at night, a man’s voice came out of our tiny battery run radio and insisted that it was The Voice of Ethiopia; and we knew we had a central government. This was the kind of nation Meles set out to transform; a nation that was at best a work in progress; a nation that was, for lack of better terms, a collection of tilting village huts scattered around inside of its borders; half naked children running around barefooted. But Meles knew that Ethiopia’s large population was a tremendous asset that can buy it significant influence. Everybody wanted access to Ethiopia’s huge market potential, and Meles left the door wide open for all to come in, to see what they can offer the country in return. Fast Rising China was willing to lend its expertise and its money to help build the nation’s critical infrastructure, roads and rail roads. The Turks and the Brazilians showed up with similar offers. By managing its regional affairs so successfully, Meles also positioned Ethiopia to become a crucial security ally of the West, and the recipient of its massive foreign aid that went a long way to improve the country’s health and education system.

Meles was a man endowed with formidable intellect, which he forged with discipline and hard work into a steely personal confidence. He employed this confidence to defend his economic policies from powerful global interest groups who masqueraded as impartial defenders of the free market enterprise. In a poor, predominantly agricultural nation, with a novice business community that equated doing business with importing the simplest of consumer goods and selling them for a quick profit, these global interest groups strongly pressured Meles to open Ethiopia’s financial and telecommunications markets so that their powerful corporation clients can claim them as their new colony. Meles successfully resisted the pressure, preferring to give the infantile Ethiopian market the space and time it needed to first develop its Ethiopian core under government protection. Meles would only welcome foreign investment the nation can digest on its own terms, not colonizing corporations that can impose their own interest on a sycophant and helpless regulatory system they dictated for themselves.

That’s how you get to lay the foundation for native world class national brands, like Samsung of South Korea, that can hold their own in a tooth to nail fight for global market share with some of the most powerful American brands, such as the iconic Apple Corporation. Meles understood that Ethiopia’s hope for a prosperous future entirely depended on its ability to carve its own niche in the global market. But for a nation of poor agrarian society, with an almost non existent industrial base, this task can only be accomplished if the nation can successfully harness its natural resources as the driving force of its renaissance. One telling example of Meles’ determination on this regard was on display when he confronted the powerful U.S. coffee chain, Starbucks, to change its unfair practice of buying Ethiopia’s renowned high quality coffee beans (Sidamo, Harar and Yirgacheffe ) for cheap, as if they were any other ordinary coffee beans, and then magically turning them into gold by simply giving them a fancy foreign names after they had left the country. Meles successfully convinced Starbucks to abandon the practice and accept the trade marking of the high quality Ethiopian coffee beans to reflect its natural home, but most importantly, to add to its value so that it can only leave its homeland for the right price.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is another one of Meles’ highly thoughtful projects that are based on the same principle of harnessing the nation’s natural resources to advance its progress. This project has the potential to deliver far too greater benefits to the nation than many seem to appreciate. Electricity is an absolutely critical infrastructure; without enough and reliable supply of it, everything grinds to a standstill. Especially for a poor country like Ethiopia which is not sitting on billions of barrels of oil, there is nothing like electricity to give it a fighting chance to squeeze out of the crushing weight of poverty. If you want to attract deep pocketed foreign investors, it won’t be enough to lure them with a reliable supply of electricity, it must also be cheap. And there is no cheaper way of producing electricity than building hydroelectric dams. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam would do just that for Ethiopia on a grand scale that is very cost effective. The overall benefits of this dam to Ethiopia could not be exaggerated. The power this dam generates could be exported to bring foreign currency to the country. It could also foster regional economic cooperation, minimize the likelihood of future regional conflicts, and buy Ethiopia more influence.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is also a very effective defensive act on the part of Ethiopia. Meles knew that Egypt always wanted to divide and weaken Ethiopia to achieve two main objectives: 1) To put the highly strategic Red Sea coastlines as much under its influence as possible. 2) To deny Ethiopia any say on the use of the Nile water and leave it untouched for exclusive use by Sudan and itself. We all know that Egypt successfully achieved its first objective when it created for itself the gang in Asmara which it can manipulate far too easily. But now, by defiantly building the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Nile, Ethiopia effectively obviates the second remaining Egyptian calculus to continue harassing it. With a mega Ethiopian dam already built on the Nile, Egypt would be forced to accept that its interests would be better served by working with Ethiopia, instead of against it. Meles had already masterfully executed the difficult diplomatic jostling that provided this crucial project a solid legal foundation. Now it’s up to every single one of us to take it from here, help our beloved nation cross the finish line, and win its future.

I have to say that if a nation’s backbone follows the lines of its fundamental infrastructure, its influence on regional and global diplomatic arena, its investments on the health and education of its citizens, then Meles is bound to take the lion’s share of credit for being the architect of Ethiopia’s backbone. Did the Ethiopian national soccer team get some of the backbone too? It was beautiful to enjoy their victory over South Africa in Addis last week. But it was even more beautiful to watch the whole stadium sing the national anthem in a heart stopping unison at the beginning of the game, thundering with excitement as they waved the national flag with the bright blue star in the middle. After a bit of hesitation, the nation seemed to have embraced blue star at last, perhaps to remind it of the brightest star Meles was to the nation he left so soon. May he rest in peace and glory in our hearts forever.