Re-living Meles Zenawi
In 1975, a first year student at the Haile Selassie University (now Addis Ababa University) , Legese Zenawi, just nineteen years of age, abandoned his studies and joined the Tigrean People’s Liberation front (TPLF). Legese was studying Medicine. He never returned to complete his studies and never got to enjoy his youth like the rest of us did.
In 2012, at the age of 57, Legese passed away. But he left the world as Meles Zenawi and not as Legese Zenawi, the name given to him by his parents in Adwa in the north of Ethiopia. Legese chose to change his name following the death of his friend and fellow rebel Meles in 1975. He decided to live for his comrade by taking his name. Meles was successful removing the dictatorial regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam from power and to usher in developmental leadership under the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front. Meles promised to fight on behalf of his comrade Meles for the benefit of all Ethiopians and that promise was fulfilled.
Initially, Meles fought to free Tigray from the rule of Mengistu and his fellow officers of the Derg. Meles and his comrades fully believed that the rule of Emperor Haile Selassie and that of the Derg were characterised by the tribalism and localism that benefited the then dominating ethnic group in the country, the Amhara. He believed that smaller ethnic groups such as his own Tigreans from the north of Ethiopia and even other groups such as the Somalis were oppressed in their own country. He believed that the country’s wealth was being exploited for the benefit of one group only which lorded over the whole country. As a nineteen year old university student, he decided to take up arms and fight this oppression.
Nevertheless, Meles changed his view on discovering that it wasn’t just Tigreans who were oppressed by the Mengistu regime, but all Ethiopians, regardless of ethnicity. In 1985 he was elected Chairman of the TPLF at the age of just 29. He saw the liberation of Tigray as just part of the liberation of all of Ethiopia. He collaborated with freedom fighters in the neighbouring province of Eritrea to defend their freedom and to give them the freedom to choose whether or not they would remain part of Ethiopia or pursue independence. They took the latter option.
As a young man of just 30, Meles brought together the various groups that were fighting to free Ethiopia under the umbrella of the EPRDF. This was an alliance of all ethnic groups in the country, which chose Meles himself to lead their freedom struggle.
In 1991 Meles led the EPRDF into Addis Ababa and seized power as Mengistu fled to Zimbabwe. Meles was just 36 when he was chosen to be the interim president of Ethiopia by the first national assembly that brought together all of Ethiopia’s ethnic groups. Three years later, following a referendum, the Eritrea Region broke away to form an independent state. Meles fulfilled his promise of allowing the people of Eritrea to decide if they wanted to be an independent nation or part of the Ethiopian federation. Even when relations with Eritrea reached the stage of war over ownership of the village of Badme, Meles didn’t take the opportunity to bring Eritrea back under Ethiopia or even to remove access to the coast – rather, he respected Eritreans desire forself determination.
Truthfully, the Ethiopia-Eritrea war was a pointless war and it will always be a stain on Meles’ leadership. His refusal to not to respect the United Nations’ decision that Badme is part of Eritrea will haunt his followers forever and give succour to his opponents who can claim Meles didn’t respect international institutions. Nevertheless, the war with Eritrea does not erase Comrade Meles’ great achievements.
When Meles was chosen to lead the TPLF in 1985, Ethiopia was known for being unable to feed its own people. A global campaign was launched to end the country’s famine that took over one million of its people.
While in the genocide in Rwanda up to one million were killed with machetes and axes, the famine in Ethiopia killed a similar number, especially in Tigray and Wollo, due to the negligence of the Mengistu government. One of the members of the Central Committee of Mengistu’s party, the Workers Party of Ethiopia, Dawit Wolde advised Mengistu how bad things were and that the government had to take action. Mengistu’s response was that “there was famine in Ethiopia for years before we took power – it was the way nature kept the balance” (Meredith M, 2005).
Mengistu was so drunk with power that he forgot that the day before he had been stripped off his power, Emperor Haile Selassie was shown a film, The Hidden Famine, that showed how he enjoyed the best liquor and fed good meat to his dogs while people were dying of lack of food in Wollo District in 1944. After being shown the film, Haile Selassie collapsed and the following day, 12 September 1974, he was stripped of his Emperial powers by a group of young officers, amongst them Mengistu Haile Mariam. It was the same Mengistu who as President of Ethiopia claimed that famine is an act of nature to ‘balance’ the population of his country! This is the context in which Meles was chosen to lead the liberation struggle when he was just 29.
“I need to learn something about economics. Can you get me some basic books?”, was Meles’ only request to a foreign intelligence officer just after he seized power, as reported by a journalist Barry Malone in his article ‘The Meles I knew’ published by Foreign Policy. The journalist asked him what help he needed from western countries. Ending famine was top of Meles’ agenda and he knew economic policies were part of the solution. This is what he worked towards in his time as president and later as prime minister of Ethiopia.
I remember when we would tease anyone who had lost a lot of weight ‘’that he was hungry like Ethiopia”, and that was in fact the picture many had in their minds of that country. Meles did not solve all of Ethiopia’s problems, but he fought them. He reduced them. He turned his country from being seen as the archetypal famine basket case to being a model of development to be emulated. In his twenty years’ rule we have heard of no great famine which did use to take place every decade.
One historian has shown that each decade in recent memory there has been a great famine in Ethiopia – 1958, 1966, 1973 and 1984. But under Meles’ leadership, we heard of no great famine in the nineties or in this century. I believe that whoever succeeds Meles will ensure that no famine on such a scale will every take place again. These achievements come from consistent and committed policies from the leader who declared “I won’t have famine in my country”, and the strength to implement those policies.
Meles was determined to fight poverty and build a strong economy. He decided early on to reject the advice of the IMF and the World Bank to open the economy. He and his colleagues resolved to slowly open the economy at a pace determined by them. As a result, key elements of the economy remain in the control of Ethiopians themselves. He developed the infrastructure to support internal economic linkages and to open up internal markets while at the same time stressing the importance of exports.
Following from his decisions, Ethiopia now is poised to export leather goods produced in Ethiopia to the value of USD 4 billion a year. This is the equivalent of double the value of Tanzania’s gold exports. Ethiopia hasn’t the amounts of oil or minerals that Tanzania has, but its economy has grown by over ten percent annually for the past seven years. This is how Meles was able to reduce poverty from 45 percent of the population in 1991 to 29 percent in 2011. In the same period, poverty in Tanzania dropped from 37 percent to just 35 percent. Tanzania did as it was advised by the IMF and the World Bank and opened its economy.
When Meles passed away, he left behind a great project, the Grand Millennium Project that seeks to generate 10,000 MW of electricity. Its purpose is to generate enough power to bring fundamental changes in the lives of ordinary Ethiopians and also to sell power to neighbouring countries (energy diplomacy). When the World Bank refused to fund the project, he resolved that every Ethiopian would fund it. All Ethiopians would donate one month’s salary, which was converted to a bond. Furthermore, all Ethiopians in the diaspora were allowed to buy these bonds to fund this great project. The project is being implemented with the finance of Ethiopians themselves.
I believe this project will be continued by Ethiopia’s new leadership. Meles ensured that he brought along a new generation of leaders. He took the youth coming up behind him and gave them responsibility so that they would be ready for the mantle of leadership and also to pass it on when their time is up. Ethiopia’s new prime minister is ten years younger than Meles. Meles himself knew the importance of preparing future leaders. He wasn’t prepared. Oppression and poverty pushed him to take on leadership responsibilities when he was just 19 years of age when he decided to join the rebel army, just 29 when he was chosen to lead that army and only 36 when he was chosen as the President of Ethiopia and later its prime minister.
Meles made mistakes, like many others. He has been condemned by the West for his record on human rights and democracy. He has also been condemned by activists for selling land to Middle Eastern and Chinese agricultural companies. Even so, I have not heard one accusation of corruption against him. He believed that positions of leadership are given in trust and he did not abuse that trust, unlike other African leaders. Here in our own country we see leaders abusing their positions to accumulate wealth.
People are desperate for great wealth. Corruption has become a defining feature of leadership. Accusations of corruption are commonplace so that even the corrupt accuse ethical leaders of being dirty so that all may be seen as being corrupt. It is as if thieves are lining up to join the policy. Meles didn’t want Ethiopia to reach such a state. He fought corruption and ensured it could not get a foothold in the public service.
Meles Zenawi left behind an economic system which has not been adequately discussed. It has put Ethiopia in a position where it will be one of the strongest economies on the continent in the next fifteen years. Meles fought poverty with all his strength. He fulfilled his promises.
I strive to be like Meles as he lived by his beliefs by fighting corruption without being corrupt himself or abusing his office in any way. I will live like Meles as our number one enemy is poverty, rural poverty. Meles announced in 1991 that “our first enemy is poverty and backwardness” and he fought them to the best of his ability. There is no better way to honour Meles than to continue with his good works and to put right what he did wrong.
I had one opportunity to meet Meles. I met him in Nigeria at a meeting on economic cooperation between Europe and Africa in 2009. After that meeting I resolved to learn from him and the things he stood for. It was as if I saw Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia in Meles in both his actions and statements, except for one difference: Meles never got to finish his medical studies, unlike Mahathir.
It is clear that Meles Zenawi was a leader of great intellect, greater than any of the second generation of Africa’s leaders. His intellectual brilliance shook the leaders of the West. They feared him. His fellow Africans respected him. He was the voice of Africa, from Addis Ababa, the capital of Africa.
Rest in Peace, Meles.