The memorial conferences being held in relation to the 5th anniversary of the passing away of the late PM Meles Zenawi initiated me to reflect my own memory of the new epoch.
The beginning of the Tigraian national struggle by TPLF had the promise of emancipation from abject poverty and chauvinistic oppression. Generations of the Tigraian society have been expecting for a ‘Messiah’ who would organize and lead them through the dark period to a ‘Promised Land’ of Liberty, Democracy and Equality of Opportunity to all citizens. They’ve been reflecting this through their songs, adages, tales, myths, etc. The first attempt to achieve these ideals was done during ‘Qedamai Woyane’ which had achieved significant military victories against the government of Emperor Haile Selassie but would ultimately be crushed by the latter due to mechanized and air force assistance the Emperor managed to secure from a foreign government.
The Tigraians were not seen as compatriots by the Chauvinist governments but rather as contestants and enemies of the state (the state power is seen as an exclusive birth right of the Chauvinists and as their private gold and diamond mine). That is why the Tigraians were oppressed more harshly than the other nations and nationalities and I think that is why they fought more bitterly.
When TPLF proclaimed its establishment in February of 1975, word of the news was passed from person to person and village to village. This has suddenly triggered a long buried hope and there was a silent jubilation and sense of the beginning of a big era of renaissance in the society. But as waging armed struggle is like jumping into the unknown, the bitterness of reality had soon taken over the Utopian thought of achieving one’s objectives without mishaps and casualties. A protracted war and struggle was necessary in order to achieve the historic victory of May 1991 and the late PM Meles Zenawi stood to rise up to the needs of the day and proved to be the leader of the new era.
At the beginning of the 1974 popular revolution when the military committee (Dergue) took over the government of Emperor Haile Selassie, many parties were vying to get the state power. But the military government conducted major crack down on members of all opposition parties. Many young people were tortured and/or killed and their corpses laid on road sides in order to instill fear in the populace.
While all parties formulated then withered away one by one, TPLF stood and stood firm, first to prove its survival and then reverse the military offensive to achieve and culminate its armed struggle with the capture of state power of the Central Government of Ethiopia. During all this development, I think the role of Freedom Fighter Meles Zenawi was significant and his leadership role was crucial in defeating the military regime.
My impression of him the first day I heard his interview on TV was “this must be the mind that defeated the Chauvinist military regime”. This is not to down play the role of his colleagues at various levels of leadership and the broad mass of members and the population at large, but rather to appreciate the critical role he played as a leader.
The legacy of PM Meles Zenawi is multi-faceted and multi-dimensional. Following is an attempt to reflect on his legacies under the sub-titles of Mind Power, Unity in Diversity, Defeating Chauvinism, Opening up to the World, Domesticating State Power, Green Revolution, Leadership in Africa, Fighting for the Broad Masses, and Transition.
The young Meles Zenawi was a brilliant student at school. When he completed high school his matriculation result was one of the top in the country which enabled him to be one of the top ten students who got the award from the HIS Award Organization. Whereas the other awardees pursued academic careers, the young Meles was not to be complacent with achieving only individual academic goals. He imagined that the power of the mind should not be limited to achieve narrow individual targets only but rather can and should be uplifted, deepened and expanded to solve the problems of society at large. It seems that by joining the political movements of the time he wanted to fulfill the role of a ‘Deliverer’ of the people.
Nobody thought that a small band of guerilla fighters would grow up in organization and power to defeat the largest army in black Arica. It can only be the superiority of mind power that enabled EPRDF to move from victory to victory against the engulfing manpower and military hardware of the Dergue regime.
The mind power of PM Meles Zenawi was yet to be instrumental not only during Wartime leadership but also during Peacetime leadership. Even his arch enemies never disputed the power of his mind. I was always astonished at the way he builds his case to convince his audience. He was recognized in various world forums for his superb intellect and mind power. Some of the words of reference regarding his mind power and his achievements are presented as follows:
- “….One of the greatest sons of the continent”
Jacob Zuma, President of the Republic of South Africa
- “….Meles has shown you his vision together with his party. Please carry on with that vision because it is the right vision”
Yoweri Museveni, President of Uganda
- “….A great son of Ethiopia, a patriot and a visionary….He has the capacity to grasp and cut through complex issues”
Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda
- “….Truly outstanding son of the continent….He carried in his head the gifts of a brilliant mind”
Thabo Mbeki, Former President of South Africa
- “….For among PM Meles’ many admirable qualities above all was his World Class Mind”
Susan Rice (US Permanent Representative to UN)
- “….He is the most intelligent politician I have ever met in my life”
Gayle Smith, President Barack Obama’s special assistant
He has influenced also to uplift the national intelligence level through his policies, executive measures and national guidance. The elementary education (access) rate at the country level is now more than 90%. By 2012 the number of public universities in the country had risen to 34 and there were 64 accredited non-governmental universities or colleges awarding degrees starting from 2 universities and a few colleges at the end of the Dergue regime. There is a massive expansion throughout the educational system.
More and more people now go to schools and colleges to upgrade their careers and improve their livelihoods. The people have understood the importance of education and are tuning their actions accordingly. A learning generation is created in Ethiopia now. He has heralded the Age of Knowledge in Ethiopia at unprecedented level. All these, I think are the legacies of the Mind Power of PM Meles Zenawi.
Unity in Diversity
TPLF/EPRDF is the political organization which rightly analyzed the core problems of the country and has the right solution to the right problems. The country was in agony because it could not correctly handle its diversity. It was a ground reality that the country was composed of various nations and nationalities. But unfortunately the previous regimes did not consider this as a blessing but rather as an uncomfortable truth. They did not want to accommodate it in their policies and ideology but rather they wanted to suppress it. TPLF/EPRDF boldly declared that if correctly handled, the diversity of the country can be converted into a blessing rather than an obstacle by only changing one’s attitude of the issue. As a leader and first among equals, PM Meles Zenawi is considered as the Champion of Unity in Diversity Policy of the country. That is why, I think, the various previously oppressed nations and nationalities of the country regard him as the father of their newly acquired statuses. They feel indebted to his unwavering stand and struggle to achieve the “Rights of nations and nationalities to self-determination up to and including secession”.
Unity in Diversity is one of the cornerstones and binding principles of the new Ethiopia. It enables the various nations and nationalities of the country to respect their personality, honor their culture & history and share their commonality with other nations and nationalities of the country to equally shape their shared destinies.
When the Dictator of the military regime ran away from the country on May 21, 1991, it did not only signal the change of one government by another but rather heralded the end of the Chauvinist era and the ushering in of the epoch of Unity in Diversity.
I think the two leaders knew the depth of the meaning and significance of the war. The military regime left no stone unturned and no method untried to reverse the wave of offensives by EPRDF. He intimately knew that the victory of EPRDF would mean the end of the Chauvinist era. On the other hand, I think that no one understood as deeply and intimately as the then freedom fighter Meles Zenawi the meaning and significance of the war and its victory was to be epoch-making. That is why he dedicated his brain power, will power and soul to the achievement of the victory.
The binding characteristics of all Chauvinists, be it an Emperor or a Military Dictator, ordinary citizen or highly educated intellectual is that they want to deny the ground reality of the existence of various nations and nationalities in the country. What the military dictator said in public during the last months of his power regarding the Tigrai region are revealing of the internal policy and undeclared war the Chauvinists were waging on the oppressed nations and nationalities in general and the Tigraian nation/nationality in particular.
Chauvinism was defeated militarily on May 28, 1991 with the victorious entry of the EPRDF fighters into the capital Addis Ababa. But its political and ideological strength was not much affected until the aftermath of election 2005. I think we all remember that broad smile on the face of the leaders of the then ‘Kinjit’ party. That broad smile was not one of expression of happiness of winning a democratic election but rather a reflection of the malicious intent of the Chauvinists that they had in store for the oppressed nations and nationalities of the country.
There was a political stand-off between the incumbent EPRDF and the claimants of victory, i.e. Kinjit. The stand of ‘Kinjit’ seemed as “get the state power now or never”. PM Meles had handled the crisis effectively and decisively. I feel very sorry for the young people who lost their lives during the conflict. But I think the then opposition leaders persuaded the young people from behind to get them involved in the conflict. I think the then opposition leadership knew clearly what the response of the government would be on any illegal/violent demonstration. But they pushed the young people from behind for cheap political gains.
During that time we all remember the Ultimatum given by the government to relinquish all violent and illegal means. As the opposition was trying to continue with their illegal methods, the broad smile was soon to be changed into hue and cry after the government crackdown.
I think Chauvinism in Ethiopia was defeated politically in the aftermath of election 2005. However, as the Chauvinist intellectuals far outnumber the intellectuals of all the other nations and nationalities combined, Chauvinism is still active ideologically. Thus the young people in the oppressed nations and nationalities should pursue their studies hard in order to defend the new Constitutional Order democratically and intellectually.
The Chauvinist intellectuals understand the crucial role PM Meles Zenawi played in defeating Chauvinism in Ethiopia. That is why they pulled all their resources, intellectual, financial and social connections to attack and defame him at every opportunity they could get their hands into.
From historical perspective, I think the Defeat of Chauvinism is the greatest achievement and legacy of PM Meles Zenawi.
Opening Up to the World
During the previous regimes Ethiopia was secluded from the rest of the world. One foreign writer described the situation as “a country that forgot the world and the world has forgotten her”. It looks that the Chauvinist rulers had something to hide from the world. I think it was the policy of “forced assimilation or annihilation” they were following on the oppressed nations and nationalities that they did not want to be known by the rest of the world. Thus they chose to close their doors (including the giving away of Eritrea to the Italians and Djibouti to the French by Emperor Menelik thus rendering the country to be land-locked) until they finish that “internal job”.
I think it was PM Meles Zenawi who opened up Ethiopia to the world and demonstrated that Ethiopia has nothing to hide from the world. He has won many countries for Ethiopia on the Diplomatic front. He established friendly relations with many leaders of the developed and developing countries.
Now Ethiopia is not a land of contradictions and aggressiveness as it used to be during the Chauvinists regime but rather is becoming a land of assertive, civil, hard-working and friendly people.
Domesticating State Power
During the Chauvinist era, ordinary citizens were alienated from State power. They mystified it through their propaganda machine. They preserved it as the inexhaustible ‘gold mine’ to their heirs. However, PM Meles Zenawi exemplified through his word and deed that the state power is not something abstract but rather it emanates from the people and its purpose is to serve the people. He freely talked with ordinary citizens.
One of the issues the Chauvinist intellectuals resent PM Meles is that he has made the state power accessible to ordinary citizens thus paving the way for point of no return to former mystifications.
He had also a special way of communicating with individual citizens without actually meeting them.
He made the ordinary citizens to feel at home and at ease. This is diametrically opposed to the approach used by the Chauvinist authorities.
This topic comprises one of his achievements in the latter part of his career. He was applauded internationally for his advocacy of the control of global climate change. Internally the rural population were organized and induced to work and redeem the natural habitat and greenness of their environment that became semi-arid through the course of time. He had outlined to develop and grow the economy of the country along the path of non-carbon energy sources. Thus, his leadership was behind all mega hydropower projects such as the GERD and Gilgel Gibe II & III, Tekeze I and the turbines harnessing wind power, etc.
His policy of Green Economy has started to bear fruit. It has become a culture to plant tree seedlings during the rainy season every year on exposed lands throughout the country. It was announced recently on the Media that (Tigrai) Ethiopia has won a gold medal internationally on their work to redeem the natural flora and fauna of the environment. This, I think is the result of the enduring legacy of PM Meles Zenawi that he outlined in implementing the policy of Green Economy.
Leadership in Africa
PM Meles Zenawi played crucial roles in the establishment and functioning of regional and continental organizations such as IGAAD, NEPAD and AU. On the other hand, he was an effective spokesperson of the African continent at various international forums. He was the notable speaker and representative of Africa and the developing world in the international conference on Climate Change.
We all remember his notable speech in Togo (Lomé) in 1991 E.C. regarding the seat of the AU headquarters and with that speech he has sealed the issue for the good of Ethiopia and Africa as well.
His contribution and legacy in African leadership is well established and accepted by African heads of state.
Fighting for the Broad Masses
The partisanship of PM Meles was not with the few high class elites but unequivocally with the broad masses of the working classes. He crusaded to improve their livelihoods. He deeply understood that poverty was the single most disabling factor of an individual and a community and hence he declared war on poverty.
He has encouraged micro and small enterprises and small holding farmers that are at the grass roots level of the economy. They represent and serve as exemplary to the activities of the broad masses of workers. All these actions were bearing fruit in transforming the economy and making Ethiopia one of the fast growing economies in Africa.
His contribution and partisanship to the broad masses was expressed by former PM of Britain, Gordon Brown, in a memorial conference held in the Abyssinian Baptist Church (US) as follows: “Millions of poor people in Africa and around the world have lost one of their staunchest advocate”.
In the recent history of Ethiopia, we know that the transition of power from one government to the other has been violent and destructive. PM Meles has arranged the transfer of power to be peaceful. The government of PM Hailemariam Desalegn represents the new post-armed struggle generation and is working hard to promote and build on the legacies of PM Meles Zenawi.
As a human being, it does not mean that PM Meles Zenawi did not have any draw backs. Some people choose to focus on minor or otherwise of his draw backs. But I choose to focus on his achievements and legacies. He is a leader who rose through the course of the struggle to achieve the leadership position. Thus as a person who has passed through the torments of a protracted war, one should expect a complex persona that can be beyond the comprehension of ordinary people like myself. But we can clearly understand and appreciate his achievements and legacies.
Therefore, the new generation should secure and continue to build on the legacies of PM Meles Zenawi for a better and brighter future of their country.