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Say His Name—Meles Zenawi



By Elias Dawit 08-20-20


The absence of the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s name from national discourse speaks to the power he holds over those who today walk within the palace compound. The silence of the current leadership in acknowledging his predecessor is a tightly held talisman to ward off the threat of comparison—an unwinnable exposition of weakness and confusion in the face of strength and certainty.


It is understandable why the name Meles Zenawi evokes fear in those who are trying to re-fashion the throne from the debris left in the current wake of violence, hatred and power-mongering. By saying the name—Meles Zenawi—people may begin to remember more clearly the 27 years of aspiration when Ethiopia began its rise towards greatness.


And while the national trend for the last several years has been towards promoting a narrative of denigration and  defamation of those who led Ethiopia out of the deep abyss of poverty and backwardness, a truer narrative embraces something quite different.


Meles Zenawi wrote his own leadership playbook. He was not captivated by the trappings of power. He did nothing for the sake of public relations. At times, his words struck a nerve with those who feared hearing harsh truths. In her eulogy for the Prime Minister, former U.S. Assistant Secretary for Africa Susan Rice remarked, “Meles Zenawi did not suffer fools gladly.”


These fools, now, lead Ethiopia.


In the eight years since Meles’ passing, his name has disappeared from national discourse because it is a rebuke of what Ethiopia has now become—a failed state. It is a rebuke of the once meteoric rise in Ethiopia’s fortunes—from the economy to global leadership. It is a rebuke of the rule of law, the constitutional order and the rights of peoples, nations and nationalities to govern themselves. It is a rebuke of peace and security. It is a rebuke of the people of Ethiopia.


There is a saying, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power.” Meles Zenawi understood that power was a means to an end—not the end itself. Power did not shape Meles’ character but his character shaped the power he held to re-imagine Ethiopia.


And this, perhaps, was Meles’ greatest power.


Meles imagined an Ethiopia where the historically marginalized stepped into the mainstream to govern, educate, legislate and adjudicate in the language spoken to them as babies in their mother’s arms.


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Meles imagined an Ethiopia of the well-nourished and healthy peasant whose children could fulfill their full potential and have opportunities not even dreamed of by their grandmothers and grandfathers.


Meles imagined an Ethiopia of sustained development hand-in-hand with social justice, equity and a green environment.


Meles imagined an Ethiopia that led and was not aprisoner of external actors promoting their own national agendas.


Meles imagined an Ethiopia that built dams that generated enough power for Ethiopia, the region and even Africa.


This reimagined Ethiopia has rapidly dissipated in the smoke and ruins of ethnic violence, economic devastation, institutional collapse, lawlessness, human rights abuses, and free press suppression..


What can we do to restore the hope in Meles’ reimagined Ethiopia?


We can stop pretending that oratory, tree-planting, redecorating the palace and building amusement parks are genuine reform. We can make the leadership respect the constitution and the rule of law. We can stop the hate speech and incitement to violence that have claimed political discourse.We can make it clear to external actors that Ethiopians will govern Ethiopia. We can work together openly and transparently with all parties at the table to pull our country out of this serious crisis.


We can hold elections so that Ethiopians can exercise their democratic right to choose their leaders.


We can say his name—Meles Zenawi.

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