Meles Zenawi: Black leadership at its finest

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Meles Zenawi: Black leadership at its finest


My friends and I often debate what would change the African landscape. We criticize government leaders, blame westerners for exploiting natural resources and debate the merits of Chinese investment. We do this, of course, sipping $4 lattes in air-conditioned coffee shops in the U.S. In the trenches are leaders such as Ethiopia’s late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. His death was announced this week although details of his illness are still sparse.

During his reign, Ethiopia – a non-oil producing country – experienced double-digit economic expansion. Zenawi re-claimed the Nile for Ethiopians in spite of Egypt’s intimidation and began building a dam that will be the largest hydro-electric power plant in Africa. Not only will The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam electrify the nation, it will export to energy-hungry African countries – including Egypt to boot.

Growth is booming in the capital city of Addis Ababa where government banks offer generous financing meant to attract investment from the Diaspora. Expats were recently given acres of land throughout the country on the condition they begin immediate development.

Highways and roads now zigzag the country, strengthening security and allowing for the movement of goods and people. Universities were built and women’s rights expanded with the establishment of the first Ministry of Women’s Affairs. They overhauled legislation on rape and female genital mutilation. Zenawi fought to reduce foreign aid dependence and he changed the image of impoverished, skeleton-thin Ethiopians, which brought shame to my generation as children in my Colorado grade school taunted us for what they saw on “Feed the Children” television marathons.

Zenawi advocated for the establishment of the African Union in Ethiopia. He was the peace broker between Sudan and South Sudan; He was a brother to the Muslim and Christian counterparts in a dangerous East African region.

Zenawi was certainly imperfect. He jailed opposition party leaders, was criticized for not running a true democracy and killed violent protestors in 2005 – to which The West turned a blind eye. He was, after all, an ally in the fight against terror.

He often reflected on his mistakes in interviews with foreign reporters. He was willing to be human and show weakness. Talking to Alex Perry at Time Magazine, Zenawi was asked what keeps him awake at night.

His response: “It’s the fear that the light which is beginning to flicker, the light of a renewal, an Ethiopian renaissance, that this light might be dimmed by some bloody mistake by someone, somewhere. This [renaissance] is still fragile; a few shoots, [which] may need time to be more robust. At the moment, it is fear born out of hope that this new millennium will be as good as the first one and not as bad as the second one.”

Zenawi should be criticized for his wrongs. But he should be praised for representing a rare form of black leadership. The medical school dropout-turned guerrilla fighter-turned prime minister never sold out his people for personal gain.

Zenawi had no offshore bank accounts, private jets and coastal mansions in African and European nations in case he was ever exiled. He played tennis and always talked about his vision for an Ethiopian renaissance.


For that, he just may be the wealthiest of modern-day African leaders. He had the rare fortune of being welcomed home after dying in a Brussels’ hospital by thousands of Ethiopians at the airport who waited in the rain for his corpse to arrive. They wailed and chanted: “Jigna Aymotim” or a hero never dies. A friend and fellow Ethiopian-American, who was often critical of Zenawi, called me to confess he had no idea the prime minister was so loved. In his death, Zenawi is being given the respect he was due in life. That is sad, but even sadder is our attitude in the Diaspora. Our criticisms contribute less to the continent than even the Ethiopian coffee farmers’ share of the $4 lattes we drink.

I hope Zenawi’s memory will live on as an example of black leadership at its finest. Jigna Aymotim!

Millete Birhanemaskel
millete.b@gmail.com

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