Who was the real Meles Zenawi?

Author:Abugre, Charles
Position:Ethiopia - Essay - Biography

In life and in death Veles Zenawi left no room for ambiguity. He was loved and hated, admired and loathed with equal passion. And debating his legacy calls for clarity, purpose and passion too, writes Charles Abugre, who describes the late Ethiopian prime minister as a stubborn, single-minded pan-Africanist whose determined pursuit of "democratic developmentalism" transformed Ethiopia into one of the fastest-growing countries in Africa. Will the new leadership sustain this path?

FOLLOWING THE ANNOUNCEMENT of his death, an Ethiopian Diaspora opposition voice, speaking on BBC radio, proclaimed that Zenawi's passing was a moment for celebration--a collective good-riddance by the people of Ethiopia. Asked why there was such a popular and spontaneous display of public grief on the streets of Addis Ababa if Zenawi was so loathed by his people, this voice claimed that far from being spontaneous, the people had been mobilised by the regime and ordered on to the streets. It was all a facade, he said. Another opposition voice, writing on his blog from the United States, bemoaned how Zenawi lost the opportunity to be an exemplary leader--to be loved, cherished and revered by their people, like Nelson Mandela. In saying farewell to Zenawi, he chose to paraphrase Brutus' tribute to Julius Caesar, the friend he had slain in a power grab: "It is time to bury Zenawi not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them." An international NGO leader working in Kenya, wrote on his Facebook page: "Ding Dong the witch ... well, we are admonished in Africa not to celebrate another person's death, but it can be difficult when the person is a dictator like Zenawi."


By contrast Susan Rice, The US permanent representative to the UN, speaking at Zenawi's funeral spoke of Zenawi the normal human being--a loving father and husband--"uncommonly wise and able to see the big picture ... disarmingly regular, direct and unpretentious"; Zenawi the "relentless negotiator and formidable debator"... "remarkably ambitious, but not for himself" (as is often the case); Zenawi who was the almost uncontested intellectual political leader of Africa (especially after Thabo Mbeki's exit from power); a man "with little patience for fools and idiots" and if I may add "pin prickers" ...



How much would Zenawi have cared for being a Mandela, or not being seen as a Julius Caesar? Perhaps not much. From the little I know of him I would argue, much as Alex de Waal has in a recent tribute, "He would have cared more whether his ideas and his programmes were properly presented ... and whether history will prove him right."

It is his ideas and programmes that interest me in relation to his legacy. It is the simple and disarming articulation in 1991 of the singular purpose of his leadership--that all Ethiopians could eat three meals a day--that reminds me of his revulsion for poverty and indignity. I associate with his view that it will be hard to keep the Ethiopian state (similar to many African states) in one piece without urgent and sufficient growth and transformation in the economy--starting with agriculture--as a basis for shared livelihoods, shared agency and the resources to build the institutions of democracy. I identify with his analysis of the role of the state being principally to provide services, play an active role...

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