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Remembering Prime Minister Meles Zenawi

August 23, 2012, Dr. Ghelawdewos Araia

As the maxim goes, with all the best intentions in the world some sorrow remains, and there is no doubt that the family and extended family of Meles Zenawi are in deep sorrow for his untimely departure. Before I delve into the remembrance notes I like to extend my condolences to Azieb (Gola) Mesfin and his children.

I have known Meles Zenawi at Addis Ababa University (then Haile Selassie I University) in the early 1970s. When I was a sophomore majoring in political science, Meles joined the university from Wingate High School and was enrolled as pre-Med freshman, but I did not know him closely until one day Meles Tecle, the militant student leader, introduced him to me at Sidist Kilo campus and asked me to accommodate him in our study group, an extra-curricular activity of students where ideas and experiences were exchanged and where we have accomplished and read tons of literature. Meles did not join our group, but he became an avid reader nonetheless.

One fine day, a university-wide gathering was called upon by USUAA, University Students Union of Addis Ababa, in which current politics were exhaustively discussed and as always the student leaders addressed the key burning issues such as ‘land to the tiller’, ‘question of nationalities’, ‘women’s rights’ and ‘poverty is not a crime’. One student leader after the other spoke eloquently, and all of a sudden, Meles Zenawi raised his hand, was recognized by the chair of the conference, and criticized one previous speaker by loudly saying, “even your English is shaking” and that was the campus talk for weeks. Student leaders said, then, “who is this guy?” for Meles was an inductee and an unknown figure amongst the students. Ever since, however, he became more and more active in the Ethiopian Student Movement.

Following the 1974 Ethiopian Revolution, Meles (who was then known as Legesse) and I have gone separate ways and I have never heard from him until we met again sometime in mid-1976 at the border of Ethiopia and Eritrea, a place called Tsorona. He was with his fellow Woyane; I with Ehapa, one nationalist and the other pan-Ethiopian respectively but because we had good relations in campus, he came and hugged me and as in the Ethiopian tradition, we kissed on the chick three times. During this encounter the two groups on either part of the organizations were perplexed after they saw us exchanging greetings, because the two organizations had markedly different political agendas, although at that juncture they were not at loggerheads yet.

After the 1976 Tsorona meeting, to my great surprise and perhaps pleasure as well, I met Meles Zenawi in New York City in 1989. I never expected him to come there and I never thought we were ever going to meet again, but it happened. Before we met, one friend calls my home phone and said, “Can we meet today; there is someone, an old acquaintance, who would like to see you!” I wondered who would be that old acquaintance, but when I went to the venue of appointment, which was at Burgher King restaurant at the junction of Broadway and 110 Street near Columbia University, there is Meles Zenawi surrounded by his comrades. He said “hello Ghelawdewos,” and I said, “hello Wedi-Zenawi” as we affectionately used to call him. After exchanging greetings, we had a chat on many issues and I asked him whether the TPLF is completely independent from regional influences and whether it has an Ethiopian agenda at all. Meles strongly and affirmatively answered the first question and assured me that his organization is independent, but he only insinuated on the latter question.

What I did not know in relation to our meeting in New York, then, was that Meles actually had toured in many parts of the United States and had discussions with other individuals as well. His organization was approaching Ethiopians who could be of help in the event the Meles group ousts the military government. One other thing I did not know, then, was they were about to find the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and transcend the ‘Tigray liberation agenda’.

The next time I met Meles Zenawi was in Washington DC in 1995. I had gone to Washington to promote my debut book, Ethiopia: The Political Economy of Transition, and I never knew that he was in the nation’s capital, but one fellow Ethiopian called the place where I was staying and asked for my name, and the person who accepted the call said, “there is a call for you.” It was very early in the morning, but I accepted the call nonetheless and spoke with the caller and I was told that I am invited to the Ethiopian Embassy and “P.M. Meles wanted to see you and others.” I had gone to the embassy with some copies of my book and there I see Meles, not much of a change since I saw him six years before, not even a gray hair except that he seems to have lost some hair on top of his forehead.

Before the formal meeting began, there was sort of reception and Meles was shaking hands with many of the invitees and when he approached where I was standing, he exclaimed, “Ghelawdewos Shiftaw” and the people near me were surprised by the exclamation and affinity the PM had exhibited. This meeting, however, was more of proposals forwarded to the PM by Ethiopian professionals who were invited and asked to present their ideas and expertise, rather than a speech by the PM. Then the meeting was adjourned, but I used the opportunity to autograph my book and give it to Meles.

After 1995, I never met Meles Zenawi in person and in just three years dramatic political events took place in the Horn of Africa. Unexpected and meaningless war broke out between Ethiopia and Eritrea and following the Algiers Peace Agreement, split hit the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). I was not opposed to the peace accord between Ethiopia and Eritrea, but I was vehemently opposed to the Boarder Commission decision in which Ethiopia was going to lose some lands on its northern frontier. This stance of mine may have caused distance between myself and the ruling party in Ethiopia, but sometime in 2007, I have come to realize that the Boarder Commission decision was not implemented and no Ethiopian land was ceded to Eritrea and I was at ease, and as a result I contacted the Ethiopian officials via personal courier to continue to upheld Ethiopian territorial integrity and if that is confirmed, I promised that I would cooperate with them in any area related to Ethiopia’s development.

Also in 2007, I reviewed Meles Zenawi’s work entitled African Development: Dead Ends and New Beginnings, and this is what I stated in part: “The objective of this article is to critically examine the overall thesis of Meles Zenawi’s paradigm shift with respect to African development. It is in effect, an overview of the theme under discussion and the tenets and points of view incorporated in the preliminary draft presented by Meles Zenawi (henceforth MZ), the Prime Minister of Ethiopia.”

“From the outset, however, I like to warn readers not to impregnate a misconception of the oneness of political proclivity (or ideological faith) and personal theoretical observation. As far as I am concerned I like to delineate (and cautiously de-link) what Meles has stood for so far – irrespective of his future commitment – and what he presented to the public now. I am interested in the latter, and it is in this spirit that I like to critique African Development: Dead Ends and New Beginnings. It is difficult to dissociate ones political devotion (especially for a head of state) and his relatively scholarly thesis or presentation of an historical account. But if one can read and critique My Life and the Progress of Ethiopia without bias to Emperor Haile Selassie (the author of the title), one can definitely read MZ’s ‘Dead Ends and New Beginnings’. Reinforcing my argument further, I like to simply state, if we want to learn anything, we must pay attention to the information to be learned irrespective of who provides it.”

“The leitmotif of MZ’s thesis is paradigm shift from neo-liberal to a ‘democratic developmental state.’ His work, by and large, favors government intervention in the economy and the prioritization of rural development. In the first part of Chapter I, thus, he argues, ‘government created rent does not necessarily have to be socially wasteful. It becomes wasteful only if solely self-interested maximizing individuals use it to create wealth at the expense of society and only if the state is incapable of improving on the market – i.e. there are not market failures.’ Well said, but there is a problem in terms of what currently plagues the African state.” (The Review runs into seven pages and I have tried to address an entire panoply of issues that Meles discusses; people interested in the entire reflections I have made, could refer to www.africanidea.org/reflections_mz.html

In 1999 I went for a visit to Ethiopia and I have met some officials and some old friends and the latter took me to a social gathering somewhere in the Old Airport area of Addis Ababa. In that gathering, I met several people I knew from campus and some who went from the United States to visit; there were also teenagers and children and a woman whom I know in the US was sitting beside me and asked, “who do you think this little girl looks like?” My answer was, “I really don’t know,” but when she told me that she is the daughter of Meles Zenawi, I was stunned by the resemblance of this young girl to her father; her eyes and especially her eye browse are identical with those of her father’s. She happens to be Meles’ primogeniture and truly walking with her father’s genetic blue print, which is unmistakably visible.

Meles Zenawi will be remembered for many things of his contributions, including the conception and plan of Agriculture Development-Led Industrialization (ADLI), a blue print for Ethiopia’s development; for his leadership in the establishment of higher institutions of learning (at least twenty universities have been established under his leadership) and the expansion of schools in the urban and rural areas; for his leadership in road construction and major development infrastructures such as the Millennium Dam; for his leadership in various capacities in the African Union (AU), including his chairmanship of New African Partnership for Development (NEPAD).

Meles Zenawi may also be remembered for his failures, which is only human. Failures and successes are organic attributes to humans; we are genetically engineered to make mistakes and learn from them, while other animals cannot do that. Animals cannot afford to fail; if they do they simply die. Therefore, one’s failures should not be exaggerated vis-à-vis the successes. Meles Zenawi’s detractors or even honest critics could write about his mistakes and even his crimes as they put it; I respect their opinions, but for me this is not a place and the time to entertain it. I want to bid him farewell and simply express my feelings by saying, May God Bless His Soul.

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