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Beyond Expectations: The Enduring Image of Prime Minister Meles’ Legacy

By Asayehgn Desta, Ph.D
August 30, 2012

In May 8, 1955, a series of seven clicking loud sounds (eleelta) emerged from the house of Woizero Alemash Gebre Leul and Ato Zenawi Asres at the Enda Selassie community in Adwa, Tigrai , Ethiopia,  to announce to the immediate neighbors that Woizero Alemash had given birth to a boy. Since the family was devoted to the Christian faith, the boy was baptized with holy water at 40 days at the Enda Selassie Church (Debrechie). The delighted mother called her newborn son Negasi (to be the king or kingly) because she wished the newborn boy to be the future Ethiopian king.  The father, Ato Zenawi Asres  on the other hand preferred that the newborn boy be named Legesse (gift bestowal) because it was his desire that the newborn  child be devoted to giving assistance to the needy.  Within the Adwa community, it is generally accepted that the children of any family may have more than two names. Thus it was finally agreed by entire family that the official name of the newborn boy be Legesse Zenewai. Members of the family on the other hand were given the option to call the newborn boy either Negassi or Legesse.

 With the family’s consent, at the age six, Ato Zenawi registered his son at the Queen Sheba Primary School as Legesse Zenawi. He attended the Queen Sheba primary school, the Wingate Secondary school, and Addis Ababa University. Student files and former teachers reveal that a brilliant student named Legesse Zenawi, who was endowed with exceptional intellect, very creative thinking, an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, and who at times politely challenged his teachers, had left a distinguished and lasting imprint for future students.  

While Meles, then Legesse, was a student at the Queen Sheba primary school, his first mentor, Ato Zenawi, has said that he would have liked Prime Minister Meles to be a medical doctor rather being the head of the Ethiopian state.  Meles was heavily involved in helping students with their daily and weekly assignments. While he was at the Wingate Secondary school in Addis Ababa and then Addis Ababa University, he was deeply committed to making copies and sending various learning materials to the students at his former school, the Queen Sheba high school in Adwa.  During summer vacations, he often went to his home town, Adwa, mainly to help students with their academic work and also to socialize with the learners to raise their awareness about the oppressive political systems that then existed in Ethiopia. In retrospect, many of the alumni groups who were then helped by Meles describe him as very passionate and inspiring.  In addition, they say that he was a voracious reader of books. Furthermore, the interviewee had little or no hesitation in telling me that Meles, a prolific writer and a very creative thinker, had made a substantial impact on them. 

After the Tigrai People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) started fighting the Military junta (Derg) in 1975, to ensure self-determination for the peoples of Tigrai, Legesse joined the TPLF under a nom de guerre, Meles Zenawi. It is worth noting that the new names which Legesse adopted were meant to be in honor of the militant student activist Meles Tekle. Meles Tekle was mercilessly executed in 1975 by the Military junta, internationally known for its insuperable terror and atrocities while it governed Ethiopia from 1974-1991. 

As a Marxist-Leninist at heart, Meles was averse to the development of a personality cult. Nor did he allow the Party elite to create and manipulate any cult for their own use. Meles was a modest man, but with exceptional abilities. Thus without attempting to idealize or glorify in death beyond what he was in life, I hope Meles would not be unhappy if in passing I mention  that he was a fighter, a teacher of cadres, a political ideologue with great vision, a member of the TPLF Central Committee, and one of the architects of the TPLF. Having these qualities, eventually Meles became the leader of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF),that collectively liberated Ethiopia from the fascistic rule of the Military junta.

Though the country was collectively run by the EPRDF, Meles was chosen to be the President of the transitional government from 1991 to 1994, and the wishes of his mother were fulfilled.  Since Meles was a gifted and empowering moderator, he was loved, trusted and respected by the members of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front which then unanimously recommended to Ethiopian Parliament that he should be the Prime Minister of Ethiopia.  During his tenure as a the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, foreign institutions awarded Meles with medals and honorary degrees for his services because of his unending desire to impart knowledge to others. For example, the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and global optimists were insisting on the importance of a neo-liberal type of economic system for Ethiopia.  The well-seasoned Prime Minister Meles challenged and criticized the perspectives of these institutions and convincingly persuaded them that nothing is more important for Ethiopia than to pull out of poverty and deprivation and to embark on the developmentally-oriented state model that has given the Asian Tigers the ability to achieve sustained development.  

Though we are very sad at his passing, I think that this moment must be a celebration of the life of an outstanding human being.  He was an extraordinary man who devoted his whole life to serving the Ethiopian people and the entire African continent.  As the embodiment of good leadership, Meles was an example of public service that was not to enrich himself but to serve the young and the poor rural and urban dwellers, fulfilling his father’s wishes. What Meles had was what the people of Ethiopia willingly gave him as he mobilized the national will and resources for the resurgence of Ethiopia and the achievement of respect in its former place within the global arena. Even his political foes respected his abilities and commitment.

As stated elsewhere (see Desta 2012), practicing and deepening the locus of collective leadership among equal partners as coordinated by Prime Minister Meles has  given Ethiopia steady economic growth for the last eight years, achieving remarkable success in establishing health services and social developments. Some of the infrastructure projects, such as roads, railways, air transport and telecommunication services are in the process of being reengineered and some are already providing the expected services.

In quantitative terms, it is remarkable to notice that Ethiopia has almost achieved universal primary education in line with the “International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights,” (Article 13.2a).  Based on the lessons learned from the 1995 Agricultural Development-Led Strategy, the 2002/03 to 2004/05, Sustainable Development and to End Poverty (PASDEP), Ethiopia launched the Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP) for the period 2010/11 to 2014/15, which is expected help Ethiopia achieve not only the Millennium Development Goals but also make it as one of the middle income countries by 2020-2023. 

Though at times there have been stumbles as a result of externally induced shocks and constructive criticisms that it might be a paradox for democracy and developmental states to coexist in Ethiopia, when compared with the previous political environment, it is possible to consider that the political process of Ethiopia under the leadership of Prime Minister Meles was in the process of being transformed into a democracy that would fulfill Meles’ vision of a renaissance in Ethiopia.  

 Given what Prime Minister Meles and his group achieved collectively, may I say that Prime Minister Meles was richly blessed by Almighty God. He used his talents as his Maker, his mother Woizero Alemash, and his father Ato Zenawi wished him to.  The legacy of which Prime Minister Meles would have been proud is his commitment to ideals he left to be used as a source of inspiration, and to strategies to be pursued to further rekindle Ethiopia. Now, let Prime Minister Meles rest in eternal peace.  Finally, I would like to express that my heartfelt sorrow goes to his family, the Adwa community, Ethiopians living in Ethiopia and residing abroad, and the global community who are left aching because of the passing of Prime Minister Meles. Though it is very difficult to foresee the misfortunes that will confront us along way, may God help us to live out our lives with purpose like Prime Minister Meles.  


For a detailed critic of the Ethiopian Development State, please see Desta, A. (2012).  “Centrally Planned or Developmental-oriented State: A review of the Ethiopian Economic System.” The Journal of Academy of Business and Economic (JABE) Vol. 12, No. 2.

United Nations, Article 13.2 (a). International Convenant  on Economic, social, and cultural Rights. http://www2.other.org/english/law/cescr.htm#art13.  Retrieved  Aug. 29, 2012.

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