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Meles Zenawi

Some called him the “last emperor” ‘s Ethiopia. Coming to power by force of arms after the fall of the communist regime, Meles Zenawi ruled with a rod of iron two decades. Meles left a mixed legacy, having guided rapid development with one hand, while silencing all forms of dissent with the other.

Starting at a tender age and throughout his lifetime, Meles Zenawi displayed a passionate resolve to do away with poverty. In his youth, the severe scarcity of medical care in his hometown influenced his decision to study medicine. At 20 years old, the medical student left the university and joined the People’s Liberation Front Tigray (TPLF). He took up arms and led a guerrilla war against the Marxist government of Mengistu Haile Mariam. He joined the armed struggle in order to clear the ground for mounting a fight against poverty. Meles was of the belief that poverty is an indignity to each person and an affront to the entire community.

In the early years, Meles had mastered a clear sense of the objectives of the armed struggle, a vision he enriched through his avid reading and research. By studying the successes and failures of armed struggle around the world and by gaining a clear understanding of the peculiar conditions of Ethiopia, he was able to provide decisive leadership. During the mid-1980s when the armed struggle begun to waver, Meles played a central role in mobilizing and organizing the struggle across the nation. To this day, his dedication for learning and close scrutiny of issues remains exemplary.

Since his election to the executive committee during the first congress of the TPLF held in 1979, and especially following his re-election in 1983 and subsequent membership of the politburo, Meles made important and strategic contributions to advance the armed struggle. Meles had the exceptional vision and capacity to initiate and lead change. For instance, he held that the lasting liberation of the people of Tigray needed the establishment of popular democratic rule throughout Ethiopia, and to this end he called for a popular front of all democratic forces. In 1985, a decade after the founding of the TPLF, even though the liberation front had overcome a series of formidable obstacles and secured its survival, the movement was, nonetheless, at a loss about the way forward. At this juncture Meles laid down the guiding aims of Ethiopia’s revolutionary democracy: the strategies, alliances and means to extend the reach of the armed struggle by addressing the fundamental challenges of the peoples across Ethiopia.

Meles successfully persuaded the TPLF to extend its support to the EPDM (now ANDM), towards the formation of an equal partner in the armed struggle. Moreover, he urged the TPLF to mobilize and assist other democratic forces. Meles boldly advocated a position never before held by any Ethiopian political organisation: that upholding the right to self-determination of the peoples of Eritrea is the only solution to the Eritrean question. Subsequently, he resolved confusion in the ranks by going public with the view that the existing Eritrean liberation movements and organizations were neither capable of guaranteeing the democratic rights of the Eritrean peoples, nor of championing the democratic aspirations of the peoples of Ethiopia. This stance -- lending support to what is principled whilst withdrawing support where it is not merited -- became the basis of the organisation’s ties to external forces.

During 1988-89, the armed struggle was at a crossroads. As the struggle increasingly turned into an Ethiopian movement, Meles wrote extensively to clarify difficult problems and to explore in detail the leading issues of the time: democratic resolution of the question of nationalities in Ethiopia; state power and the revolution; the land question; and the Eritrean peoples’ movement for independence. Chiefly as a result of his guidance, consensus was reached among democratic forces, and the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) was formed. Soon after, the Oromo People’s Democratic Movement (OPDO) was established and joined the EPRDF. Meles played a pivotal role in this period of transition in the nature and scope of the struggle.

Meles came to power in a 1991 coup, as the head of an alliance of rebel groups called the EPRDF (Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front). Their rebellion helped to end a harsh communist dictatorship, known as the Derg, during which time tens of thousands of government opponents were imprisoned or executed. Meles was praised for helping to dig Ethiopia out of poverty following years of civil war. His ruling party had gone to great lengths to incorporate the United Nations Millennium Development Goals into its national policy. According to the U.N., the country spent 60 percent of its total expenditures on agriculture, education, health and other poverty-alleviating sectors.

Until the late 1990s, the country had not managed to proceed beyond a slow pace of growth. Above all, Meles grew concerned about the emergence of corrupt and rent-seeking practices within EPRDF. Speaking on this issue, Meles said that“power is a double-edged sword: it can be used either to eliminate poverty or to destroy the populace. Power should not be deployed to accumulate personal wealth or for nepotism: it must rather serve as a weapon of public service.

The rights situation really deteriorated after the 2005 elections, which opposition parties say was rigged. Nearly 200 people died in post-election violence and protests. Following the Seventh EPRDF Congress in September 2008, it was apparent that some members of the cabinet were out of favor. The Prime Minister as well as top leaders of EPRDF were displeased with the lackluster performance of some of the ministries and a reshuffle was anticipated. While the government has maintained the delicate balance among its ethnically-based EPRDF coalition partners, it is notable that none of the core Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) members were affected by the shift. The appointment of new Ministers of Agriculture, Transport and Communication, and Women's Affairs will hopefully breathe new life and responsiveness into those ministries. The injection of new blood will definitely invigorate the performance of the cabinet, but the appointment of very young ministers with little experience is a matter of concern to observers.

Meles outlined his hands-on development philosophy in a speech at the U.N. General Assembly in 2010. "We have taken full charge of our destiny, devised our own strategy, and maximized the mobilization of our domestic resources to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. We made the best use of the limited available international assistance to supplement our own efforts," he said. While Meles often dismissed the effectiveness of foreign assistance, external aid to Ethiopia averaged more than $3.8 billion per year between 2008 and 2011, according to the World Bank.

Meles always counseled against piecemeal endeavors and limited outcomes. He called for grand plans and large accomplishments. He was not shy in using words like 'Ethiopia cannot be a beggar nation' or 'If our people don't see certain progress in x number of years then we're all finished.' He was very realistic about that and not afraid to articulate it. He envisioned the real possibility of Ethiopia making a clean break with poverty and turn into a nation with a stable economic and democratic order. The Growth and Transformation Plan is a part of this larger vision. The plan sets out to effect Ethiopia’s transition towards an industrial economy, an aim that was never before entertained in our history.

In 2012, the International Crisis Group wrote: “In recent years, Meles had relied increasingly on repression to quell growing dissent His successor will struggle to manage the increase in these disorders..” And indeed, the Anti-Terrorism Act, introduced in 2009, continued to hold political opposition and media.

Human rights groups had long-criticized the Ethiopian government for suppressing opposition voices by limiting freedom of speech and assembly. “Those rights have been steadily eroded throughout the leadership of Meles Zenawi, so we have a situation now where it's almost impossible in Ethiopia for people to express their opinions, to protest, to criticize the government, and in that context that means that the government continues to commit a wide range of human rights violations," said Claire Beston, the Ethiopia and Eritrea researcher for Amnesty International.

Nearly two weeks of national mourning for the untimely death of the late Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, ended 02 September 2010 with the State funeral ceremony. Tens of thousands of Ethiopians, more than a dozen Heads of State and Government, high level delegations from the EU, USA, China and other countries, and dignitaries gathered to attend the ceremony and pay their last respects in Meskal Square in the center of Addis Ababa. The body of the late Prime Minister, which had been lying in state in the Grand Palace, arrived in a flag-draped coffin.

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Page last modified: 15-02-2018 16:37:35 ZULU