Addis Ababa (Sunatimes) For
over two hundred seventy five weeks, without missing a single week, I
have written long expository commentaries on the deeds and misdeeds of
the man who has been at the helm of power in Ethiopia for over two
decades. Meles Zenawi has now passed on. The cause of his death remains a
closely guarded state secret.
is little I can say about what Meles has done or not done in death that
I have not said in life. But his death saddens me, because as John
Donne said, “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in
Mankind. Death comes equally to us all, and makes us all equal when it
comes.” As a committed human rights advocate, even the death of a tyrant
diminishes me because I am involved in the cause of humanity--
justice, fairness, equality, dignity, benevolence, compassion,
forgiveness, honesty, integrity and magnanimity.
bid Meles farewell not in words of lamentation or grievance but in
words that record lost opportunities yet express hope, optimism and
confidence in the future of Ethiopia.
Zenawi was a man who had an appointment with destiny. Fate had chosen
him to play a historic role in Ethiopia and beyond. He was one of the
leaders of a rebel group that fought and defeated a brutal military
dictatorship that had been in power for 17 years. In victory, Meles
promised democracy, respect for democratic liberties and development.
But as the years wore on, Meles became increasingly repressive,
intolerant of criticism and in the end became as tyrannical as the
tyrant he had replaced. In his last years, he created a police state
reinforced by a massive security network of spies and surveillance
technology. He criminalized press freedom and civil society
institutions. He crushed dissent and all opposition. He spread fear and
loathing that penetrated the remotest parts of the countryside. For
over 21 years, Meles clutched the scepter of power in his hands and cast
away the sword of justice he held when he marched into the capital from
the bush in 1991. Meles was feared, disliked and demonized by his
adversaries. He was loved, admired, idealized and idolized by his
supporters. In the end, Meles died a man who had absolute power which
had corrupted him absolutely. In his relentless pursuit of absolute
power, Meles missed his appointment with destiny to become a peerless
and exemplary Ethiopian leader.
who was the Meles Zenawi we saw morphing from a promising democrat into
a flagitious dictator over the past 21 years? Who was the man we accuse
of human rights violations and crimes against humanity? Who was the man
we blame for the stillbirth of democracy in Ethiopia and the creation
of “an African police state” as CNN recently characterized it? Is he
alone responsible for the suffering and woe that have befallen that
poor nation? Perhaps some may be surprised to hear one of Meles’
severest critics in life raising such questions in his death. But the
truth must be told.
created and nurtured Meles over the past 21 years. We were his aiders
and abettors. We share responsibility in his deeds and misdeeds. “We”
are the great nations who lionized and gave billions of dollars to Meles
every year even as we meticulously documented his massive record of
human rights violations year after year. “We” are the members of the
political party that controls 99.6 percent of the seats in parliament
who rubber-stamped his repressive laws that criminalized journalists and
civil society organizations and made “terrorists” out of our best and
brightest youth. “We” are the judges who made a travesty of justice by
subverting the halls of justice into kangaroo courts. “We” are the
soldiers, police and security operatives who used our guns on innocent
civilians. “We” are the civil servants who stood at Meles’ beck and call
and did his bidding unquestioningly. “We” are the journalists for state
media who covered up and justified his violations of human rights. “We”
are the businessmen and women who profited from official corruption to
line our pockets. “We” are the young men and women who signed up for
party membership to access opportunities in a system we knew to be
corrupt. “We” are Ethiopia’s intellectuals who chose not to stand up to
Meles or stand up for principle. “We” are the opposition party leaders
who bickered, quarreled and quibbled when millions looked up to us to
lead us on the shining path to democracy. “We” are the Ethiopian
Diaspora who kept silent, turned a deaf ear, muted lips and blind eyes
as ordinary Ethiopians were subjected to extrajudicial killings,
dissidents and critics jailed and political prisoners tortured and
abused. “We” are the individuals who could have said or done something
when Meles did wrong but chose to remain silent. The truth must be told.
None of us can wash off our hands the sins of silence, complicity and
indifference over the past twenty-one years. So “We” all should be
mindful that when we point an index finger at Meles, three fingers are
pointing at ourselves.
was an exceedingly ambitious man who understood power, but only the
dark side of power. He could not come to terms with the truth that real
power comes from the consent of the people and must be exercised in
accordance with the principle of the rule of law. He held the power of
life and death, but used it more for the latter. He was the policeman,
judge, jury and executioner. He was the law, and his will was the law of
the land. Meles was blinded to the fact that with great power comes
great responsibility. He scorned the idea that those who hold power must
temper it with compassion, justice and tolerance. But having absolute
power made Meles feel absolutely invincible, indestructible, indomitable
and unconquerable. He missed his appointment with destiny.
could have been a peerless and exemplary leader in Ethiopia and in
Africa. Many of the world’s dictators in history were great leaders.
Their “greatness” came from their brutal subjugation of their people.
But exemplary leaders achieve greatness because they are loved, revered
and cherished by their people. Their greatness comes from their openness
of heart, mind and soul. Nelson Mandela is a peerless and exemplary
leader embraced by the entire world even though he was in office for
four years and spent much of his adult life languishing in Apartheid
prisons. Today he is seen as an icon of humanity. What makes Mandela an
exemplary leader is not his charisma, oratory, organizing or
administrative skills. Mandela was concerned about people, not power.
Mandela’s first and foremost concern was dignity, the dignity of all
South Africans and the dignity of all humanity. Mandela became a
peerless leader because he took a single seed of love from his heart and
planted in the arid soil of racial hate and watered it with goodwill,
patience and tolerance. When the world wagered on a bloodbath in South
Africa, in six years Mandela brought black and white South Africans
together and baptized them in the holy water of truth and
reconciliation. Today South Africa is a shining example of a multiracial
society with its own imperfections.
had an appointment with destiny to walk in Mandela’s shoes and follow
in his footsteps. He could have forged a strong and united Ethiopian
nation. He had the chance to build bridges that connected people across
ethnic lines, roads that linked hearts and minds. But he chose the path
of ethnic division and fragmentation. He chose to build edifices to
decorate the cities, roads that led to nowhere and dams that damned the
people and gave away the land to foreigners for pennies in the name of
development and investment. Meles missed his appointment with destiny to
forge a united Ethiopian nation.
had an appointment with destiny to become not only a peerless and
exemplary leader bust also a compassionate one. He was a man with an
iron will, which was also his undoing. He was quick to anger and
intemperate in his disposition. He was unkind to those over whom he had
total control. When he jailed Birtukan Midekssa in December 2008, he
said, “there will never be an agreement with anybody to release
Birtukan. Ever. Full stop. That’s a dead issue.” Birtukan had done
nothing wrong. When he denied an incubator for the premature baby of
internationally-acclaimed husband and wife journalists, Serkalem Fasil
and Eskinder Nega, born in prison, he showed himself lacking in
fundamental human decency. When he told American diplomats that “we will
crush the opposition with all our might”, he revealed himself to be a
ruthless man. Whenever it was in his power to show mercy, he chose
vengeance. Like Mandela, by working with his adversaries, Meles could
have made them his partners and eventually his friends. He missed his
appointment with destiny.
had an appointment with destiny to uplift the people of Ethiopia not
only materially but also in their sense of self-dignity, personal
autonomy and security. Meles believed “there is no direct relationship
between economic growth and democracy historically or theoretically.”
But there can be no sustainable development where people are denied
basic rights and are forced to resort to violence, conflict and war. The
essence of humanity is dignity. It is not all about filling the belly.
It is true that a hungry man is an angry man, but a hungry man hungers
not only for bread but also for freedom and self-dignity. The poorest of
the poor and the richest of the rich crave dignity about all else, even
food. Over a quarter of a century ago, a Western reporter covering the
famine in Ethiopia was stunned to find out that the famine victims at a
relief center did not fight over the little bit of food that was being
distributed among them. He was deeply touched by the fact that the
famine victims would rather die in quiet dignity than fight their fellow
victims to get a piece of bread. But dignity comes in many forms: the
freedom to speak, to think, to worship, to assemble, to petition for
grievances, and most importantly, freedom from fear of one’s government.
Meles believed man can live by bread alone and single-mindedly
championed and worshipped brick and mortar projects. He missed his
appointment with destiny.
was not a forgiving or a tolerant man. He was inclined to pardon once
in a while when it was convenient, but not to forgive. He held the
pardon he gave out as the Sword of Damocles over the heads of his
pardonees. He always let them know that he could revoke his pardon and
throw them back in jail at will. He preferred confrontation to
negotiation, imposition of his will to compromise. He had a need to win
all the time and played zero sum games. Meles missed his appointment
was a man who never admitted making mistakes. It did not seem to occur
to him that he could admit mistakes and ask forgiveness for deeds done
in error or take actions to correct mistakes. He could never bring
himself to utter the phrases “I made a mistake” or “I am sorry.” When
asked about the deaths of some 200 protesters and wounding of nearly 800
in the aftermath of the 2005 elections, his response was numbingly
bureaucratic, “I regret the deaths but these were not normal
demonstrations. You don't see hand grenades thrown at normal
demonstrations.” As the evidence presented by Meles’ own Inquiry
Commission showed, none of the demonstrators were armed let alone carry
grenades. Meles never explained and never said he was sorry for those
deaths. I was transformed from an indifferent armchair academic into a
resolute human rights advocate because of those killings.
the killings of hundreds of people in Gambella, Meles issued a
whitewash report. He denied the occurrence of any human rights
violations in the Ogaden, Afar and Oromia regions. He often showed
conduct unbecoming of a statesman whenever others pointed out his
mistakes. When his opponents challenged his policies, he called them
“dirty”, “mud dwellers”, “pompous egotists” and good-for-nothing “chaff”
and “husk.” He humiliated and demeaned parliamentarians who challenged
him with probing questions or disagreed with him. He characterized the
work of the European Union election observers in the 2010 election as
“garbage”. He described the Voice of America as the voice of genocide
similar to one of the infamous Rwandan radio stations in the mid-1990s.
He never apologized to those he had wronged.
insisted on being right all the time. He did not seem to believe that
he can learn from his mistakes and failures. Meles once acknowledged he
may have made a mistake. Responding to a journalist’s question about
Diaspora Ethiopians protesting his overseas visits, Meles said, “We may
be at fault in some way. I am sorry. That maybe we didn’t communicate
well enough to those Ethiopians living abroad what is happening, what we
are doing here.” He missed his appointment with destiny by failing to
effectively communicate with Diaspora Ethiopians.
could have been an exemplary leader if he had upheld the rule of law.
He often talked about “our Constitution” and the rule of law but rarely
followed either. He was the object of relentless criticism by all
international human rights organizations for disregarding Ethiopia’s
Constitution and international human rights treaties and conventions.
Every year, the U.S. State Department Human Rights Report documented
massive human rights violations as did so many other international human
rights organizations. But he was dismissive of such reports. For the
Meles regime, human rights organizations were “highly frustrated and
self-appointed kingmaker institutions in the U.S.” bent on “tarnishing
the image of the country.” He missed his appointment with destiny.
was a man with a mission. He confused mission with vision. He spoke of
an “Ethiopian Renaissance” and some say he “wanted to restore Ethiopia
to its former glory”. But many doubted his motives and even his true
allegiance to the country. In his speech on the Ethiopian millennium in
2007, he lamented the fact that “at the dawn of the new millennium, ours
is one of the poorest countries in the world.” But he was reassuring:
“A thousand years from now, when Ethiopians gather to welcome the fourth
millennium, they shall say the eve of the third millennium was the
beginning of the end of the dark ages in Ethiopia.” Sadly, many before
him have been driven by the same impulse to resurrect ancient glory.
They failed in Berlin and Rome over one-half century ago and more
recently in Tripoli and Bagdad. Though they built roads, dams and
magnificent edifices and waged war, they were all consigned to the
dustbin of history.
Our Appointment With Destiny
We the living now have a new appointment with destiny. But before we
keep our appointment, we must face the truth and come to terms with
Meles’ legacy. The truth is that the faults and vices we ascribe to
Meles are not his alone. We have been known to hunger and lust for
power, to put our partisan interests above the common good, to manifest
dictatorial impulses even when we are out of power, trade principle for
convenience and self-interest, behave with intolerance, become
condemnatory instead of conciliatory, deny making mistakes and above all
find every excuse not to say, “I am sorry” when we make mistakes. We
cannot right Meles’ wrongs until we acknowledge our own.
the memory of Meles as we move forward will serve no purpose. It will
only continue the tradition of grievance and victimhood and culture of
antagonism. Meles’ legacy should not be that he continues to rule from
grave. We must learn the right lessons from his 21-year rule and move
forward to heal the open wounds of fear, loathing and antagonism. There
is no need to perpetuate historic hatreds. We must strive for love,
wisdom and compassion towards one another. Now that Meles has passed, we
can all put Mandela’s shoes, put our noses to the grind stone and
together build an Ethiopia on a solid foundation of the rule of law,
respect for human rights and democracy. The question we now face is
clear: Will we also miss our appointment with destiny?
earlier this year, I have been writing about “Ethiopia’s inevitable
transition from dictatorship to democracy”. I have outlined various
scenarios on what could happen during the transition. Today the
dictatorship of one man in Ethiopia is over, but dictatorship itself is
alive and well. To complete the transition to democracy and make our
appointment with destiny, we must take resolute steps to begin a
national dialogue for reconciliation. As we prepare for this dialogue,
we must make the release of all political prisoners and repeal of the
oppressive “anti-terrorism and civic society” laws job number one.
On the Road to Good Governance and Democracy
I have relentlessly chronicled the deeds and misdeeds of Meles Zenawi
for some years now. I had nothing personal against the man. I never knew
him. But I have followed and studied his politics, actions and
speeches. I have disagreed with him on practically everything because I
have been tunnel-visioned on human rights. My singular cause is human
rights in Ethiopia. I got involved in Ethiopian human rights following
the massacre of unarmed protesters in the aftermath of the 2005
elections. I have looked at Meles’ deeds and misdeeds through the prism
of human rights. I am an ardent human rights advocate and if that be a
fault, I proudly embrace it.
believe Meles had an appointment with destiny to live and die as a hero
and make the whole country his tomb. His epitaph could have recorded
great deeds inscribed not on granite but enshrined in the hearts of his
countrymen and women. As a human rights advocate, I am pained to think
of Meles’ legacy in the dark vision of the victims of the 2005
massacres, the subhuman prisons that warehouse the hundreds of thousands
of political prisoners, the courts which became political tools, the
subversion of the rule of law and so on.
have sought for some signs that Meles at least believed in human rights
in the abstract. I shall give him the benefit of doubt that he did. In
an interview with Al Jazeera in 2007, Meles said, “I’d hope that my
legacy would be one of sustained and accelerated development that would
pull Ethiopia out of the massive deep poverty that it was mired in, full
and total stabilization of the country,radical improvements in terms of good governance and democracy.
I’d hope by the time I retire, we’d have made significant strides in
all of those in the future.” By the time of his death in 2012, the
“radical improvements in terms of good governance and democracy” had
seen a radical regression into tyranny and despotism. The "future" Meles
spoke of is now. We should all work collectively to implement his
aspirations for “radical improvements in terms of good governance and
democracy” now. This is Meles’ legacy his surviving officials should
acknowledge openly and work with others to implement as the ultimate
tribute to Meles’ leadership. The “radical improvement in good
governance and democracy” begins with the release of all political
prisoners, repeal of antiterrorism and civil society and other
oppressive laws and declaration of allegiance to the rule of law. As the
Ethiopian new year is just around the corner, we can all begin afresh
on the road to “radical improvements in good governance and democracy”.
wish I would have been able to deliver a eulogy that celebrated Meles’
two-decade old tenure in power; to speak of a man who was a hero in life
and in death; a man for whom men, women and children flooded the
streets of their own free will to express heart felt sorrow and shed
tears. I wish I could have spoken of a man who made his appointment with
destiny and became a peerless and exemplary leader. The greatest
homage I can pay Meles in death as one of his severest critics in life
is to uphold and defend his vision of “radical improvements in terms of
good governance and democracy” in Ethiopia.
once told a journalist that “if Ethiopians thought he [was a dictator] I
would not sleep at night. But I don’t believe they do.” But I am
afraid the very last words Meles heard before he fell “asleep” were the
words of a young Ethiopian journalist. In response to a question on
whether he ever imagined he would be in power for so long, Meles was
reflective: “That was clearly not what I expected. It’s happened. I
don’t regret it but I just hope that, at the end of it all, it will have
been worth it.” I sincerely hope it was all worth it for him.
others speak of Meles as a “visionary” leader, “an African leader of
major historical significance” and write his glorious hagiography. I
shall bid him farewell by paraphrasing Shakespeare in Julius Caesar.
Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Meles, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
Friends, Ethiopians, countrymen and women, lend me your ears;
It is time to bury Meles, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Meles.
alemayehu g mariam :