Welcome back to Tunisia


It’s just over two weeks since I returned to Tunisia and a lot has obviously been going on during that time.  Here is a round-up of some of the stories that have made the news headlines recently.




Sometimes it’s difficult enough drinking in the bars of downtown Tunis – thanks to the near-lethal miasma of cigarette smoke that fills them, and the shifty demeanour of some of the regulars, which encourages you to do your boozing with your back against the nearest wall, and the acrid taste of Tunisia’s national brew, the chemical-laden Celtia beer.  On top of those things, you don’t also want to contend with the possibility of an invasion by a hundred fat bearded blokes in smocks and sneakers smashing bottles and furniture and bellowing “Al-sharab haram!”, which means “Drinking is a sin!” in Arabic.  Though to be honest, I’ve been in a few Tunis pubs where this could happen and nobody would notice any difference.


Anyway, a day after I returned to Tunisia, the printed and online media were full of tales about how Salafists – oh, how I’d wanted to spend at least a few days back here without seeing that word in print again – had attacked an establishment called the Horchani Hotel in Sidi Bouzid, the town in central Tunisia that in late 2010 saw the first stirrings of the Tunisian Revolution and the Arab Spring.  The Salafists burst into the hotel on September 3rd and ransacked its bedrooms and kitchens, as well as smashing up the hotel-bar and its contents.  This was the culmination of a four-month campaign whereby Sidi Bouzid’s bars had been forced to close down one by one because of Salafist violence or because of the threat of it.  The Horchani Hotel had been the last hold-out.  With it out of action, the town is now dry (http://observers.france24.com/content/20120906-tunisia-sidi-bouzid-runs-dry-after-salafists-destroy-last-remaining-bar-hotel-horchani).


Alcohol is something that Salafists don’t like drinking and naturally they think it isn’t right for anyone else to drink it, either.  So it’s awfully thoughtful and generous of them to take action on the public’s behalf like this, without even pausing to consult anyone first.


According to the September 5th edition of La Presse newspaper, which reported the incident with the headline SALAFISTS STRIKE AGAIN WITH IMPUNITY, the local forces of law and order didn’t bother to turn up until well after the damage was done – despite being informed that trouble was brewing a quarter-hour before the invasion took place.  The hotel’s owner, Jamil Horchani, also told La Presse that among the guests in his hotel at the time were a couple of Dutch holidaymakers who “through their interpreter, swore to never again set foot on the soil of this country, after the moments of terror that they experienced.”  Seeing that this story was also reported on the BBC news website (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-19481835) – it was the third most-read article there at one point – and it has since appeared on at least one holiday website too (http://news.cheapholidaydeals.co.uk/salafist-muslims-ransack-hotel-in-tunisia-because-it-serves-alcohol/), I suspect there will be plenty of potential tourists who, after reading about it, will decide not to set foot on the soil of this country at all, ever.




Two artists whose works were displayed this June at the Printemps des Art Fair in La Marsa are now facing prison sentences of up to five years for ‘disturbing the public peace’.  The exhibition led to riots by Salafists – yes, them again – who believed some of its contents to be ‘blasphemous’, and by criminals who’d opportunistically crawled out of the woodwork to do some looting and pillaging.  (http://www.tunisia-live.net/2012/09/03/campaign-to-defend-artists-accused-of-disturbing-public-order/)


The fact that the artists, Nadia Jelassie and Mohamed Ben Slama, are accused of being responsible for the disorder (which resulted in the imposition of a curfew for several days), rather than the Salafist / criminal mob who actually carried it out, is in itself mind-melting.  However, I fail to see what is so outrageous about their artworks anyway.


Jelassie contributed to Printemps des Arts a sculpture that dealt with the practice of putting people to death by stoning.  Though the fact may be uncomfortable for some Tunisians, stoning is still a feature of certain Islamic societies.  There have been recent reports of it happening in the northern Mali town of Anguelhok, which at the moment is controlled by militants acting under the jurisdiction of AQIM, al-Quaedi in the Islamic Maghreb (http://www.aljazeera.com/news/africa/2012/07/201273021254165201.html).  And here’s a link to a short film that Iranian-born comedian Shappi Khorsandi made last year for Amnesty International, highlighting the situation in her home country: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IQGqerNE3MY.


Also displayed was a painting by Ben Slama, which was condemned for showing God’s name spelt out by configurations of tiny ants – allegedly, this reduced Allah to the level of puny insects that scurry around in the dirt.  But in fact the Koran depicts ants as being an intelligent species that even possess their own language.  (See http://www.quransource.com/miracles/en/hy/content.asp?f=scientific_80 and http://quran.tanyt.info/index.php?lang=en&sura=141)  And as I’ve said before on this blog, it seems only logical that artists should glorify God, if they want to glorify Him, by pointing out the wonders of His handiwork in nature, both big and small.  (As a little kid in Northern Ireland, I was made, Sunday after Sunday at my local church, to sing the children’s hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful, which concluded with the lines: He gave us eyes to see them / And lips that we might tell / How great is God almighty / Who has made all things well.)


But what both works are guilty of is the fact that they encourage people to think a little.  And thinking, of course, is anathema to the Salafists, or at least to their most extreme, vocal and violent elements.  Unfortunately, it seems increasingly to be anathema to the Tunisian government too.




Meanwhile, Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the supposedly moderate-Islamic Ennahdha Party that is the main component of the Tunisian government, has threatened to sue Britain’s Independent newspaper.  This isn’t because of anything the newspaper itself said.  Rather, it’s in response to an interview that the newspaper’s veteran Middle East correspondent, Robert Fisk, conducted with Walid Muallem, who is foreign minister to Bashir al-Assad, the mass-murdering and weasel-like president of Syria.  During the interview, Muallem claimed that in the run-up to last year’s Tunisian elections, Ennahdha was generously funded by the Emir of Qatar.  The reporting of this claim has clearly upset Ghannouchi.  (http://www.tunisia-live.net/2012/08/31/head-of-islamist-ennahdha-party-to-file-suit-against-the-independent/)


Now, as a trained journalist, I know that under British law (well, under English law at least – I did my training in London) you have to be extremely careful in repeating contentious comments made by your interviewees.  Printing such comments can leave your publication open to being sued for libel as much as the individuals who made them.  However, it seems mean-spirited of Ghannouchi to go after the Independent, one of the few British newspapers that doesn’t view the world through a belligerent right-wing prism, and in particular to go after Fisk, who is one of the very few British journalists who gives the Arab cause a sympathetic hearing.  Even Ghannouchi had to admit that he regarded Fisk as “a respectable man.”  So why not simply sue Muallem, a leading figure in a far from respectable regime?


Actually, I suspect that Ghannouchi is still sore at the Independent for an extremely prickly article that Fisk wrote about Tunisia back in February this year.  In it, he portrayed the post-revolutionary Tunisia as a hellhole of unemployment, censorship and rising religious extremism, something that’d been achieved with the connivance of the government.  At the time, I thought the article was overheated – for his research, Fisk seemed to have spent too much time hanging out with his Tunisian journalist mates, who were being unnecessarily paranoid and exaggerating their case.  Now, however, I’m not so sure.  Here is what he wrote: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/poisoned-spring-revolution-brings-tunisia-more-fear-than-freedom-7237464.html.




However, one piece of good news – slightly good news – has appeared on the economic front here in Tunisia.  The unemployment rate seems to have plateaued and even gone down a little.  According to the country’s National Statistics Institute, in the second quarter of 2012, unemployment dropped from a hefty 18.1% to a still-hefty but slightly better 17.6%.  Evidence, perhaps, that following the revolution the economy is finally chugging into life again?  (http://www.silobreaker.com/unemployment-rate-down-05-in-second-quarter-of-2012-5_2265973905841717291)


Unfortunately, shortly after that figure was announced, this happened: http://www.tunisia-live.net/2012/09/14/at-least-3-dead-28-wounded-after-clashes-at-us-embassy-in-tunisia/.


And still it isn’t over.  Coming soon, to a French embassy near you…  http://world.time.com/2012/09/19/french-satirical-cartoons-spark-ire-in-the-arab-springs-birthplace/.  Oh, bollocks.


Offended? Loot a school


A very cheap-and-nasty film bad-mouthing the Prophet Muhammad is put together by someone calling himself Sam Bacile, who depending on which reports you believe is an Israeli-American estate agent or an Egyptian-American Coptic Christian.  He is said to have links with Californian right-wing extremist Steve Klein and with Florida-based Terry Jones, the nutcase pastor of the Dove World Outreach Centre who has a well-publicised penchant for organising Koran-burning days.  In an interview, even the basset-faced Jones admits that the film, which is called The Innocence of Muslims, is an amateurish mess.  By September 11th, a day of some historical significance in the United States of America, The Innocence of Muslims is accessible on youtube.  Obviously, this is a crude attempt to whip Muslims in the Middle East and Africa into a vengeful frenzy and have them attack American interests there – creating trouble and strife on such a scale that Americans will conclude that all Muslims are violent and beyond reasoning with.


So that is the plan.  But nobody, surely, could be daft enough to take the bait and fall for Sam Bacile’s odious scheme?  Right?  Wrong.


Needless to say, over the past few days, the world’s newspapers and news websites have been full of pictures of yelling, rock-throwing mobs of extremists in various Muslim countries – including, here in Tunisia, our home-grown branch of the Salafist movement – attacking US embassies and other properties deemed to be American in retaliation for this offensive movie.  Blaming the actions of one Israeli-or-Egyptian American on a nation of 300 million people seems as logical as blaming 8.5 million Austrians for the depredations of Josef Fritzl, or indeed blaming 10 million Tunisians for all the crimes that were committed by Ben Ali and Leila Trabelsi, but these protestors are happy to generalise.  In Khartoum, the definition of what is represented by Uncle Sam is so wide that the targets include the German and British embassies.


In Tunis on Friday, September 14th, the Salafist-led assault on the US embassy on the La Marsa road a few miles out from the city centre resulted in protesters getting into the embassy’s outer compound and setting things there on fire.  They then vented their fury on the nearby American school, which was set alight.  For a while late on Friday afternoon, the reports and pictures appearing on news websites and social networks seemed pretty apocalyptic, though with the amount of smoke and teargas billowing across the area it was difficult to know what was really happening.  When I left my workplace at about 6.15 PM, the light was beginning to fade and I noticed a picturesque red glow above a section of Tunis’s skyline.  For a moment, before I’d worked out the direction I was looking in, I wondered if I was looking at the sunset or at the glimmering embers of the US embassy.


Where Tunisian Salafist protesters go, opportunistic wide-boys from the mean streets of Tunis are sure to follow.  Before part of the American school was burned down, petty criminals were seen leaving the premises with pieces of computer equipment and musical instruments under their arms.  At least, I assume these looters were petty criminals and not actual Salafists, because I can’t imagine Salafists being heavily into music.  At least, they don’t strike me as the sort of guys who’d want to acquire a few drums and electric guitars so they can then start rehearsing a new indie rock band in one of their dad’s garages.


There were some police officers trying to protect the embassy but ultimately their presence didn’t do much good.  I’ve heard a number of theories about why they were ineffective.  For example: (1) the police not-very-brightly fired their teargas into the wind, with the result that it promptly blew back into their faces; (2) the police started firing teargas but then, suddenly, ran out of the stuff (presumably because Ben Ali had exhausted the stocks during the revolution in early 2011); and (3) the protestors had heard that you can offset the effects of teargas by rubbing Coca Cola into your face, so they sneakily did this.  (Well, I suppose if all other trade between the US and Tunisia breaks down because of this incident, there is at least a potential market here for one American product.)


All right, I’ve written flippantly, but this is a serious issue.  The damage, it turns out now, was limited to some smashed embassy windows, a wrecked gym, burnt cars, burnt trees and one wing of the school being destroyed.  However, lives were lost among the protestors – first reports mentioned three deaths, then this figure was reduced to two, and now it’s claimed that four people died.  And the impact on both Tunisia’s international image and its domestic economy is likely to be considerable.  No doubt much-needed foreign investment and tourist money will be scared off.  (On Friday, airplanes approaching Carthage Airport, a couple of miles from the embassy, would have had a full view of the thick black clouds emanating from the burning embassy and school.  Now if I was a holidaymaker coming to Tunisia with no real knowledge of the place, just wanting to have a lazy, easy week of sand, sun and sangria, and seeing burning buildings set alight by a rabble of religious fundamentalists and looters before I’d even touched down, I’d be demanding a full holiday refund and a seat on the next flight out of there.)


One can only speculate what the other consequences will be.  I’d heard rumours that the Americans intended to send members of their Peace Corps into post-revolutionary Tunisia, especially into the hard-pressed south.  The US Peace Corps aren’t perfect, in my opinion, but their presence would at least help more Tunisians to learn English – the language of international business and technology.  And a Tunisia with a young population who were fluent in Arabic, French and English would surely be an attractive place for foreign companies to set up business.  But after Friday’s debacle, I can’t see the Peace Corps arriving any time soon.


I also wonder what the consequences will be for the US presidential elections that are coming shortly.  (For many of the people involved in the US embassy attack, no doubt the motivation wasn’t really outrage at The Innocence of Muslims.  The outrage was just an excuse, providing a cover for the age-old custom of taking a violent pop now and again at the Americans.)  I’m no fan of the US’s foreign policies, not in the Arab world or in the world generally, but it’s important to remember that Barack Obama’s America, for all its faults, is a better place that George W. Bush’s America.  The irony is that I suspect these attacks will weaken Obama’s campaign for re-election and increase the chances of a Romney presidency in 2013.  I know Romney was universally slammed for some stupid remarks he made about the death of US ambassador Chris Stevens in Libya a few days ago, but surely the Republicans now will make hay with claims that this rash of embassy attacks shows the weakness of Obama’s foreign policy.  And imagine the horrors that could potentially come with Romney in the White House – a US / Israeli war against Iran is one nightmare scenario.


Mind you, I think that a lot of Muslim extremists would welcome that.  They want an America that is unambiguously bad and nasty, because it’s comforting to have one huge, eternal villain whom you can despise and hate.  When circumstances change, however, and your supposed foe tries to send out more reasonable and reconciliatory signals, it becomes disturbing – it means having to engage your rationality and your imagination in response to those signals, and many people don’t like having to do that.  Just as I’m sure Osama Bin Laden did a little jig of joy in whatever cave system or fortified compound he was hiding in when he heard of Bush’s re-election in 2004, so extremists now must be thinking, a Romney presidency – yes!  Long live the bad old days!


The images of the school being trashed are the ones that, I feel, are going to cause the most damage.  Sure, the American school was a well-to-do institution that catered for the offspring of the local, wealthy ex-pat community, and probably a few of those kids were delighted to see the place getting torched.  (I should point out that on Friday afternoon there were no students on the premises.)  But it is, at the end of the day, a place of learning.  And internationally, the sight of an educational building being vandalised by a mob led by medieval-looking Salafists is going to symbolise the sorry state of post-revolutionary Tunisia.  It might be an unfair perception – a lot of my British colleagues who spent a worried Friday afternoon in the office following events on the Internet seemed to have forgotten that the 2011 summer riots in London were much more widespread and destructive – but that, unfortunately, is what people will think.


Some links:












Happy 100th, Robin


Today, September 11th, 2012, sees what would have been the 100th birthday of Robin Jenkins, a strong contender for the title of Greatest Scottish Novelist of the 20th Century.


Jenkins was a native of Flemington, near Cambuslang.  During World War II he was a conscientious objector who, instead of fighting, served Britain’s war effort as a forestry worker.  And before and after the war he worked as a teacher in places as diverse as Kabul, Barcelona and Borneo, and nearer home in Glasgow and Dunoon.  Jenkins was also the author of 29 novels and three collections of short stories, and for much of his extensive literary career he examined themes that related to good and evil – the struggle, possibly futile, to nurture the remaining goodness in a person after that person has been corrupted by a desperate home environment and by malicious-minded peers (The Changeling); the inconvenient fact that the goodness or badness of the human soul doesn’t usually correspond with the beauty or ugliness of the human body (The Cone Gatherers); and the downward journey of a man who can only gain acceptance in the eyes of his community by abandoning the morality he has as an individual (The Thistle and the Grail).  Crucially, the characters populating his stories are rarely embodiments of ‘good’ or ‘evil’ themselves – rather, their souls are unsettling patchworks of both.


It seems to me that Jenkins, who died in 2005, is appreciated as a writer but not nearly to the extent that he deserves.  His name is praised from time to time in the literary pages of the Scottish press (though I get the impression that few people in England have heard of him), his works are sometimes taught in Scottish schools and on the Scottish Literature courses of universities, and you rarely see a ‘Scottish writing’ section in a large bookshop in Edinburgh or Glasgow that doesn’t have at least a few of his novels on its shelves.  But I’ve never heard his best books mentioned in the same breath as the acknowledged benchmarks of 20th century Caledonian literary excellence – Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song trilogy, say, or Alasdair Gray’s Lanark.



It was gratifying, then, that a few years ago no less a personage than Andrew Marr, the BBC’s chief political correspondent, published an article praising perhaps the greatest of Jenkins’ novels, The Changeling.  This tells the story, as Marr puts it, of “a fat, sentimental, not very successful schoolteacher who believes in human goodness, and who tries to reclaim, or save, a bright boy from the Glasgow slums by taking him on his family holiday.”  Unfortunately, the would-be saviour, Charlie Forbes, is not entirely good and the object of his attentions, the slum-boy Tom Curdie, is not exactly an innocent awaiting salvation.  Charlie is smug, vain and foolish and more often incites the reader’s exasperation than his or her admiration.  Meanwhile, as we learn early on in the book, Tom’s upbringing in the slums has already brutalised him to the point where he is an accomplished petty criminal, a creature that survives on stealing, lying and scheming.


Almost inevitably, Charlie’s project with Tom ends in disaster; because, in Marr’s words, Tom is not in fact “being offered adoption. He is not being ‘saved’. He is being given a tantalising glimpse of a brighter, more beautiful world, before it is snatched back and he is returned to a life that stinks of piss and booze and failure.”  A copy of Marr’s article about The Changeling can be found here: http://phshigher.wikispaces.com/The+Changeling.



Ambiguity also affects the characters in The Cone Gatherers, the other book for which Jenkins is most likely to be remembered.  Inspired by his wartime experiences of working in Scotland’s forests, it tells the story of two brothers, Calum – a lightly retarded hunchback – and Neil, both forestry workers who are temporarily assigned to a Scottish Highland estate.  Their job is to gather the pine cones from the forest there, so that the forest can be regrown from scratch after its trees are cut down for the war-effort.  But their presence on the estate is unwelcome.  Attitudes towards them range from the disdain of the estate’s aristocratic owner, Lady Runcie-Campbell, to the loathing of the estate’s gamekeeper, Duror, who during the novel becomes increasingly psychotic in his belief that Calum’s deformity is a representation of evil.  Only Runcie-Campbell’s young son Roderick offers the brothers friendship.


The novel has been likened to Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and even to a retelling of the first books of Genesis.  As they climb high into the treetops and collect the cones — paradoxically, the misshapen Calum becomes a figure of grace and beauty each time he ascends through the branches — the two brothers seem as innocent as Adam and Eve before they tasted the forbidden fruit.  The forest can be seen as an elevated version of the Garden of Eden, and Duror is obviously its watchful serpent, lurking and preparing to strike.


But, as usual with Jenkins, the situation is more morally complex.  Lady Runcie-Campbell is actually a well-intentioned character, but she has allowed her judgement to be influenced by Duror.  And repellent though Duror is, he quickly wins our sympathy because we learn that his wife is crippled and bed-ridden.  Indeed, she is growing increasingly, monstrously obese and deranged – hence Duror’s horror of deformity.  And Calum and Neil’s bitterness at their treatment on the estate ultimately causes them to shun the opportunity to do good and win the respect of the estate’s inhabitants.  When their only friend, Roderick, becomes dangerously stuck whilst climbing a tree himself, they ignore his mother’s pleas and refuse to come to his aid.


The Cone Gatherers is a captivating book and Jenkins’ prose is as gorgeous as its wooded highland setting.  Reading it a couple of years ago, I found myself mentally casting the actors who could play the characters if it was ever filmed – when I do that with a book, it’s a sure sign that I’m totally in thrall to what I’m reading.  Yes, I thought, I’d cast James McAvoy (with a latex back-hump) as Calum, and Robert Carlisle as Neil, and Neve Mackintosh as Lady Runcie Campbell, and Dougray Scott as Duror…  Perhaps even Sir Sean Connery could be coaxed out of retirement to play Erchie Graham, the curmudgeonly old estate worker who provides the novel with its comic relief?  (Well, the former 007 has been unusually visible recently: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IUYH8hZ90S4.  Maybe those wildfires in Marbella have smoked him out.)



But returning to Robin Jenkins – one other novel that I’d like to talk about is The Thistle and the Grail.  A little while ago the Guardian printed an article about the best football books ever written (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/jun/09/mihir-bose-top-10-football-books) and I was dismayed to find that The Thistle and the Grail wasn’t mentioned, neither in the article nor in the many suggestions that were posted on the accompanying thread.  If it isn’t the greatest novel written about football generally, it’s certainly the greatest novel about football in Scotland.


Set in a hard-pressed industrial town in post-war Lanarkshire called Drumsagart, the novel deals with the local football team, Drumsagart Thistle, which, like the town’s economy, is heavily on the slide.  This is a source of immense grief for most of the town’s male population, for whom the success of their football team is the only thing that makes life bearable.  (Almost to a woman, the female folk of Drumsagart don’t share their men-folk’s obsession with football and indeed regard it as a form of insanity.  Needless to say, not much has changed in Scotland in the half-century since the book was written.)


The Thistle’s president is Andrew Rutherford, manager of a local factory and a character whose essential decency has not prevented him – through several unfortunate events and circumstances – from becoming distrusted and even detested by his family and by the townspeople.  He realises that the only way he can win everyone’s respect is to get Drumsagart Thistle, somehow, to win something.  Accordingly, the book details the team’s quest, and Rutherford’s quest, for the Scottish Junior Cup trophy – the ‘grail’ of its title.  To achieve this, however, Rutherford has to gradually part company with his integrity – he becomes ruthless, Machiavellian and immoral.


Again, Jenkins avoids being simplistic in describing Rutherford’s fall from grace (even while he rises in the esteem of his fellows).  The process is not unconscious – Rutherford doesn’t become a monster without realising it.  He makes decisions and acts deliberately, and as such is the knowing author of his own corruption.


That makes The Thistle and the Grail sound like a heavy book but, populated by eccentric characters and punctuated by comic incidents, it’s an entertaining and amusing read.  Particularly funny are the pages describing a crucial match that Drumsagart Thistle have to play in far-away Aberdeenshire.  Most of the town’s working men neither possess the means to get to Aberdeenshire nor possess a telephone, so they have to congregate around Drumsagart’s one public telephone box and wait for regular updates on the game’s progress from a fellow-fan who has made it to the match and is calling from a phone box next to the ground of their opponents.  Waiting there in great suspense for the next update, they face a troublesome moral dilemma when an old lady appears, desperate to use the Drumsagart phone box to alert the doctor about a sick relative.


If I have to make one criticism of Robin Jenkins, it’s that while he is masterly at drawing the characters, settings and individual scenes of his books, he is slightly less successful at giving them a satisfying overall structure.  Characters are introduced a little too suddenly – such as the senior forester, Tulloch, in The Cone Gatherers – or they unexpectedly fade out of the action before the end, as Lockhart, Drumsagart’s zealous church minister, does in The Thistle and the Grail.  Also, sometimes, his stories seem to hurry towards their endings.  I feel that the tragic conclusion of The Cone Gatherers comes upon the reader too abruptly – with the result that the spine of the narrative is ultimately as ruptured as the spine in poor Callum’s body – and other books by Jenkins that I’ve read, such as The Awakening of George Darroch and Fergus Lamont, seem to me to suffer from slightly-premature endings as well.  Only in The Changeling does the balance and organisation of the plot feel exactly right.


Anyway, as I write this, I can see another of Jenkins’ novels, Childish Things, sitting on my bookshelf.  This one I intend to save this for the proverbial rainy day — for example, a period when my job is getting on my nerves and I need a good read to help me escape from it.  And that shows how good Robin Jenkins is as a writer.  There comes a point when you decide you have to ration the remaining stuff by him that you haven’t read.


How much malice was there in Meles?


On the moral spectrum running from ‘good’ to ‘bad’, it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact position of Meles Zenawi, president of Ethiopia from 1991 to 1995 and thereafter its long-serving prime minister, who died on August 20th and was buried last weekend.  Some Ethiopians I knew loved him, or at least claimed to.  Others I knew loathed him, though they did so discreetly.  And I suspect like many foreigners who have lived and worked in Ethiopia during the past two decades – I was there from 1999 to 2001 – my feelings when I heard of his death were decidedly mixed.


A medical student in Addis Ababa in the mid-1970s, Meles’ studies were curtailed and his career plans took an unexpected swerve when Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown and a Marxist regime with brutal military strongman Mengistu Hailemariam at its head took over the country.  (Not until 20 years later would Meles return to the matter of his education and, courtesy of Britain’s Open University and the British Council, he studied for and got a Masters in Business Administration.)  Meles joined the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which along with the similarly northern-based Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) provided the main opposition to Mengistu, and by 1979 he’d become the TPLF leader.  In 1991, when the Ethiopian Civil War ended with the defeat of the Marxists and the flight of Mengistu, Meles was the obvious choice to take charge.  From then on, his influence on the development and fortunes of Ethiopia was immense and some of that influence, at least, was good.  Unfortunately, when you focus on each of the positive aspects of his legacy, there often seems to pop up a corresponding negative one – an evil twin – that cancels out much of the good with the bad.


With general elections in 2000 and 2005, Ethiopians were given a range of parties to vote for and got their first-ever taste of democracy – something denied to them during the reign of the internationally respected but domestically out-of-touch Haile Selassie and during the cruel Mengistu years.  (In the best general guidebook about Ethiopia, the Bradt Travel Guide, Philip Briggs writes that such was the malevolence of the Mengistu regime that it forced the families of its victims to pay for the cost of the bullets used in their executions.)  But these elections were dogged by allegations of intimidation, vote-rigging and other irregularities.  The 2005 result was particularly contested, to the extent that riots broke out in Addis Ababa and elsewhere.  International observers grudgingly accepted that Meles had won the election, and pointed out that the opposition parties who’d kicked up such a fuss had hardly been angelic in their behaviour either – but Meles’ reaction to the riots, which saw 193 people die and tens of thousands of others get locked up, was condemned as being unnecessarily heavy-handed.  (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/4072616.stm)  It’s noticeable that criticism of Meles among those international observers seemed to lessen the closer they were to the United States, which had been a major ally of Meles’ Ethiopia since the early 1990s.


He recognised and tried to address the fact that Ethiopia is a patchwork of ethnic groups and languages by creating a system of ethnic federalism, devolving power to the regions, whose cultural and linguistic identity and political and economic needs are often different from those in the country’s centre.  This seemed to chart a sensible course between the pan-Ethiopian groups advocating centralised control and the factions like the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) wanting to declare full independence for their territories (as the Eritreans had done in 1993, using the EPLF’s major role in the overthrow of Mengistu to bargain for Eritrea’s secession from Ethiopia).  Meles’ government also introduced a policy to the country’s primary schools that allowed most children, most of the time, to be educated in their native languages.  Schooling with one’s first language as the medium of instruction might seem like a no-brainer, but it’s a rare commodity in sub-Saharan Africa.  (Alas, enlightened though the Ethiopian approach to first-language education looks on paper, its execution has been less than perfect.)   


Unfortunately, Meles, who was of mixed Tigrayan and Eritrean parentage, upset a lot of Ethiopians with his bias towards the north of the country.  Tigrayans were put in positions of power nationally and locally and Tigray region seemed to benefit from a suspiciously generous amount of government spending.  When I got around to visiting Mekelle, the Tigrayan capital, in 2001, it looked pretty plush by Ethiopian standards – several leagues more developed than equivalent towns I’d been to in the south. 


The treatment the Tigrayans received under Meles contrasts with what was sometimes doled out to other ethnic groups.  In the country’s west and southwest, allegations about the repression, harassment and imprisonment of the Oromo people – often carried out in the name of suppressing the ‘terrorist’ OLF – formed a constant background mantra during the 21 years of Meles’ rule (http://www.hrw.org/news/2008/11/26/ethiopia-charge-or-free-ethnic-oromo-terrorism-suspects), while in Gambela region in the country’s far west, during a period of ethnic tensions in 2003 / 2004, Ethiopian troops were accused of complicity in the slaughter of members of the Anuak group (http://www.mcgillreport.org/genocide.htm). In the east, many Ogadeni civilians have reportedly died during counter-insurgency operations against the ONLF since 2008 and there have been claims that the Ethiopian government deliberately withheld food aid from hungry areas there (http://www.ogadennet.com/?p=12784), ironically a tactic that Mengistu used against the Tigrayans in the 1980s.


Meles did much to promote education, building new schools and colleges, recruiting new teachers and generally boosting school enrolment – in 2003 / 2004 nearly nine million children were attending primary school, compared with less than four million 13 years earlier.  The overall literacy level of the population saw a healthy jump too.  But the system left much to be desired in terms of facilities, materials, teaching standards and class-sizes.  Too often in Ethiopian education, as in everything else, the aid money that Meles was so skilled at in obtaining from foreign donors seemed not to percolate down to those who needed it most.  I remember visiting primary schools in the town where I worked and seeing classrooms lacking electricity and without glass in their windows, full of broken furniture, so overcrowded that some kids had to sit on the floor (among gaping holes in the floorboards).  The teachers used stubs of chalk to scrawl things on blackboards that weren’t always attached to the walls.  Later, when I visited the offices of the educational bureau in the region’s capital, I saw well-groomed officials sitting behind smart new desks in carpeted and air-conditioned offices, working at computers.  Sometimes those officials would gather in seminar rooms equipped with whiteboards and overhead projectors. 


And though the government made noble efforts to expand and improve teacher-training, it undid much of what it’d achieved in Ethiopia’s high schools by imposing on them a system of ‘education by plasma’, whereby students watched their lessons on classroom televisions, beamed by satellite from South Africa – a technocratic quick-fix solution to the immensely complicated problem of how to educate the nation’s youth with limited resources.  Teachers were reduced to the role of menials, turning the TVs on at the beginning of classes and turning them off at the end; and the success of the televised lessons depended on the students’ questionable ability to follow South African English and on there not being power cuts depriving the televisions of electricity.  (In Ethiopia, there are a lot of power cuts.)


Economic growth was impressive after Meles came to power, reaching 9% in some years, though obviously it started from a low base.  However, the old spectre of unemployment never went away and a new spectre, inflation, has appeared in recent years.  In additionally, there was disquiet about his government’s means of obtaining foreign investment.  Particularly controversial was the enthusiasm for clearing land of its original smallholders – through ‘villagisation’ resettlement schemes – and then handing the resultant empty tracts to foreign investors (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-16590416).


Meles granted Ethiopians their first-ever experience of a free press – but afterwards seemed to spend much time clawing back that freedom from journalists, newspapers, websites and bloggers.  The violence following the 2005 election seemed to particularly rattle him and he became increasingly paranoid about media criticism – imposing censorship in the name of ‘national security’ and fighting ‘terrorism’, a trend that was cemented into law with the passing of an Anti-Terrorism Proclamation in 2009.  Meanwhile, in 2008, a Charities and Societies Proclamation was passed that, according the US State Department’s 2011 Human Rights Report, “prohibited charities, societies and associations… that receive more than ten percent of their funding from foreign sources from engaging in activities that advance human and democratic rights or promote equality of nations, nationalities, peoples, genders and religions” – in other words, a handy way of preventing the likes of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International from poking their noses into Ethiopian affairs.  Earlier this year, Meles caused controversy – or at least his government did, since Meles himself was possibly very sick by that point – by sentencing the noted journalist, editor and blogger Eskinder Nega, to 18 years in prison (http://www.economist.com/blogs/baobab/2012/07/ethiopia-and-human-rights) and imposing a ban on the use of Skype among Ethiopians, again in the name of national security (http://allafrica.com/stories/201206180068.html).


In summer 2009, I returned to Ethiopia to conduct research for a dissertation I was writing as part of a Masters course in Education and Development.  When I visited the Ethiopian town I’d lived in, I hardly recognised some of the neighbourhoods that eight years before I’d walked through daily – such was the amount of building that’d been going on.  Streets whose sides had contained only a sporadic shop were now lined with little businesses, including ones whose signs advertised computers and Internet access (though getting online was often a time-consuming business – it took me nearly an hour to get into my Hotmail account on one occasion).  Much of the main street was undergoing an overhaul – it’d been dug up, creating a massive trench six feet deep in places.  The work was being supervised by a Chinese foreman in overalls and a cowboy hat who spent much of his time on a bicycle, pedalling from one work-party to the next.  Three years earlier, a new university had been opened on the town’s edge and my arrival there coincided with graduation day for its first-ever batch of graduates.  Hence, I got off the bus to be greeted by the spectacle of young men and women wearing smart suits and dresses, mortarboards on their heads, picking their way carefully around the muddy heaps and ditches where the street had been excavated.  (However, three years after it’d officially opened, work on the university had not yet finished.  Parts of the campus resembled, and indeed were, a building site.)


In many ways in 2009, then, Ethiopia seemed like a happening place.  But I wondered if life had got any better for its people since 2001 – for its ordinary people, that is.  (There were impressive-looking housing estates springing up around the edges of Addis Ababa, but to be able to live in those you needed serious money.)  For months, power cuts had been taking place with numbing regularity – every two or three days – and businesses that could afford portable generators had them parked outside their front doors, chattering and belching smoke.  Often, those businesses without generators couldn’t function when the power was off.  Inevitably, I heard a variety of explanations for the cause of these power cuts.  Some Ethiopians said much of the electricity produced in the country wasn’t being used for domestic consumption but was being sold over its borders, into Kenya and Sudan.  I heard theories that the power cuts had been staged deliberately, to soften up public opinion before Meles signed agreements with the Chinese about the building of new hydroelectric dams in the country.  One man told me bluntly that the power cuts were Meles’ way of messing with people’s heads – he was organising them to show people who was boss.


A lot of old Ethiopian friends I met up with in 2009 seemed to spend their time complaining about property and house prices.  At times, I wondered if I was actually in Ethiopia at all and not in modern-day Ireland.  In other words, there wasn’t a lot of joy to go around.


 According to Meles’ Wikipedia entry (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meles_Zenawi), he told a reporter in 2005 that he didn’t want to be remembered as one of those ‘Big Man’ African leaders who remain in power until the day they drop dead – or are overthrown in a coup d’etat – and that one day he would like to step down.  If only he had stepped down, while he still commanded some respect – rather than hanging on to power, and succumbing to the maladies that sooner or later afflict such Big Men, their paternalistic instincts about doing the right things for their countries (provided they have such instincts in the first place) gradually giving way to intolerance, paranoia, ruthlessness and cruelty.


Among Africa’s Big Men leaders, Meles Zenawi certainly didn’t belong in the same category as Uganda’s Idi Amin, mass butcher and self-styled Last King of Scotland, or the ludicrously corrupt Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, a man notorious for hiring Concorde from Air France when his family wanted to go on shopping trips.  He offered better and fairer leadership than what most Ethiopians had experienced before and he left in place institutions and policies that were for the country’s good – though if you’re, say, an Oromo, an Anuak or an Ogadeni, you have understandable grounds for disagreement.  However, there were worthy things he was capable of delivering, but didn’t deliver, and there were bad decisions that he should have had the sense and integrity to avoid taking, but did take.  I feel that at the end of the day Meles Zenawi was a leader who should have given a better account of himself than he did.