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.  (  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 (, 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 ( 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 (, 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 (


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 ( and imposing a ban on the use of Skype among Ethiopians, again in the name of national security (


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 (, 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.