News / Africa

Sparring With Ethiopia’s Meles

<i> VOA reporter Anita Powell covered Meles for two years and offers this recollection</i>

A woman joins others as they wait for the remains of Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to arrive in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, August 21, 2012.
A woman joins others as they wait for the remains of Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to arrive in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, August 21, 2012.
Anita Powell
JOHANNESBURG — Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has died at the age of 57 after a long hospitalization and months of speculation about his health. In announcing his death Tuesday, state TV said he died on Monday at a hospital abroad, as a result of a sudden infection.

The thing I'll never forget about Meles was his wide grin. He smiled with his entire face, his eyes twinkled, and he leaned in, as if to share his infectious joy.

This was the grin he showed me whenever I asked him a challenging question.

“Ato Meles," I would ask, using the honorific, "let’s talk about your human-rights record.”  

Or, "Ato Meles, since you wouldn't answer the question posed by my colleague from the BBC, I'll ask it again."

After two years, we got to the point where he began grinning every time I raised my hand, though he never called me by name.

Ethiopia is a complicated, difficult country, but it has been led by extraordinary men, and women, throughout its long and rich history.

Leaders such as Emperor Haile Selassie, Emperor Tewodros - considered the first ruler of modern Ethiopia - and the legendary powerful Queen of Sheba.

In Meles’ case, here was a man utterly convinced of his own moral rectitude. His critics called that arrogance, and they may have been right.

Meles seized power in 1991 after a Marxist dictator had ravaged the nation and ignored a massive famine. He struggled to maintain the economy after he allowed coastal Eritrea to claim independence, giving up the nation's seaports with it.

He ushered the country through solid economic growth, mostly kept the country at peace - though critics complained of his authoritarian tactics - and maintained Ethiopia’s historic dominance in the region.

But then in 2005, just as the international community was beginning to laud him for being one of Africa’s great modern leaders, he held an election.

And afterwards, when the opposition contested his victory, Meles' military used force against protests in the capital. Nearly 200 people died in post-election violence and protests, and hundreds more were jailed, including opposition politicians and journalists. International criticism was intense.
 
I arrived in Addis Ababa as a reporter two years later. The nation was still in shock.

In 2008, when the government held local elections, it was handled more smoothly. However, I visited the countryside and spoke to dozens of terrified peasants who whispered to me that they’d been threatened with the loss of their jobs, housing and food aid if they did not vote for the ruling party.

Not surprisingly, the ruling party won overwhelmingly, and filled offices across the nation with loyalists - the very people charged with observing and running the campaign in the remote rural areas. In 2010, when Meles ran again, he won a striking 99 percent of the vote.

Soon after, the government again started jailing journalists who criticized the prime minister.

On the international stage, Meles somehow managed to reconcile Ethiopia’s strong national identity with the demands of the modern world.

He did this while accepting billions of dollars in U.S. aid money, outsourcing many of his people’s basic needs to foreign donors. He also was a key U.S. ally in the war against terror, allowing U.S. military drones to be stationed in Ethiopia for missions over neighboring Somalia.

Meles stood alone among many African leaders who worked under the mantle of colonialism. Ethiopia is the only African nation that never was colonized, and Meles frequently reminded everyone of that.

“Ethiopia is not some banana republic,” he once intoned disapprovingly to a reporter who asked about international criticism of one of his controversial decisions.

He never doubted he was right, and he never accepted that his nation - despite its poverty, its challenges and its problems - was anything less than extraordinary.

While his legacy will be hotly debated in coming weeks and years, many Ethiopians will mourn him this week.

I will always remember that smile.

You May Like

South Korea Divided on Response to North’s Cyber Attack

In past five years, officials in Seoul have accused Pyongyang of hacking into banks, government websites, causing chaos and inflicting millions of dollars in damages More

Video Calm Amid Fear in Daily Life in S. Sudan’s Bentiu

Residents have been trying to regain some sense of normalcy, but planning for the future remains uncertain as fear of attacks looms More

2015 Could Be Watershed for Syria Conflict

Republican control of US Senate in January could lead to more aggressive policy against IS militants in Syria - and against regime of Bashar al-Assad More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Jane Monheit Christmas Speciali
X
December 22, 2014 8:15 PM
Chanteuse Jane Monheit sings the holiday classic “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and explains why it’s her favorite song of the season.
Video

Video Jane Monheit Christmas Special

Chanteuse Jane Monheit sings the holiday classic “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and explains why it’s her favorite song of the season.
Video

Video Trade Talks Could Heat Up in 2015

With boosting trade a top priority for the Obama administration, 2015 may be the year that an agreement is finally reached on the Trans Pacific Partnership. But the trade deal, which is intended to boost trade between 12 Pacific countries, faces opposition as VOA's Jim Randle reports.
Video

Video Ugandan Doctors Aid Victims of Sudan's Civil War

In Sudan's state of South Kordofan, the number of amputees as result of civil war is in the thousands, but few have access to sufficient medical help. Adam Bailes recently visited the area and says a small team of Ugandan doctors has been providing remote help, producing new prosthetic limbs for those in need.
Video

Video Calm Amid Fear in Daily Life in S. Sudan’s Town of Bentiu

Six months ago, Bentiu was a ghost town. The capital of northern Unity State, near South Sudan’s important oil fields, had changed hands several times in fighting between government forces and rebels. Calm returned in November and since then, residents of Bentiu have been trying to regain some sense of normalcy. Bentiu’s market has reopened there are plans to start school again. But fears of new attacks hang heavy, as Benno Muchler reports from Bentiu.
Video

Video US Business Groups Press for Greater Access to Cuba

President Barack Obama's decision to do all he can to ease restrictions on U.S. trade, travel and financial activities with Cuba has drawn criticism from some conservatives and Republicans. People who bring tourists to the island and farmers who want to sell more food to Cuba, however, think they can do a lot more business with Cuba. VOA's Jim Randle reports.
Video

Video Three Cities Bid for Future Obama Presidential Library

President Barack Obama still has two years left in his term in office, but the effort to establish his post-presidential library is already underway. The bid for the Obama Presidential Library is down to four locations in three states -- New York, Hawaii, and Illinois. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, each of them played an important part in the president’s life before he reached the White House.
Video

Video Fears of More Political Gridlock in 2015

2014 proved to be a difficult year politically for President Barack Obama and a very good year for the U.S. Republican Party. Republican gains in the November midterm elections gave them control of the Senate and House of Representatives for the next two years -- setting the stage for more confrontation and gridlock in the final two years of the Obama presidency. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone has a preview from Washington.
Video

Video Sudan School Becomes Target of Aerial Attacks

The school dropout rate is at an all-time high in Sudan's South Kordofan state because many schools have been destroyed during the three-year civil war between the government and SPLA-N rebel forces. Adam Bailes visited Sudan's Nuba Mountains' region and reports many children are simply too scared to go to school

All About America

AppleAndroid