The Ethiopian tale can better be told by Ethiopians themselves, partially or impartially, depending on the side of the divide the story-teller belongs. But as observers and analysts we can as well tell the story to the best of our knowledge with the objectivity it deserves. Ethiopia is an extraordinary country; like India it fascinates not a few who have had to visit the land or passed by on transit. Addis Ababa, the capital city, hosts the headquarters of the then Organisation of African Unity and now the African Union (AU). The ancient history of Ethiopia is found in the Holy Bible much like Egypt. And the late Emperor Haile Selassie is ‘worshipped’ world-wide, even in death, by Reggae prophets and disciples.
And talking about the late Emperor Selassie one remembers one of the great quotes accredited to him: “Throughout history, it has been the inaction of those who could have acted; the indifference of those who should have known better; the silence of the voice of justice when it mattered most; that has made it possible for evil to triumph.” Great words from a great mind!
Ethiopia is a unique country in many ways: history, culture, language, religion and people. The late Emperor Haile Selassie was ruling his people when in 1935 the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini ordered his forces to invade the Ethiopian territory. The invasion succeeded in the long run after the Ethiopian army put up a heroic fight losing thousands of men in the process and forcing the Emperor into involuntary exile. However, the Italians were rattled in 1941 when the Ethiopian forces aided strategically and militarily by the Allied forces defeated them with the exiled Emperor returning to his city and to his throne. Emboldened by their triumph over the colonialist forces Ethiopia annexed the former Italian colony of Eritrea.
Due mainly to old age and economic problems a civil unrest began in the 70’s, and following the civil discontent the aging Emperor Selassie was removed from his position. And to govern the country a provisional administrative council of soldiers, known as the “Derg” (committee) which was socialist in name and military in style seized power. Then Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile-Mariam became Head of State and Chairman of the “Derg” after eliminating two of his predecessors. Mengistu, a Marxist, became an autocrat and began the militarization of the country with solid military backing of the defunct USSR and Cuba sidelining America. But the dictator was challenged by an armed rebellion by landowners, the royalists, and the nobility. Eritrea was home to the dissidents.
As Mengistu tried to rule amid generalised insurrections droughts and famine affected millions of people leaving close to a million dead! And in 1989, the Tigrayan Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF) merged with other ethnically-based opposition movements to form the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). In May 1991, EPRDF forces advanced on Addis Ababa. The dictator was forced to flee the country to asylum in Zimbabwe, where he still resides today. With President Robert Mugabe still in power in Harare Mengistu cannot be afraid of justice placing him where he ought to be: behind bars!
Enter Meles Zenawi! Following the fall of the “Derg” in 1991 Eritrea separated from Ethiopia. In 1994 a new constitution was written that formed a bicameral legislature and a judicial system of government. An election was held in May 1995 in which Meles Zenawi was elected the Prime Minister and Negasso Gidada was elected President.
Meles the maverick, Zenawi the charismatic former rebel leader turned democrat, Meles Zenawi the Ethiopian strongman is no more! He has gone to the great beyond at 57! Meles was pronounced dead in a Belgian hospital where he went for a medical treatment for an undisclosed ailment. He was buried last Sunday amid wailings and spontaneous show of love by his people. President Goodluck Jonathan (decked in his famous ‘resource control’ Ijaw hat) was among world leaders (including the wanted war criminal from Sudan President Omar el-Bashir) that attended the funeral to pay their last respect to a man reputed for his fearlessness, candour and reforms. The US, a strategic ally of the fallen leader, sent her UN Ambassador Susan Rice.
When we talk about the deceased Ethiopian Prime Minister we remember other African remarkable rebels; rebels with a cause: Guillaume Soro of Cote d’Ivoire, late Jonas Savimbi of Angola, late ‘Ikemba’ Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu of Nigeria, late John Garang of Sudan and Charles Taylor of Liberia. These are (were) dedicated rebels whose rebellion brought about change or destruction to their various countries. We recognise them here because to wage a rebellion against any incumbent establishment in any country is not for the faint-hearted! Some had died trying to bring about change as they deemed it inevitable or necessary.
This year alone four African leaders had died ‘suddenly’ after some brief illness: Malam Bacai Sanha (Guinea Bissau), Bingu wa Mutharika (Malawi), John Atta-Mills (Ghana). Zenawi died of some ‘infection’ that took him away from Africa to a Belgian hospital; when he failed to attend the AU summit in his country and capital city some weeks back tongues started wagging as to his state of health given the hyper-prime-ministership he superintended.
Zenawi would be remebered by both Ethiopians and other Africans and non-Africans alike for his strong views and convictions. He would be remembered for the reforms he brought about in his country. He would be remembered for the war he waged with Eritrea, a break-away country led by his former comrade and fellow rebel, President Isaias Afewerki. He would be remembered for his toughness against islamic terrorist groups and gangs. Americans would not forget the late PM’s indefatigable contribution to the global war against terror. Meles played his part, his role with manifest dignity while uncompromisingly maintaining the sovereignty of his old country. We shall all miss him!
Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn (47) has been sworn in as acting prime minister by parliament. Like in Ghana and Malawi the transition was handled with dignity and in accordance with the constitution whose immutability remains a cardinal principle in any modern democracy. With what we have seen thus far in Accra, Lilongwe and now Addis Ababa the African democratic experiment bears certain room for hope and improvement.
The international human rights groups had in various times criticised Meles’ handling of dissent at home. After the disputed 2005 polls in which he was re-elected the security forces killed some protesters and rounded up numerous opposition leaders. Besides, several opponents and journalists were arrested under a 2009 anti-terrorism law. For some Ethiopians the late Zenawi was a tyrant who tolerated little or no opposition and the West looked the other way hypocritically whenever he unleashed his forces against the opposition. But to others he remained a national hero who dreamt about change.
Ethiopia, despite being statistically one of the poorest countries in sub-saharan Africa, boasts of one of the best-managed national airlines in Africa, ET. I remember taking an ET Lagos-bound flight in December 2004. The air hostesses were elegant and stunning in their natural beauty! We were taken good care of but because it was somehow an emergency home-coming due to an impromptu appendicitis attack I was unable to taste, eat or drink anything aboard. And in Lagos the appendix was removed from my abdominal system same evening in an urgent surgical operation.
Good night Meles! Sleep well in the natural state you came in here! This is wishing your soul a safe return journey to your Maker, and your body to dust! Life goes on in Ethiopia as it has continued in Ghana post-Atta-Mills, in Malawi post-Mutharika and in Guinea Bissau post-Sanha. Despite controlling and commanding a strong national war-weary Army and men and women for years (discounting the gold and silver he possessed) as an over-bearing but effective leader PM Zenawi still kicked the bucket thus giving incontrovertible credit to the mortality status of all living things.
If the surviving African leaders and rulers could learn a lesson or two from the Zenawi reformist pedigree and above all, his dust-to-dust mortal experience Africa would become a much better place. Fare thee well, Meles Zenawi — the radical reformer, the revolutionary!