Meles Zenawi: The man who gave back

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CCTV, February 2013

It is harvest season in Tigray, northern Ethiopia… and the wheat is heavy with seed.

One of the world’s oldest known farming areas, the Ethiopian highlands have served as the region’s grain basket, for centuries.

And in many fields, wheat is still harvested the old fashioned way – by hand.

But new strains of wheat have increased yields and this farmer is looking forward to a good year.

GABRESELASSIE, FARMER, “This year I expect three quintals, 2.5 at the very least, which is more than before”


From the countryside to the cities, Ethiopia is in the midst of the biggest transformation in its long history.

Cycles of drought and famine have long played a role in Ethiopia’s politics. In 1974, a terrible famine resulted in the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie. His death at the hands of a ruthless military dictatorship ended a long line of emperors going back to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.

But the bloody crackdowns of Mengistu Haile Mariam’s military regime or Derg, sparked a new wave of rebellion. Among the rebels, a smart young man from Tigray-  calledMelesZenawi.
Initially, the Marxist rebels were given little chance of success.
At 14, MelesZenawi won a scholarship to a prestigious school named after World War II guerilla warfare expert Orde Wingate.

Instead, Meles would sacrifice that future for another, emerging from the long years of rebellion as a skilled and pragmatic politician.

AIDAN HARTLEY, ANALYST,  “These were urban boys who had been raised with some privilege in Addis Ababa and to find themselves living out in the hills of Tigray with no money, no resources, in fear of their lives, relying on the local peasantry to sustain them, and yet to continue the ideological debate because I know that that happened is almost, it’s an extraordinary legend….this handful of students brought their ideas out into the wilderness of northern Tigray and that they relied on the local peasantry to feed them, to sustain them, until they decided that it was time to begin the insurrection and they did this by raiding one police station where they picked up several guns and they were able to begin raiding passing traffic and to recruit people.”

It was in the mountains of Tigray that Aidan Hartley, then a young reporter for the news agency Reuters, got to know the rebels - and Meles.

AIDAN HARTLEY, "I met a very unassuming, quite young man. He looked like a café-ole Lenin. And he was smoking quite heavily, that’s what I remember from my first meeting with him. I had no idea who he was and he said “my name is MelesZenawi and you’re going to go to Tigray, starting tomorrow and good luck”.

While Meles himself was little known to the outside world, his grasp of both ideological and military tactics had already elevated him to the top ranks of the rebellion’s secretive leadership circles.

MELES ZENAWI, THE LATE, FORMER PRIME MINISTER OF ETHIOPIA, "Revolutionary wisdom does not imply uncontrolled practices, revolutionary wisdom starts with Marxist-Leninist analysis."

AIDAN HARTLEY, "When he was running a guerilla group in the mountains of Tigray he knew that the most effective way to rule was through the authoritarian apparatus of  Marxist-Leninist League of Tigray. And he knew that by the time he arrived in Addis Ababa, he would have to speak a language that would make sense to the West and the international Community. But he did it in a very charming way. He announced to the world that he had enrolled at a correspondence course  learning economics.”

But it was in these mountains of Tigray that another event would unfold, one which would get the world’s attention.

TEWODROS HAGOS, TPLF HEAD MEKELE, TIGRAY, "This was the situation in Tigray during the Derg period. The suffering of the people. The Derg regime was hampering the aid from reaching, especially the countryside. It was terrible. This is me."

TewodrosHagos was an early comrade of Meles in the Tigrayan Peoples Liberation Front, or TPLF.

TEWODROS HAGOS, "It was not easy, it was very, very tough especially when the organization was small, we had to strive very hard for its survival and eventually, since the cause it was fighting for was the cause which the people were supporting, people started to support it, eventually the people became a part of the struggle as a whole."






Caught in a famine and between warring armies, it was the peasants, whom the rebels relied on for support, that suffered the worst of the famine of the 1980’s.

MELES ZENAWI, "People who had become my family, small-scale farmers on whose generosity I and many of my colleagues, upon whom we relied for our daily bread, they were severely affected and that affected our movement also."

Thousands died while the Derg, who could have helped, did little. News reports on the famine helped launch one of the biggest aid efforts ever.

MELES ZENAWI, "It came a bit late but it did serve to save millions of lives because the international community responded very quickly and very generously to the famine.”
In May 1991Derg forces disintegrated and within days rebel forces a rebel forces, including Meles’ TPLF, captured Addis Ababa.

But the secretive habits of a rebel leader remained. An extremely private man, his reasoning – and that of his party – has always raised questions.

AIDAN HARTLEY, "To get to the to the bottom of the character of Meles and of his guerilla group, his party, his movement, you have to go up into the northern Ethiopian highlands."
Adwa, Meles’ hometown in Tigray province, provided some of the strength that made him an effective warrior. It is the site of a famous defeat of an Italian colonial army in 1896.

FANUS BERAY, HISTORIAN, "They were defeated here and driven back through Eritrea - that is, through Massawa - and they left."

FisehaZenawi and his friend, FanusBeray, have come to look at the valleys outside Adwa where the battle took place.

FANUS BERAY, "For the first time in Ethiopian history, a white man was captured by the black people. And his name, we know from history, was General  Alberto. Oh, it is not only for the Ethiopian people. It is for all black people. To defeat a well trained army. It is a big victory, you see. And they have kept their country for a long period of time, independently."
The town that MelesZenawi experienced as a child can still be recognized in the Adwa of today. A short walk from the family home is an Ethiopian Orthodox church, whose complex and ancient ceremonies begin each day at 5 am.

ALEM NESH, WORSHIPPER, "This community enabled Meles to rise as a fighter by providing him with the tools he needed… the strength, the spirituality of the people from here are the reason he was able to draw the strength he needed and even though these days he is really missed by these people, his policies, his plans are still very much in evidence."

The spirituality he experienced here helped Meles make the transition from warrior to statesman. From someone whose responsibility went from taking his enemy’s lives to making his fellow citizen’s lives, better.

AIDAN HARTLEY, "Perhaps that’s a metaphor for how Ethiopian society could withdraw into its mountain fastnesses. They’re dry,  deforested, hauntingly beautiful, these extraordinary high sided mountains known as Ambers, like inselbergs, something out of a fantasy movie. You get the sense that this is a landscape that has been tilled for many centuries. … It’s a landscape that feels almost medieval, where you meet Christian hermits, where you see ancient tombs, extraordinary monuments to former kingdoms, of sun worshippers, of Jews, of Islam, of Christianity. "

The town of Adwa is typical of the region. New buildings dot the roadside but it’s a byway of the old town that holds the Zenawi family home.

FIHESA ZENAWI, MELES ZENAWI’S BROTHER, "He was really born in this house. He studied up until grade 8 and then after grade 8 there was an exam and he got a scholarship to General Wingate School.



`When we were children his hobbies were: one, swimming and next, reading books. Starting from childhood, he was reading too many books, so I think if you read too much, you get too much knowledge, you know whom to help. He was not born for himself and his family. He was selfless. So I cannot say …he was born for himself."

FIHESA ZENAWI, "Adwa was built first around here so you can say this is the oldest part of the town. Now they are using another part for the modern town. This is being left as a museum, the old town."

Something that clearly has changed is the water level in the rivers where the boys used to swim.

FIHESA ZENAWI, "This is one of the rivers where he was swimming when we were children. Now its little bit dry. Before, it was full as this path. Now its little bit dry. But when we were kids it was not like this.  The water was very full up to this level and he used to swim around here.

But now, because of the drought, because of the climactic conditions most of the rivers are dry."

Years later, MelesZenawi would champion Africa’s efforts to mitigate climate change.
MELES ZENAWI, “We need to do more work in terms of irrigation and encourage the pastoralists to settle. That takes time because the livelihoods of the population is based on livestock and movement around and it’s not easy to change their attitude towards settled farming. The drought has been more acute in the east. I think this is related to climate change. The climatologists have been telling us that the rest of the country, the highland area of the country is likely to get wetter. "

ASA TARAF, STUDENT, "The degradation of the soil and erosion could be the reason why the water is much less now than in the past and the reason why Meles was fighting for awareness of climate change was because he was extremely aware of these things and why he championed the cause of Africa even at the World Economic Forum."

Elected Prime Minister in the country’s first democratic election in 1995, Meles would continue to keep the peasants at the centre of his economic policies.

MELES ZENAWI, "We have developed what we call agricultural development-led industrialization programme of our country.  That was not necessarily popular or well understood when we embarked on it some ten years ago but now people recognize that agricultural prices are going up and are likely to continue to go up over the next decade or two  and that agriculture policy based on the small scale farmer spreads out whatever development benefit there is and so for example Ethiopians, however poor we are,  we share our poverty more equally than anyone else in the continent. And so whatever little growth there is, it’s broadly shared."

The massive famines of the previous century were brought to an end and a huge program of food security for the country’s peasants – known as the Safety Net Program – was rolled out.


MELES ZENAWI, "We have a safety net programme throughout the country so that those who are unable to feed themselves as a result of their own efforts are provided with assistance in return for doing some work in the community and in their own farms.

So they may be engaged in rural roads development programmes and they will be paid for their work. We call it a productive safety net programme because people have to work for it in order to get the safety net but they are guaranteed that they will be paid. So that has reduced the number of people who need emergency assistance. 7 to 8 million people benefit from the safety net programme throughout the country and in Tigray."

MESERET, FARMER,“Meles told us to make terraces in the villages in the mountains and make dams in the rivers. And we accepted this. In the towns we go on Wednesdays throughout the year to make dams and development works and in the villages, once a week we have that programme, to make terraces to protect against degradation."

BERIMU GEBRE, FARMER, "We are growing different crops now as a result of the irrigation system."

But bringing the countryside into the 21st Century was a slow, expensive business.

MELES ZENAWI, "We have an emergency food reserve here in the country so if there’s an emergency we don’t have to wait for the food to arrive from abroad. We take from the emergency reserve and provide the food assistance to those who need it."

Meles defied the international community by placing the peasantry – and the countryside – at the centre of his policies. A move that led to much unhappiness – and criticism of him – from the cities.

BEREKET SIMON, ETHIOPIA INFORMATION MINISTER, "That criticism seems to me misplaced. He believed that Ethiopia is a diverse society. You know, there are diverse religions, diverse ethnic groups, diverse economic interests prevailing in the country. So he believed that no single party would satisfy these people. No single ideology or no single political alternative would satisfy this public. This is the first thing. So, based on the diversity he said to himself and his party that we have to nurture diversity and allow diversity to be expressed in any form."

Dissatisfaction in the cities also spread to outlying areas, where minorities felt excluded.
AIDAN HARTLEY,“The Amhara were not happy. The Oromo were not happy. The Somalis were not happy.”

But to the outside world, Ethiopia under Meles appeared to be on a road – albeit a bumpy one - to modernity.

In 2005, opposition parties in the cities united against Meles, shocking his ruling party to the core. When election results were contested, the opposition took to the streets and a violent crack-down saw opposition members killed, jailed or exiled.

Tsedale Lemma, Editor in Chief, Addis Standard, "Particularly after 2005 elections, he is more known to the dissident circles of Ethiopians that are by and large in the diaspora right now and also to many political opposition parties, he is known to be a merciless, an autocrat, you know, who has so little patience and accommodation to any dissidence that  were happening."


Tsedale Lemma is a media entrepreneur and one of the few independent media owners in Addis Ababa.

Internationally, he was indisputably a very shrewd politician that’s known not only in Africa but also outside of the continent for his unwavering support to peace and security in the Horn of Africa and his diplomatic skills are indisputably some of the best. So has two different personalities and hence the contention over who he really was.

Change in Ethiopia’s urban centres has sped up. Opening up of the private sector has resulted in a flood of business activity in the cities.

A sense of optimism led AssaLevich to return to Addis Ababa where she has set up a store selling fashion items. She has no doubts over the country’s bright future.

ASSA LEVICH, ENTREPRENEUR, "We have many resources so we are going to be number one in ten years time. I know its going to be better and better."

And, in a land once known only for its famines…

ANDY, ENTREPRENEUR, "To our surprise it was actually an instant hit, as soon as we opened up we were overwhelmed with the reception we had from the general public.

The middle class has become so big now, your customers or your target is very broad.
I would say it’s just a boom period that we’re living here now”

TSEDALE LEMMA, "We have done quite well economically but is that really what it is all about, being a nation and being a progressive nation and having a people that is so proud of the government? I don’t think so."

AIDAN HARTLEY, "Perhaps history will be kind to Meles in that Ethiopia’s journey was not to be concluded in May 1991 but that the road was a longer one and that some of the economic developments that we see taking place in Ethiopia and across the region were things that had to be worked towards and that those economic benefits will eventually feed through into the creation of a healthier civil society and a healthier democracy."

TEWODROS HAGOS, "He really worked very hard, he sacrificed all his time, his youth, everything, to elevate the country from poverty."


BEREKET SIMON, ETHIOPIA INFORMATION MINISTER, "He has been able to save Ethiopia from being forced to swallow the neo-liberal prescriptions and moved it through development and democratic directions to where we are now."

With the peasantry protected from drought for nearly three decades, Addis Ababa booming,  his political power rock-solid, where would Meles turn his attention next? To exporting his ideas to the rest of Africa, through the Addis-based African Union?

But he was not to get this opportunity.

MelesZenawi died after being hospitalized in Belgium on August 20, 2012.

The death of MelesZenawi, at just 57, came as a shock, both to Ethiopians and to the outside world … and caused an outpouring of grief both profound… and unexpected…

PAUL KAGAME, RWANDAN PRESIDENT, "We are challenged by his selflessness and we all fear the magnitude of the gap he has left."

Not far from the Zenawi family home, in the old town of Adwa, a deep sense of sadness, lingers.

SessenZenawi is Mele’s sister. Ten years older than him, he was always her little brother.
SESSEN ZENAWI, MELES’S SISTER, "We used to complain that he never had time to visit, to talk and chat and catch up. Of course it was sad for us. But when I saw him overseas, I really felt he was like a prisoner.

My sister took me to him and we took pictures and he was amazed that I had grown so old but I said I was fine. Later, when it was time to leave, my sister put some money in his children’s pockets. Marda and Senay were there. I was shocked, wondering what she was doing and thought to myself, “ he should be giving us money to buy some clothes; instead she is giving him money”. Later when we got home, I asked her why, since he had such an important job, she had to give him money and she replied to say “oh, my sister, there is one thing you don’t know. Meles doesn’t even know what a Birr note looks like…

If he had done that, given us money, built a house for us all, I say he wouldn’t get that respect and honor and I am happy he has gone with honor. I am grieving but happy."

YOUNG MAN, ADWA, "The meaning of the word “meles” in Tigrayan means ‘giving back’. And that is what comes to mind when I think of Meles, the meaning of his name, ‘giving back’."
FIHESA ZENAWI, "I feel very proud because he was a genius. He was not corrupted. And he died because he was not living for himself he was living for others and that’s the way he passed. And I am very proud of him.”

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