Meles Zenawi and the culturally intuitive devastation of Badme

Monday August 21st 2017

By Zecharias Zelalem

 Five years on from a day most Ethiopians alive today will remember as if it was yesterday. The passing away of former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, after a battle with an undisclosed illness. The former TPLF rebel spokesman and chief negotiator who later spent twenty one years ruling the country from 1991 until his death in 2012, hadn’t been seen in public for months preceding the announcement of his death. During the initial weeks of his absconding from the public eye, Ethiopian state media outlets first danced around the topic, avoiding the subject of the country’s PM going AWOL despite the fact that it was main discussion topic on Ethiopian social media and internet forums. Then, a foreign based Ethiopian media network reported that they had received credible news that the political strongman had died in July, whilst in Belgium receiving medical treatment and that a cover-up of his death was under way. To counter the allegation, national television and radio outlets spent months downplaying Meles’ absence from major events such as that year’s African Union summit in Addis Ababa. The country’s Information Minister Bereket Simon finally conceded that Meles was indeed in a hospital in Brussels, but was recovering from his illness and would return soon. The debate over whether Meles Zenawi was alive or not had reached fever pitch when the same state media outlets that had spent months dismissing reports of Meles Zenawi being no longer with us as malicious misinformation, abruptly announced that the party strongman was indeed no longer with us.

       From the moment Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation’s Temesgen Beyene announced to the world that Meles Zenawi had died, aged 57 in a hospital in Brussels, a complete change in the state broadcaster’s tone would occur. Seemingly in denial previously, state media now cascaded somber, sorrowful tunes across the airwaves, dedicating the next few weeks to shows and programs honouring Meles’ memory while a period of national mourning was declared. Flags were lowered to half mast in honour of the fallen leader while music wouldn’t be played in bars and restaurants in the country for weeks. Despite the fact that nearly everyone had heard rumours of his death, it still came as quite a shock. A generation of Ethiopians born and raised after his ascent to power had grown up watching Meles Zenawi on television speak to assembled politicians every evening. It was almost as if he had become somewhat omnipresent, appearing in every household in the country that had a television set around dinner time. Now, all of a sudden we were told that he was dead.

Aerial shot of the ceremonial entourage following the vehicle transporting Meles Zenawi’s body through the streets of Addis Ababa (Image: CNN)

       His funeral procession saw hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians file past his flag draped casket in Addis Ababa. Diplomats and leaders from around the world were in attendance while millions more tuned into live feeds as his funeral was broadcast worldwide by the state outlets. It was a sad realization that a man, deemed so powerful and catalyst to the deposing of the previous communist regime, was now lying lifeless in our midst.


       In the months and even the years after his death, the subject of his what Meles Zenawi had left behind became a widely discussed discussion point. In the initial weeks, disconnected foreign media pondered over the likelihood of the country’s stability breaking down and anarchy breaking out. The EPRDF had always been described as a one man party with Meles the glue that held the organisation together. When the eventuality of a post Meles political crisis started to appear less and less likely, discussion shifted to the impact his rule had on Ethiopia. The English word “legacy,” all of a sudden became part of the Ethiopian vocabulary, as state media constantly bombarded the public with reminders that everything, from the paved roads to the construction boom would be enveloped as part of his “legacy.” The then deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn was swiftly promoted to the top job, as per Meles’ wishes. He promptly stated that his main objective was to replicate the efforts of his predecessor when it came to fighting poverty, ensuring that his legacy thrived long after his death. That legacy, was of a man who had overseen the country’s endless advances, including the gains made in combating hunger and infant mortality, economic growth and piloting Ethiopia’s ambition to benefit from Nile River resources with the commencement of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) project.

Scenes of Ethiopia’s construction boom (Image: Keyom Ethiopia)

   Meanwhile, there were those who contested the very dignified portrayals of Meles as a man who had given his all for his country. The fact that he ruled with an iron fist for much of his tenure, with no free and fair elections and rampant human rights abuses that only worsened as the years went by are reasons for many to decry his lionization as immoral. Indeed Meles Zenawi’s moniker of being a “strongman” arguably came as a result of a no nonsense approach to dissent. Friends, including the likes of former comrades in arms, Tamrat Layne and Siye Abraha, were purged from the party upon their straying away from the leader’s political path and clashed with him. They would both end up jailed on somewhat suspect charges of corruption. He also oversaw his EPRDF government’s crackdown on domestic dissent, most notably the police reaction to massive protests in opposition to a projected victory for the ruling party in the 2005 general elections. 193 mostly unarmed protesters were killed in the streets of Addis Ababa that year.

Some of the victims of the post 2005 election police massacres. At least forty of the dead were said to be teenagers

        Detractors and admirers will most likely never settle on an agreement when it comes to Meles Zenawi’s place in history. The debate will forever rage on. This is in no small part due to political and sometimes sectarian loyalties. A common stance of the EPRDF’s domestic political opponents is one of die-hard loathing for the former leader. They tend to diminish his achievements and portray his administration as one that sought the total destruction of the country, the extermination of his opponents and the mass looting of national resources.


    There is ample evidence and reports of state killings, torture and rampant corruption becoming common place under the watchful eye of the Meles led dictatorship. According to Global Financial Integrity, 16.5 billion dollars evaporated illicitly from the country between 2001 and 2010. Nevertheless, his admirers will lavish praise on him and look beyond this. They instead point to the fact that Ethiopia became known as a beacon of stability in an unstable region, an investment and international business hub and an economic powerhouse attaining double digit economic growth during his era. Modern Ethiopia has almost always been viewed as a hopeless pit of starvation, war and disease. And now the country had reason for hope as among other things, the EPRDF oversaw the building of a record number of universities and other academic institutions. People living in the partitioned ethnic based states could pursue educational and employment opportunities in their own languages. The national domination of the Amharic language in every sector of society gave way for a system espousing ethnic harmony and linguistic equality. Although the efforts of liberation forces from all across the country were key in ensuring these freedoms were implemented, Meles is accredited by his admirers as having been the brainchild of the federal project.


    So the question of what kind of legacy Meles Zenawi left as he departed this earth will be received with scorn by some Ethiopians, delight by others. In a country with extremely diverse political perceptions, it’s obviously impossible to come to a consensus on how the Adwa born former rebel commander should be described in the history textbooks that will be handed out to future generations of pupils.


   But I will offer one view, which I believe shows how Meles Zenawi, as articulate and diplomatically cunning as he can be, still fell prey to the cultural shortcomings that have plagued Ethiopian interaction, both political and apolitical since time immemorial.



      Ethiopians spark genuine interest in them from outsiders. Besides their vastly diverse physical features, languages and writing systems, their exquisite cuisine, hospitality and a die-hard dedication to the motherland also make them standout. Yes, that last one, one would say would be added to the list of Ethiopian cultural pros and not cons. But one could also argue that it also testifies to a frustratingly chronic inability of many Ethiopians to listen to each other and compromise when necessary. Culturally, hesitation and a lack of decisiveness can be attributed to fear, weakness and even cowardice. While this may be perceived as a cutthroat determination to remain upright to values and a steadfast loyalty to convictions, it unfortunately has also served to disenfranchise many Ethiopians at home and abroad, both past and present. Those whose views aren’t echoed by the much more vocal Ethiopian elite tend to be systematically muzzled. This has led to many Ethiopians, in particular people of Oromo ancestry, to face a century old state sponsored discrimination due to their leanings and political aspirations clashing with those of the ruling monarchs and subsequent governments. On a smaller scale, this inability to compromise has created a society with a near zero tolerance for dissenting views, especially those that stray from the mainstream. In the diaspora, particularly in North America for instance, Ethiopian expats have seen their community organisations disintegrate into several smaller ones based on ethnic affiliation in principle due to a near refusal of the main “Ethiopian” community to sit down around a table with the heads of the small organisation and recant views and beliefs that have served to polarize and divide.


       The good thing is that there is a growing number of educated Ethiopians who are less likely to be held by the near cultural stranglehold that prevents them from sincere reconciliatory communication. They will be needed as previous generations of decision makers have failed miserably when it comes to topics such as ethnic strife among other contentious issues. In Ethiopian political circles where reconciliation is perceived as conceding defeat, decades old feuds continue unabated. What some of the country’s die-hard political juggernauts consider “patriotism,” is in many cases a ridiculous, near childlike stubbornness to listen to what they have long labeled taboo. That is, everything they aren’t accustomed to hearing. Whether it’s in the country’s Orthodox Church administration that until today sees inner fighting and unchristianlike division in its administration or diaspora communities that have seen expats of Tigrayan and Oromo descent prefer to break off and head their own separate organisations, a refusal to submit, to compromise, to listen and to respond to without judgmental or condescending tones will forever serve to create roadblocks in what is already an extremely complex labyrinth that stands between Ethiopians and a sense of greater unity.


  As the leader of the country, Meles Zenawi strived to redirect the country in the right direction. Spearheading efforts to modernize the country’s political arena, he arrived in Addis Ababa pledging to right the endless wrongs attributed to the communist Derg regime preceding his. Meles Zenawi was a well read, extremely articulate and relatively young leader upon his ascent to power in 1991. To the western superpowers, especially the United States, Meles Zenawi and Isaias Afewerki taking over in the region was a source of optimism. The region was in good hands. In 1998, Bill Clinton spoke of his delight at the arrival of a “vanguard of a new generation of responsible African leaders,” among them, Meles Zenawi.


Former American President Bill Clinton posing for a photo with African leaders in 1995 including Meles Zenawi who is beside him to his left (Image: Getty Images/Joyce Naltchayan)

         Meles Zenawi’s climb to the summit of political power in Ethiopia wasn’t easy, it came on the back of sacrifices that his rebel army, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) made working in tandem with the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) and later other Ethiopian rebel groups as part of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition to conduct decades of guerrilla warfare. The devastation of the Ethiopian civil war that ravaged the country, exacerbated the drought turned famine and caused untold suffering to millions is well documented. Meles Zenawi is among those who know more than others of the cost of such conflicts.


      “There is no point of fighting if the people are finished,” a disheveled looking downtrodden thirty year old Meles said in an interview back in 1985 during one of the worst documented bouts of mass starvation in history. Clad in camouflage, the TPLF rebel spoke of the disheartening scenes he had witnessed as a result of the war and famine. “This is the saddest time in my life. I have seen many desperate times. But none of them as desperate as this.”


        A little over six years after this interview, Meles’ rebel forces, alongside those of his long time ally and comrade in arms EPLF rebel commander and later Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki marched on Addis Ababa and Asmara, overthrowing the Derg regime and turning the page on Mengistu Haile Mariam’s rule of the country. The lengthy war had ended, the two friends had succeeded. Images of the two frolicking former rebel commanders, smiling together at gatherings and holding joint press conferences made it clear to the world that the governments of the two countries would now put down their arms and work to ensure the joint prosperity and peace of the citizens of both countries. With Meles Zenawi and Isaias Afewerki appearing to be the best of friends, it seemed like it was all water under the bridge for Ethiopia and Eritrea.

     As is well documented, the two men would later have a falling out. Despite decades of collaboration in the struggle to overthrow the Derg, the political elite of both the EPLF/PFDJ and TPLF/EPRDF led governments of Ethiopia and Eritrea disagreed on a number of issues.

         Both men, Meles Zenawi and Isaias Afewerki are products of the same society. The two men grew up in the aftermath of the decision to federate Eritrea into Ethiopia after World War II and grew up in this new look country. The country’s society suffered from being dominated by personalities stricken with the the aforementioned cultural tendency to have no room for tolerance. As a result, Ethiopians and Eritreans share many of the same cultural and behavioural characteristics.


          In 1998, war between the neighbouring countries broke out. For the next two years, Ethiopia and Eritrea fought each other in primitive trench style warfare. Contested border areas including Badme, Bure and Zalambessa became the venues for endless bloodshed. Tens of thousands of youths from both countries perished in a barrage of shells, landmines, airstrikes and gunfire. In February 1999, Ethiopian troops uprooted the well entrenched Eritreans from their fortifications in Badme, one of the most heavily fought over lands among the disputed regions. By May of 2000, about a third of Eritrean territory was under Ethiopian occupation and Eritrea agreed to abide by conditions set forth by the Organisation for African Unity (OAU). Celebratory tunes blared on loudspeakers in Addis Ababa as reports came in that the war had ended in Ethiopia’s favour.

Ethiopian troops marching to a battle front 

    The Algerian government later spearheaded efforts to bring the two parties to an agreement and the two governments finally signed a peace deal in December of 2000 in Algiers. Meles and Isaias, the two former battlefield allies who had spent so much of their lives fighting for the same cause, could barely look each other in the eye as they shook hands, publicly ratifying the peace deal, buoyed on by cheering African diplomats and an overly enthusiastic Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

President Isaias Afwerki with Meles Zenawi
Heartfelt handshake: Meles and Isaias shake on it, agreeing to end the war 

           The Ethiopian-Eritrean war of 1998-2000 saw both governments spend millions on state of the art military technology and hi-tech weaponry. The death toll is estimated to be somewhere between 70,000 and 100,000 on both sides combined. The war that cut short the lives of so many young soldiers brought about the most minuscule of border changes. Today, upon realization that the wanton bloodshed was all for changes that rendered the map almost as identical to what it looked like prior to the outbreak of war in 1998, one would most likely declare the conflict pointless and maddening. Badme, the main strip of land that saw the most casualties and the most fighting, was a barren town of barely a thousand inhabitants and no resources of note. Foreign media were especially critical. One foreign journalist likened the war to two bald men fighting over a comb. Badme wasn’t worth the massive sacrifice both armies were making.


      But the reality is that the devastating war wasn’t over a strip of land. It wasn’t over Badme, nor was it in “self defence” which is what both countries claimed in attempts to justify their respective war causes. Those who knew the inner workings of both the TPLF and EPLF leadership structures will tell you that the war between former comrades came as a result of a gradual breakdown in communication as the two governments couldn’t come to an agreement on a number of issues. The brotherly camaraderie that had Meles and Isaias agreeing that the two would continue to share a common currency, the Ethiopian Birr while Ethiopian merchants would continue to use the Eritrean Port of Assab for importing activities free of charge had disintegrated. The two governments grew increasingly at odds with each other over this and a failure to agree on the demarcation of the common border. Wartime grudges eventually came to the forefront and things appear to have gotten personal.


      Whether it was a case of personal pride or whether it was the political stakes amassed, neither side was willing to back down and the tone between the two governments became increasingly hostile. The dispute between ex members of the two former rebel armies, EPLF and TPLF didn’t involve any of the other governing parties of either country. The clash was explicitly between battle hardened men who had been friends for at least twenty years. The general public was kept in the dark as neither side wanted to expose weaknesses and give away propaganda opportunities to their rival.


       Meles Zenawi, as a statesman, a diplomat and a leader of the country, was at the helm when the major decisions of the late nineties regarding Eritrea were made. But despite his being a well read ideologue well acquainted with the devastating effects war had on his people, he fell prey to the cultural trait of stubbornness and hardheadedness. A refusal to compromise on his position and no sincere desire to come to terms with his former allies meant that he played a part in pushing the two countries to the point of no return. The personal feud between members of the TPLF and their EPLF counterparts could have been solved had the hardheads in power put aside their pride, political aspirations and pent up anger. But not even the real possibility of his people being once again exposed to situations he described as “desperate” in 1985 was enough of a deterrent for him to pick up the phone and call Asmara in an effort to settle the personal disagreements that now threatened to engulf the livelihoods of millions of people through no fault of their own. There were reports that Meles did all he could to avoid war, coming into personal confrontations with members of the TPLF central committee. These efforts came way too late, after Eritrean army forces had already taken over Badme. It is also somewhat unbelievable that Meles, always known as the keen observer, didn’t notice the brewing resent and simmering tensions between the two ruling parties that threatened to hasten the breaking out of all out war well in advance.


       If anything, this testifies to an utter selfishness of the two men, their close confidants of and the henchmen of their respective inner circles. Unable to restrain their emotional desires to punish the other, they had no qualms about swindling millions of their compatriots into thinking that a war that was born from a spat among friends, was actually a righteous fight for their respective nation’s territorial sovereignty and international image. Both Meles and Isaias, unable to overcome their seething hate for each other, cast thousands of their youths into a fire in vain efforts to destroy each other.


      As I mentioned above, the cultural refusal of many Ethiopians to tolerate dissenting views, and agree to compromise is lamentable. It has led to community and religious organisations disassembling and will forever stand in the way of inter ethnic political harmony unless serious attitude changes are seen. However, in the case of Meles Zenawi Asres, his cultural stubbornness led to his country’s waging a terrible war with a neighbouring country described by observers as nothing less than insanity. Yes, it takes two to tango. Isaias is very much guilty of the same crime. But if it takes two to tango, it only takes one person to walk over and turn off the stereo playing the sabre-rattling tunes. Meles Zenawi was very much in a capacity to steer things in a different direction. Tens of thousands didn’t have to die. A hundred thousand didn’t have to die. Victory? For what? And at what cost? Bragging rights? Which Ethiopian in his/her right mind would brag about belonging to an impoverished country that piled endless resources in an attempt to militarily dismantle a fellow impoverished African neighbouring state with which Ethiopia shares, linguistic, cultural, religious and historical ties? Was this worth the carnage? Was this worth the broken families, the heartache of countless mothers and the destruction of infrastructure? Hollow, pyrrhus victory. The 1998-2000 war isn’t celebrated or commemorated annually like Ethiopia’s other battlefield coups, and rightfully so. There is nothing to celebrate and plenty to mourn. This reality further renders the sacrifice in vain. In 2017, despite the fact that tens of thousands of Ethiopians were killed or maimed fighting between 1998-2000, there is no institutional effort to publicly express gratitude to troops involved in the conflict, most of whom weren’t even conscripted, selflessly putting themselves in harm’s way out of a sincere desire to answer the call of the motherland.

Two Ethiopian soldiers patrolling the border near Badme in 2008 (Image: Stringer)

       Meles Zenawi’s image adorned buildings, billboards and street side shop windows for months in the aftermath of his death. Everything was done to immortalize him and in many aspects, these efforts have proven successful. Five years on, and the cult of personality strives to the point that many joke about his continuing to lead the country from the grave. But there are no monuments or memorials honouring those who lost their lives at Badme, Bure, Zalambessa among others. I make the argument that we may never see such a monument erected in a place like Addis Ababa as it would also serve as a visible reminder of Meles Zenawi’s inability to overcome the “Habesha primal instinct” that has too many of us at each other’s throats for the slightest reasons. The most needless, wasteful and destructive of wars would occur in no small part to his hardheadedness and a refusal to sidestep personal pride. There was ample time before 1998, plenty of time to see the two countries being pitted against each other from afar. While the general public was left clueless as to what was going on behind the scenes, Meles knew all about the squabbles that later deteriorated to downright hatred of each other. He was well placed to halt the madness, to be the bigger man, step in and prevent a generation of Ethiopians and Eritreans from experiencing the horrors of war.


He wouldn’t take that chance.


    Seventeen years since the end of that senseless war, we have no idea exactly how many soldiers died in the conflict. We haven’t the slightest idea of the struggles faced by those wounded and/or maimed, those who languished in the hands of the enemy as prisoners of war, those who continue to toil with psychological scars. The topic has been closed and isn’t up for discussion. The victims of the battle of egos have been given no platform whatsoever to air their voices.

Giant billboard lionizing the late Prime Minister in Addis Ababa (Image: Spider Webs Unite)
Meles Zenawi’s feted negotiating expertise wouldn’t be applied in an effort to prevent an easily preventable and very costly war with Eritrea


   Meles Zenawi has been described by those who know him as an amiable, likable person. He’s also known as a tough negotiator, a shrewd politician who ended up checkmating most of his foes. But in the case of the Badme war, history will also testify to his being defeated. Indeed he fell prey to a cultural intuitive that he, as a leader of a nation should have been able to overcome. Alas, an inability to control urges is what contributed to the massacres that occurred in the desert barren regions bordering Ethiopia and Eritrea between 1998 and 2000.


What a tragedy, what a travesty.

What a legacy.

My name is Zecharias Zelalem.


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