Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s longtime dictator, died today after a two-month battle with terminal illness. He was 57. Hailemariam Desalegn, deputy prime minister and foreign minister; has been appointed as acting prime minister.
Legesse Zenawi Asras, alias Meles Zenawi Ares, was born in Adwa on the 8th of May, 1955. The name Meles was his name de guerre and was an honor to a revolutionary university student with the same name who was executed by the Mengisto regime. Meles graduated from Wingate Secondary School with distinction and won a scholarship to Addis-Ababa University. In 1975, after two years studying medicine, he interrupted his studies to join the Tigrean Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF).
He was the founder of the TPLF’s Marxist-Leninist League of Tigray. He gradually maneuvered himself to the top leadership of the TPLF; and became the chairperson of both the TPLF and the EPRDF and head of the executive committee, head of government, and commander –in- chief of the armed forces. Out of the 36 Executive Committee members of the EPRDF, his wife, Azeb Mesfin, is the only female member; however, it should be noted that she was a guerrilla fighter in her own right before their marriage. He was the prime minister from 1995 until his demise, and held the post of president from 1991 to 1995. He had MBA from the Open University in the UK, and MSC in economics from Erasmus University in the Netherlands. He was reported to be austere in his habits, and his capacity for work was unmatched. Moreover, he expected from his subordinates complete loyalty, dedication to the service of the people, and was perceived not to be corrupt. His accomplishments were impressive: he was the darling of the Western donors, and billions of aid dollars were poured into the country every year. Ethiopia is the biggest recipient of foreign aid in Sub-Saharan Africa; its annual growth is estimated to be 9%, which is the best growth in any non-oil producing country. Meles had hugely invested in the country's infrastructure, uplifted millions of his people from poverty; and raised his profile by being regularly invited to represent Africa at the G8 and G20 meetings of economically advanced countries of the world. He had promised to step down in 2015, but broke similar promise in 2010. Due to his pervasive dictatorial powers, the population of Ethiopia, which is estimated to be over 70 million, was not told the whereabouts of their Prime Minister, or what his state of health was? Meles had not been seen for the last two months, and he even missed the African Union (AU) summit held in his capital.
Against strong opposition, Zenawi’s TPLF created ethnic-based federal system, claiming with justification, that it was the most sensible course of political dispensation appropriate to Ethiopia in order to eliminate the centuries old oppression by one ethnic group and its culture. He introduced the decentralization of the language system; so that each federal unit is able develop its culture. Amharic, though, still remains dominant as the medium of communication between federal components and the central government.
Farewell to Former Comrades in Arms
During the struggle against the Derg headed by Mengisto, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front [EPLF] and the Tigre Peoples Liberation Front [TPLF] were allies and coordinated their actions against their common enemy, the regime of Mengisto. A secret agreement was signed between the two liberation movements, headed by Isias Aferwarki and Meles Zenawi respectively, stipulating that, after the overthrow of the Derg regime, the TPLF would accept a referendum on the independence of Eritrea. Indeed, after the successful overthrow of the Derg, the referendum was held in Eritrea which obviously opted for independence, and Ethiopia under Zenawi recognized the independence of its former province. The two leaders, who were reported to be related, remained close until 1996 when Aferwarki, returning from a vacation in Kenya with his family and his inner entourage, stopped in Addis-Ababa and was offered by Zenawi to fly them back to Asmara in one of Meles’ helicopters. Aferwarki accepted the offer but while en route the chopper caught fire but managed to return to Addis Ababa and landed safely there. An angry Aferwarki was reported to have had told Meles to his face that the fire was an assassination attempt by Meles to eliminate him. Even though Meles supported the independence of Eritrea in 1993, but, within five years, the former allies were fighting a bloody conflict that lasted between 1998 and 2000 and resulted in nearly 100,000 deaths. Both were despots with inflated egos and couldn’t stand each other; however, Meles, with his guile and brilliance, had cultivated the West, as their indispensable man in the troublesome Horn of Africa region. Aferwarki, meanwhile, had been painted, with a considerable input from Meles, as the pariah of the Horn and has no supporters, regionally or internationally.
The border dispute between Eritrea and Ethiopia remained unresolved due to the intransigence of Meles who was in collusion with the Western powers. The Ethiopian-Eritrean Boundary Commission awarded the Badame territorial dispute to Eritrea, but Meles Zenawi declined to enforce it; and Ethiopia continues to occupy and claim the disputed region.
The Undisputed Master of Ceremonies in Somalia
Since the implosion in Somalia, Meles had played a pivotal role in the affairs of his neighbor and traditional adversary. Until his death, no Transitional Federal Government (TFG) came to power in Somalia without his blessing, with the exception of Arta TFG. Meles shunned Abdi Qassim Salad Hassan PM Galydh's government because it came to existence without his input. It also showed, like previous Somali governments of yesteryears, signs of independence. He also persuaded his mentors in the West that Arta TFG was a government dominated by religious fanatics and; hence, should be shunned. This policy worked for Meles Zenawi well, as this TFG was unable to make any progress during its tenure. From then on, every reconciliation process for Somalia was sabotaged by Meles, as he financed and armed every Somali faction and warlord of any stripe. That resulted chaos and anarchy. Oddly, he was pursuing these deleterious policies while pretending to be an ardent supporter of Somalia’s central government. Meles had a strategic national agenda of his own. He discarded warlords and factions he created as soon as they ceased to serve his strategic agenda and, in turn, created new ones. He became a cunning master of how to manipulate Somali society with little effort and expenditure, because Meles found the weakest link: Clannism, an exploitable foible which had eluded his predecessors for centuries. No Somali leader of independent thought was able to effectively emerge so long Ethiopia exercised complete veto over the affairs of Somalia. Every Somali move was expected to be compatible with strategic agenda of Ethiopia. Under any guise, real or imagined, Ethiopian forces crossed the border all the time without the knowledge or the consent of the TFG, or the Security Council and repeatedly violated the existing arms embargo of the UN with impunity.
When the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) appeared to succeed in ridding the country of the scourge of warlords and armed factions, Meles persuaded his mentors in the West to foot the bill in the invasion of Somalia, in order to put an end to this potential, serious threat to the countries in the Horn of Africa. There were individuals within the Union of Islamic Courts who, by design or naivety, served the agenda of Ethiopia and it’s powerful backers and, hence, precipitated the invasion. Some of these clerics claimed, that they were on their way to hold the forthcoming Eid prayers in Addis-Ababa. Strangely, one of these figures held the defense portfolio of the UIC; but during the Ethiopian invasion he was nowhere to be found to defend the country, by mobilizing and leading his forces. He had suddenly left the country on the pretext of performing the Hajj. The invasion was brutal and caused huge destruction, displacement and about 10,000 deaths; and when the human rights organizations, including the UN suggested that a fact finding commission be formed to investigate the atrocities, the idea was nixed by the USA and its allies. When the political leadership of the UIC was forced to flee the country, it relocated to Asmara, Eritrea, Ethiopia’s mortal enemy. The move was exploited by Meles because he divided the UIC leadership into moderates and extremists, a classification the international community readily accepted without critical examination. Of course, the military wing of the UIC remained in the country to resist the Ethiopian invasion with the limited resources at its disposal but with the wide support of many Somalis in the Diaspora. It later became independent of the political wing of UIC in Asmara and took the name of Al-Shabab, and the rest is history.
The only time, in recent history, Meles opposed the fragmentation of the Somali state was in the case of Azania State, which was not his brainchild, but rather that of the Ogaden clan. His opposition was based on a far-sighted strategic reason: Azania is the creation of the Ogaden senior Kenyan Somali politicians, who consider themselves the dominant ethnic group in the area with the blessing of the Kenyan government, which sees it as a useful buffer state under its indirect control. Meles Zenawi saw the creation of Azania as a future destabilizing problem for Ethiopia, since it could be a source of support for the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), which has been involved in an on- going insurgency with the Ethiopian government. The opposition of Meles to Azania was partially assuaged, as the ethnic Somali politicians in Kenya had met several times with Meles and the ONLF, and promised to use their good offices to bring an end to the insurgency. Several meetings have already taken place in England between the two sides with the Kenyan Somalis in attendance.
Liquidating Domestic Opposition
Within the country, Meles did not tolerate opposition to his regime, even if it was constructive criticism within his party. He was believed to have eliminated his potential rivals by ousting them from their powerful positions in the party hierarchy or in the government, such as the founding military leader of the TPLF, Avegwi Berhi in 1980; the post- war Tigrean hero, Seeye Abraha in 2001. Serious questions remained unanswered as to the motive of the assassination of Kinfe Gebre Medhin, chief of security and immigration, in May 2001, who was shot and killed by major Tsehawe, as he entered the armed forces Officers Club in Addis. Tsehawe was tried, found guilty, and executed in August 2007. Kinfe backed Meles in a serious Central Committee party dispute in March 2001, which resulted in the expulsion of 12 senior members from the party. In any given time, there were a number of armed groups opposed to the Ethiopian government under Zenawi, the major ones being: the Oromo Liberation Front; the Ogaden Liberation Front; the Afar Liberation Front; and the United Western Somali Liberation Front. The latter, which was a rival of the Ogaden Liberation Front, ended its two decades of armed struggle in August 2010, and signed a peace accord with the government. All these fronts, to be effective in their struggle, must have bases to recoup, regroup, train, take care of their injured, and receive fresh supplies; and the ideal and often -sought bases were in Somalia. The two countries were, from time immemorial, traditional adversaries. .These bases have dried up, since Meles’ Ethiopia has had the final say in every part of Somalia. It was common for Somalia’s regional governments in handing over suspected liberation members to the Ethiopian authorities; or even the Ethiopians themselves crossing the border and picking up the suspects. Meles’ forces carried out scorched earth counter insurgency measures, which were rarely condemned by world powers that matter, in spite of the repeated reports by human rights organizations. It appeared that there was a colluded silence on the part of world powers about the atrocities of Ethiopia in Somalia and within Ethiopia; the repeated violation of territorial integrity of Somalia and the UN arms embargo which it repeatedly ignored with impunity.
The Marginalization of Ethiopia’s own Muslims
The presence of people of the Muslim faith in Ethiopia is recorded as far back as 615 AD when some of the early Muslims sought refuge in Axum, Tegrean province, which was then the seat of the King of Ethiopia, the Negashi, after they were persecuted by the Qureish of Mecca for their newly acquired faith of Islam. According to the latest 2007 census, Islam is the second most widely practiced religion in Ethiopia, after Christianity. The Muslim population in Ethiopia is officially recorded as about 30%, but the real figure is believed to be about 50% or more. Successive Ethiopian governments long held Muslims as agents of foreign powers and marginalized them. The Muslims, on the other hand, were reluctant to enroll their children in government schools, as the head of education in Ethiopia, for a long time, was the Abuna, the Pope, whose primary objective was to ensure that the Christian faith is only practiced in schools. The Flasha, who claimed to be of the Jewish faith, and one of the lost tribes of Israel that lived in Ethiopia from time immemorial were forced to convert to orthodox Christianity in the 19th century; many are now reported recanting their Christian faith and reverting to Judaism, in order to be eligible to emigrate to Israel.
The Meles Zenawi government had nominated a Muslim Sect by the name of Ahbash to be in charge of the religious affairs of the Ethiopian Muslims. This sect was founded by an Ethiopian-- Lebanese scholar by the name of Sheikh Abdulla Al-Harari. The government controls and manipulates the Islamic Supreme Council, which implements the policies of the ruling party. There have been no elections for the membership of the council for 13 years. Ahbash is seen by the West as a friendly alternative to Wahhabi ideology which is seen as militant. Muslims have been restive in recent years, because they have been marginalized and discriminated against; they have not been allowed to build mosques or madrasas for their community; and recently 17 prominent Muslims leaders were arrested and are now in custody, in order to nip in the bud any Muslim agitation for equality with their peers. Amnesty International is protesting their prolonged detention and demanded they be released or charged with specific offence. .Up to now, the protests of Muslims have been peaceful, but no one can predict the future.
In Search of Dependable Sea Access
Meles Zenawi, in his all- encompassing strategy, had not neglected in seriously exploring his best options in having secure and dependable outlets to the sea. This is the reason he was partially financing the construction of a deep port at Tajoura, an Afar country, which is part of the Republic of Djibouti. This outlet to the sea will serve his home town, which lost access to the sea through the port of Assab, as a result of the conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia. This new port will be a competitor to the port of Djibouti in the long run, and by extension between those of Somali ancestry and those of Afar ancestry. He was also pushing for the realization of the huge port project in Lamu, Kenya, where the construction of a multi- billion port is being planned to serve as a sea access for South Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya. This huge port project is being financed by the Chinese, and it is intended to provide a non-Muslim controlled sea for these countries.
Emasculating Somalia’s Leaders
In recent years, Somalia is repeatedly being humiliated by its neighbors with important members of the International Community in concert, because it lacked credible leadership with the necessary caliber, commitment, competence, stature and patriotism. These leaders, in the majority of cases, were imposed on the Somali people by the IC. Spearheaded by Ethiopia, as a strategy of balkanization and internecine conflict was/is being implemented. Somalis were/are oblivious to what was happening to their country as they were/are consumed by clannish and parochial conflicts fueled from without. It became the fate of Somali political leaders, under Zenawi, to be frequently summoned to Addis and be read the riot act whenever they were perceived to be deviating unwritten mandate. On the other hand, Somali leaders appeared to be competing for the ears and the favors of Zenawi and the IC. and had lost confidence in themselves and their people, having mistakenly concluded that Zenawi was the only Sheriff in town who could make them or break them.
It is ironic that Meles Zenawi died one day after Somalia was set to end the term of the Transitional Federal Government. Somalia’s expected election of new government coincided with Meles’ own demise. Of course, Ethiopia’s policy and design on Somalia is bigger than one man.
Mr. Jama has also published the following article at WardheerNews:
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