Meles Zenawi 1955(?)–
Meles Zenawi 1955(?)–
President of Ethiopia
Years of civil war and decades of totalitarian government in Ethiopia have recently given way to a new order headed by Meles Zenawi. Meles was named leader of an interim government in Ethiopia after his party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), waged a successful rebel war against the highly unpopular forces of dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. Like many other newly-appointed African heads of state, Meles is promising democracy for his nation of 50 million, as well as economic and agricultural reforms. The task facing him is formidable, but Meles expresses great hopes for his country’s future. “Ethiopia has a new chance,” he proclaimed in the Los Angeles Times. “To the best of our abilities, the new government will seek to avoid the ethnic strife that could plunge us back into a life of war rather than one of peace, progress, and growth.”
With its economy based almost exclusively on agriculture, Ethiopia is one of Africa’s poorest nations. The country’s very name often conjures up images of starving villagers, victims of brutal famines that have ravaged the nation for decades. What many people do not know is that the country—the oldest independent state in Africa—consists of a number of formerly autonomous nations and tribal areas, each with its own language, culture, and traditions. Africa Report correspondent Herbert Lewis wrote: “Although monarchy began in highland Ethiopia (Abyssinia) over 2,000 years ago, the empire of Ethiopia acquired its current borders only at the end of the last century. A succession of energetic and ambitious Abyssinian kings conquered all the people surrounding their ancient kingdom and incorporated these new groups and their lands into a greatly expanded empire.” The third most populous country in Africa, Ethiopia boasts more than a dozen distinct ethnic groups and 75 languages. Democracy under such circumstances can be a sobering proposition.
With a border on the Red Sea, Ethiopia has long been a factor in the history of the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Ethiopian merchants were trading in gold dust, ivory, and fragrant oils as early as 300 B.C. Christianity came to the nation in 340 A.D. and is still one of the principal religions of the region.
Although the country has often been embroiled in civil wars as various tribal chieftains have tried to dominate, Ethiopia
Born c. 1955 in Tigre province, Ethiopia. Education: Graduated from the University of Addis Ababa; studied medicine.
Member of Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a Marxist-oriented rebel group based in Tigre province. Head of interim government of Ethiopia, May, 1991—; elected president July 23, 1991.
Addressess: c/o The Ethiopian Embassy, 2134 Colorado N.W., Washington, DC 20008.
managed to resist colonialism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The 1869 opening of the Suez Canal, a ship canal connecting the Red Sea with the Mediterranean, increased the interest of several European countries, including Italy, France, and England, in the strategically located country. However, an Italian invasion later in the nineteenth century was soundly defeated, and Italy recognized Ethiopia’s independence in 1896. The price for this recognition was high, however. Italy retained control over Eritrea, the only coastal province in Ethiopia.
In the early 1920s friction developed between the blood ruler of Ethiopia, a woman named Zawditu, and her regent and heir Ras Tafari. Like his predecessors, Ras Tafari sought to modernize the country. Under his rule Ethiopia joined the League of Nations in 1923. Five years later, the increasingly powerful regent was named king, and with Zawditu’s death in 1930, Ras Tafari became emperor Haile Selassie I.
Except for a period of Italian occupation during the 1930s and 1940s, Ethiopia was ruled by Haile Selassie for more than four decades. Backed by the Ethiopian Orthodox (Christian) Church and wealthy landowners, the emperor exerted full autocratic power over his domain, which after 1962 also included Eritrea and its vital Red Sea ports. Opposition to Haile Selassie’s will was quite dangerous; but as a drought-induced famine ravaged the country in the 1970s, economic conditions worsened and social unrest grew, resulting in the aging ruler being deposed by a coup. In June of 1974 army officers seized control of the government, declaring Ethiopia a socialist state and establishing the Provisional Military Administative Council (PMAC). The PMAC—which came to be known as the Dergue—nationalized farms, factories, and businesses. Financial and military assistance was sought from the Soviet Union and its satellite nations.
Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam assumed the presidency of the PMAC in February of 1977. Lewis noted that Mengistu and his associates “extended their control down to the lowest local level, both rural and urban. No more than their predecessors did they permit freedom of assembly, speech, political organization, or self-expression to the empire’s many peoples.” To his credit, Mengistu did initiate better schooling for the citizens of Ethiopia, allowing schools to operate in languages that the students of various ethnicities could understand. Still, the country was run principally by the Amhara, a people who total only about 25 percent of the population.
From the outset of his regime, Mengistu faced guerilla warfare in Eritrea. The province had never accepted its incorporation into Ethiopia, and rebels there waged incessant warfare for independence. Factions in Tigre began to follow suit, using guerilla tactics as a call to autonomy. Meles was growing up in Tigre during these turbulent years, and he became involved in the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front first as a soldier and later as a leader. His ideals and decisions were not the product of hasty thinking. A college graduate of the University of Addis Ababa with some medical school training, he became thoroughly disillusioned with his country’s political structure—and determined to change it.
Mengistu’s abuses were painfully evident to young revolutionaries like Meles. Africa Report contributor Mary Anne Fitzgerald called Mengistu “one of the most hated leaders in Africa” The dictator’s tactics earned him a reputation for flagrant human rights violations and pointless extended military campaigns. Hundreds of thousands of Ethiopian citizens were forcibly removed from their homes in the northern regions of the country and resettled on collective farms in the south. Thousands of political prisoners were held without charges or trial, and soldiers who protested long combat tours in Eritrea were executed in public as a warning to dissenters. By 1989 Mengistu was so starved for troops to fight in Eritrea and Tigre that he lowered the age of conscription to thirteen.
Even famine was used as a tool to suppress dissent. In 1984-85 and again in 1988, the seasonal rains that support Ethiopia’s crops did not arrive. Mengistu’s forces saw to it that relief efforts were concentrated in the areas of Eritrea and Tigre that were controlled by the government. Africa Report quoted the dictator as saying in 1988: “The priority now for the government is the unity and sovereignty of the country, not feeding the people.” In a piece on the famine for Africa Report, Todd Shields estimated that as many as 3.6 million peasants in the northern provinces might have been denied emergency food supplies by Mengistu’s policies.
The political stance on the famine, and widespread discontent in the military ranks, helped to funnel support into a new organization called the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front. Although the EPRDF consists mainly of Tigrean and Eritrean citizens, it also drew support from the largest ethnic group in the country, the Oromo. Several factors led to the eventual triumph of the EPRDF—and the ascendance of Meles Zenawi. First, the Soviet Union announced a cutback in arms supplies to Mengistu’s government beginning in 1991. Second, an attempted coup in 1989 led Mengistu to institute some of the most brutal punishments he had yet meted out. And third, dispirited but well-armed troops on the Eritrean and Tigrean fronts defected to the rebel side. By 1991 the EPRDF was advancing toward Ethiopia’s capitol city of Addis Ababa.
The civil war became so perilous that in May of 1991 Mengistu fled Ethiopia, leaving a caretaker government in place to handle the rebel advance. In the meantime, the United States sponsored peace talks in London with the various rebel factions and the remnants of Mengistu’s supporters. Meles went to London to represent the EPRDF. While he was there, his party’s forces reached the outskirts of Addis Ababa. Feeling that anarchy threatened the capital, Meles ordered the army into Addis Ababa on May 28, just a week after Mengistu’s departure.
Lewis pointed out in Africa Report that “the takeover has not been a perfect model for a democratic society.” Fighting continued sporadically for several days, and at least 300 people were killed when an ammunitions dump was blown up. The citizens of Addis Ababa were frightened by the incursion of ethnic rebel fighters with alien flags. Lewis observed, however, that Addis Ababa and its inhabitants “were generally spared the feared death and destruction…. Looting was stopped almost immediately and the newly arrived forces set about getting control over the masses of arms that were in private hands throughout the city…. [The takeover was] remarkably orderly, bloodless, and relatively humane—especially by the standards of Ethiopia’s recent past.”
Meles Zenawi, still in London, proved himself an able diplomat and leader. First he met and countered charges that he had moved against Addis Ababa only after seeking approval from the United States for the action. “We would not allow any foreign government to invite us into our own capital,” he told the Boston Globe. He informed the American chairman of the peace talks about the decision, Meles said, “because the United States government was the facilitator of the talks.” Meles also assured attendees at the peace talks that democracy was the ultimate objective of the EPRDF. “Our aim is to include all the population groups in a transitional government,” he asserted in the Chicago Tribune. “Democracy will be taken care of. The right to strike, peaceful demonstrations, all the other democratic rights will be fully implemented.” He vowed that Mengistu’s supporters would not be purged, but rather given fair trials and a chance to assimilate.
Meles does not see himself as a long-term president of Ethiopia, but rather as the head of a government in transition. He hopes to initiate democratic elections as early as 1993, so the Ethiopian people can determine their own destiny. His party does have a platform, however, and he outlined it in the Los Angeles Times. “The Democratic Front’s program envisions a system that combines state and private ownership,” he explained. “Those sectors of the economy that play a key role in upholding the independence of the country—such as factories, banks, energy and mining—should continue to be state-owned. Those services, wholesale and retail trade sectors, that don’t play a decisive national role but are currently state-owned should be set up as worker cooperatives or rented to private capitalists.” He added that peasants should be able to choose to sell their produce wherever and whenever they wanted, at at market prices. “I believe it would be possible to double food production—the highest priority in this land of famine,” he concluded.
Still, Meles readily acknowledges the fact that his efforts to democratize Ethiopia could very well be in vain. “This is a country without any democratic experience,” Meles admitted in Time, “plunging into it with arms in hand.” Meles has endured criticism from some Westerners for developing such a unique brand of economic policies for his country; policies that prohibit private ownership of land and maintain government control of some major industries run contrary to capitalist philosophy. But according to Meles, such policies were designed with the best interests of the Ethiopian people in mind. In an interview with Marguerite Michaels for Time, the president emphasized that “90% of the population is peasants” and reasoned, “if the economic policy doesn’t address the peasants’ concerns… then you cannot have democracy.”
Unfortunately for Ethiopia, it faces many of the same problems that beset the former nations of the Soviet Union following its dissolution. Ethiopia has virtually no free enterprise system in place, its various ethnic groups may decide to press further for independence, and itinerant soldiers loyal to Mengistu may try to destabilize the new regime. “It would not be easy to reorganize such a vast and complex empire politically and administratively even in the best of times, but this may be the worst of times,” Lewis observed. “The country is in a desperate condition economically…. It will take a great deal of wisdom and a lot of sympathetic outside support to rebuild Ethiopia—even to get it back to the point it had reached in 1974.”
Some observers feel that Meles Zenawi might have just the right combination of education, diplomacy, and vision to effect real changes in Ethiopia. “If the good will and good intentions that were evident in Addis Ababa during the first two weeks of July 1991 can be maintained,” noted Lewis, “these new Ethiopian leaders will have done something of great importance for their poor, long-suffering people.” Meles expressed his dreams for his homeland in the Washington Post: “We expect that Ethiopia will be a really democratic and united country, a country not united by force of arms, but by the expressed will of the various peoples concerned. It will be a country that is involved in the process of building wealth for everybody, rather than making endless wars.”
Africa South of the Sahara, 1992, 21st edition, Europa, 1991.
Harbeson, J. W., The Ethiopian Transformation, Westview Press, 1988.
Africa Report, March-April 1987; July-August 1988; July-August 1989; July-August 1991; September-October 1991.
Boston Globe, June 2, 1991.
Chicago Tribune, June 2, 1991.
Los Angeles Times, June 2, 1991; June 24, 1991.
Time, November 4, 1991.
Washington Post, May 29, 1991; June 2, 1991; June 4, 1991; June 11, 1991.
—Anne Janette Johnson
"Meles Zenawi 1955(?)–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 22, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/meles-zenawi-1955
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