One of the key events in Africa of the last 10 years, not just 2012, was the death of Ethiopia’s cerebral but iron-fisted Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
Officially, Meles died on August 20, 2012, but his critics and enemies (and they are quite a few) believe he passed on early in July, but his ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) hid that fact and kept his body in the freezer as it fought over the succession.
Meles was as admired as much he was loathed. He hated journalists, imprisoned them in record numbers, scorned and tormented the opposition, and those close to him – especially his wife the ambitious Azeb Mesfin – were accused of eye-popping corruption.
Meles was also a hero to many. He took over a dirt-poor country in which famines routinely killed hundreds of thousands, and engineered one of the most dramatic growths in agricultural production in Africa. Second to Rwanda, he presided over the second highest reversal in malaria prevalence on the continent. Well before countries like Kenya started making news for their big infrastructure projects, Meles had been there and done that.
Addis Ababa, the capital, was a dusty ramshackle place 25 years ago. When Meles was done with it, it was a modernish city, complete with jazz clubs, and a completely new skyline.
He pushed the largest expansion of energy production the continent has seen, and a country that once waited to be saved by maize from Kenya, was sealing deals to export electricity to it. By the start of 2011, in a story not reported much, Meles’ Ethiopia toppled Kenya from the perch it had occupied for over 50 years as the largest economy in Eastern Africa.
I spoke to several folks at the World Bank, African Development Bank, and some politicians in Africa who considered his death a “great loss” to the continent. After Thabo Mbeki was ousted as president of South Africa in 2008, many analysts believed that Meles was the only African leader who could sit in a G20 Summit, make an argument as good as anyone else’s in the room, and even win it. When people like South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma go to the G20 today, it’s because they lead big economies, otherwise they are “seat warmers”. Meles, his fans say, went there because he was in the same intellectual league as the likes of US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. All these stories, however, have been told somewhere at sometime.
The official account by Addis is that Meles died of cancer. His enemies claim he succumbed to a different disease all together. Some claim Aids.
Strangely, little has been said about WHY he died. One of my Ethiopian friends, whose views I trust the most because he neither liked nor hated Meles and is quite thoughtful, brought this up when we met up in November.
“Meles didn’t die of cancer”, he said, “He worked himself to death”. Meles is known to have taken a proper holiday only once. He allegedly was so engrossed in work, he “didn’t just pay attention to what his body was telling him”, my friend said.I asked him why Meles worked so hard.
“I paid attention to many things about Meles that many observers didn’t, and I think his ultimate goal was to restore the glory of Ethiopian empire”, he said. In his view, while most people thought Meles was out to consolidate power for himself, his wife and comrades, there was also a part of him that felt a lot of pain about how far Ethiopia had fallen. “Meles was probably out to rewrite 500 years of Ethiopian history. It is a job that would kill anyone who tried it. And it killed him”, he said.
Maybe there is something to it. And to get a handle on this theory, it is just as well to go back to a 2009 blog on washingtoncitypaper.com.
Written by Tim Carman, it was entitled “Why Do Ethipians Eat So Much Raw Meat?” (http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/youngandhungry/2009/10/02/why-do-ethiopians-eat-so-much-raw-meat)
“You likely know about kitfo, the finely chopped beef mixed with spiced Ethiopian butter and served with awaze or a berbere spice blend or fresh crumbled cheese…the Ethiopian restaurant at which you’ve ordered kitfo will serve it to you raw.
“Kitfo, of course, isn’t the only raw meat offered in Ethiopian cooking (or non-cooking). There’s also tere saga, sometimes known as kurt…
“I mention these two dishes as prelude to a question I hadn’t thought about until this week: Why do Ethiopians eat so much raw meat? The question was raised to me by Jabriel Ballentine, a native of the Virgin Islands…He knew the answer.
“He tells me that raw meat was a war-time invention in Ethiopia — or perhaps “necessity” is a better word, given that troops that cooked their meats were sniffed out by the enemy and slaughtered in their sleep. Ballentine said the troops finally learned it was the smell of roasting meats, and the smoke from their fires, that gave them away. Raw meat, then, was an act of self-preservation.
“Or at least it was a century or centuries ago. Ballentine couldn’t remember exactly which war inspired the raw-meat cuisine.”
When I was in Mogadishu last year in May, I was having coffee with a Somali who is steeped into the history of Ethiopia-Somalia conflicts.
Ethiopia and Somalia fought many wars from the 1500s. Today, Ethiopia is the dominant opponent and is the proud owner of the Ogaden Province, once part of Somalia. Somalia meanwhile is weakened and withered by years of war, lawlessness, and hunger. It was not always this way, the Somali intellectual told me.
He spoke of Ahmad ibn Ibrihim al-Ghazi a 16th-century Islamic leader idolised in Somali for his jihad against the Ethiopians. I hadn’t heard of him either, so I checked him out on Wikipedia. He mentioned other famous Somalis the rest of the world knows little to nothing about, and how they subdued the Ethiopians.
It was in these 16th and early 17th centuries Somali defeats of Ethiopians, that the Ethiopian revolutionaries hiding in the forests and mountains took to eating raw meat because the “feared” Somalis would detect smoke from any barbecue. His eyes literally lit up.
Ethiopia, and Meles in particular, he argued, took a very hardline toward Somalia, and would never allow it normalise, because they feared Mogadishu would raise an expedition to punish them for the “crimes” they have committed against Somalia the last 200 plus years. No one was going to subdue the Ethiopians so much, that they will have to begin eating else raw.
For some reason, there was something seductive in that argument.
The Ethiopian Empire, also known as Abyssinia, lasted from 1137 to 1975 when Hailemariam Mengistu overthrew the Emperor Haile Selassie, murdered the elderly monarch, stuffed his body in a hole, and instituted a reign of terror.
The glorious period of the Ethiopian empire came late, and no monarch symbolised it more than Emperor Menelik II. Born in 1844, Menelik died in 1913. The critical period of his rule was from 1889 to his death. He dramatically expanded the boundaries of the empire, modernised the state, and defeated the Italians, most famously at the Battle of Adwa (or Adowa) in 1896.
Menelik, my buddy suggested, was Meles’ model. And in the things he did, and the role he played as an Africa’s voice in the world, he also privately sought to reinvent the domestic and internal prestige that Menelik enjoyed.
An incident from 2006 when we met him in Addis Ababa when I was part of a delegation of the Committee to Protect Journalists came to mind. The evening before the meeting, we stayed up late strategising on how to manage it.
It was a difficult debate we had, but in the end we agreed that to avoid an unproductive confrontation and end up leaving without any concessions from him on the over one dozen detained journalists, we would not throw things like the UN Human Rights Charter at Meles or lecture him about the need for press freedom. He obviously knew as much about those subjects as we did, so his government had made a deliberate decision to violate them. Rather, we would appeal to his pragmatism, and invoke the ideals of freedom that took him and his colleagues to the bush to fight the Mengistu regime.
Half-way through our meeting, Meles looked surprised that we had not yet lectured him on international law and such things, and realised we weren’t going to. He had spent hours preparing for this approach from us, and yet we were not giving him an opportunity to deploy his counter-attack.
At one point, he paused, and said; “Okay, I know you haven’t brought this up, but let me explain to you why Ethiopians get very upset when foreigners come here and lecture us about how should we should govern ourselves.”
He then plunged into over 600 years to explain why Ethiopians are proud people and how because of their great civilization, they don’t take kindly to people probably had nothing as glorious, trying to teach them about statecraft.
Our strategy paid off. We got more concessions than we had bargained for.
With the benefit of hindsight (thanks to my friend) I should have suspected that that was not just Meles talking. It was the reincarnation of Menelik. In the end though, Meles place in history, will not be as revered. Perhaps he didn’t have enough time. Meles died at the age of 57. However, age alone cannot explain it. Menelik died at the age of 69, only 12 years older. Maybe Meles departed glad that if nothing else, at least he gave it a shot.