I once asked Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who died on Aug. 20 from an unspecified illness at age 57, whether he was a dictator. He grinned and then, stopping, just looked at me.
Nervously, I did what a journalist should never do, and filled the silence.
"A lot of people call you that," I said.
He told me he didn't care much what foreigners thought and that the people who described him that way were rarely his countrymen. "If Ethiopians thought that I was what you say, I would not sleep at night," he said. "But I don't believe they do."
I persisted that there were indeed Ethiopians who called him a dictator and that they often gathered to protest his trips overseas -- where, with his ferocious intellect, charm, and ability to speak in perfect paragraphs, he was regularly a star at meetings of the G-20 or in the snowy mountains of Davos.
Looking uncomfortable, he admitted that their presence saddened him.
"We may be at fault in some way," he said, as my pen started scratching with greater speed, anticipating a rare confession from a man usually so sure of himself.
"I am sorry," he said. "That maybe we didn't communicate well enough to those Ethiopians living abroad what is happening. What we are doing here."
Meles was not your typical one-dimensional African strongman -- a term often applied to him by the Western media but one that seemed somehow lazily old-fashioned and patronizing, jarring uncomfortably with his bookish demeanour.
Meles came to power as one of a group of men who led a rebel coalition that overthrew brutish communist dictator, Mengistu Haile Mariam -- a man who killed, by most estimates, hundreds of thousands of people in anti-opposition purges.
There is no evidence that power was something Meles craved simply to line his pockets, though the financial dealings of Ethiopia's ruling party are sometimes questionable. No private jets, Paris homes, or yachts decked out with shark tanks for this African leader.
Instead, friends said, on the very rare days when he wasn't working, he liked to play a bit of tennis, chat about political events outside Ethiopia, and dress down in sweatpants and sneakers to eat and drink with a small circle of family and confidantes.
He was a man on a different mission. What he was "doing here" was pursuing a vision, what he called the "Ethiopian Renaissance." But he didn't like people getting in his way.
"He loved Ethiopia and was proud of its long history," a Western academic who had regular email correspondence with him told me. "He wanted to restore it to glory."
In the early hours of Sept. 12, 2007, Meles, decked out in traditional dress, stood to give one of the most important speeches of his premiership so far. It had just turned midnight and Ethiopia, which follows a calendar long abandoned by the West, had entered its new millennium with fireworks and tooting car horns across Addis Ababa.
"We cannot but feel deeply insulted that, at the dawn of the new millennium, ours is one of the poorest countries in the world," he said, adding that "the darkness of poverty and backwardness" had dimmed the country's once proud and powerful reputation.