Obit Desk

The Meles Zenawi I Knew

Ethiopia's late dictator was a complex and sophisticated leader -- a self-taught ex-guerrilla who brought his people economic growth and repression.

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."

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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.

"A thousand years from now, when Ethiopians gather to welcome the fourth millennium, they shall say the eve of the third millennium was the beginning of the end of the dark ages in Ethiopia," he said to an ululating crowd.

The speech was not only important because of the ambitious vision it outlined, but because it took place just two years after the episode that will likely overshadow his achievements more than any other -- the disastrous and bloody 2005 general elections.

It's hard to overstate the fervor of that campaign. Ethiopians who had never lived in a democracy before were promised their first properly contested poll since Meles and his allies sent Mengistu fleeing to exile in Zimbabwe.

In the end, when Meles declared that his party had won a parliamentary majority, the opposition screamed fraud. In ensuing street riots, his police and soldiers killed almost 200 Ethiopians, most shot dead. Some were beaten to death.

The reaction from Meles was cold. He was sorry for the deaths, he said, but he'd simply told the security forces to "stop the insurrection." These were not normal demonstrations, he insisted. Afterwards, opposition leaders were rounded up and jailed.

With the opposition out of the way, along with several journalists, he ploughed on with the day-to-day running of government. His economic achievements, and his role as an opponent of Islamism in the Horn of Africa, pleased Western donors, most of whom usually offered little more than a temporary slap on the wrist.

That's not to say that Meles's attempts at reform were all mere window-dressing. The premier and his government did much to let the light in. Under his watch, a safety-net system -- a form of social welfare, he called it -- for the country's millions of hungry people was introduced, which, while unsuccessful at weaning them off foreign aid, ensured that the calamitous famine of 1984 and 1985 would never be repeated.

Economic successes continued even after the political turmoil of the 2005 elections. Under the leadership of  this former Marxist guerrilla, Ethiopia became one of the fastest growing economies not only in Africa but in the world, posting double-digit growth figures for the last seven years in a row. Infant mortality plummeted. A small middle class emerged. Roads were built. Rivers dammed. Villages electrified. Despite this undeniable progress, most Ethiopians remained poor -- something Meles insisted he was working toward eradicating with a series of five-year plans.

Masterful at dealing with Western governments, he cleverly played off their own security concerns and their rivalry with China and India, to which he also cozied up. There were few African leaders who could berate their donor countries while simultaneously holding out their palm for more aid money, but Meles had the chutzpah to carry it off.

These achievements are even more remarkable given the fact that, according to a Western intelligence officer who knew Meles when he was still a bush rebel and after he came to power, the premier entered office knowing almost nothing about economics.

"When I had my final conversation with him after spending the better part of two months in Ethiopia immediately after he took over in the summer of 1991, I asked Meles what he would like me to do to help him before I left," the man recounted.

"I need to learn something about economics," Meles told him. "Can you get me some basic books?" The intelligence officer then went to an embassy, looked through its library, and picked about a dozen volumes and had them delivered to the new leader.

Meles eventually sat for a long-distance learning degree from Britain's Open University. He came in a remarkable third in his graduating class despite studying while governing one of Africa's most populated countries (friends say he chain-smoked through the exams). Such was Meles's command of economic theory in later years that the former guerrilla, who had in fact dropped out of medical school at 19 to join the rebellion, was often mistakenly believed by some journalists and diplomats to have been studying economics.

From the age of 19, there was no let-up. Seventeen years as one of a group at the helm of a rebel force taking on Africa's largest army, backed by the Soviets. Four years as transitional president. And then a long -- some say too long -- 17 years as prime minister.

In 2010, I asked him whether he ever imagined he'd be in power for so much of his life.

"That was clearly not what I expected," he said, with a rare smile. "It's happened. I don't regret it but I just hope that, at the end of it all, it will have been worth it."

At the bimonthly press conferences he held at his office in Addis Ababa for foreign correspondents, I'd always been impressed by the rings he could run around us with such ease. "Don't ever forget that he's cleverer than us all," an editor of mine advised.

That cleverness often spurred whip-smart humor. I asked him whether he would say hello to Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki, a former rebel ally with whom he fought a border war from 1998 to 2000, should he ever attend an African Union summit in the Ethiopian capital.

"Well, I'm under no obligation to meet him at the airport," he deadpanned.

But toward the end, he sometimes seemed weary and his temper began to fray. He would often snap at reporters, forgetting or not caring to remember his charm -- a temper he carried to parliament.

"What is your question? Do you have one?" he spat at a pontificating journalist one day. "Or are you people in the business of making speeches now?"

A U.S. diplomat in Geneva was publicly described as an "idiot." A European Union election report was "trash that deserves to be thrown in the bin." He seemed to enjoy saying that he had "nothing but contempt" for the International Crisis Group, which had warned of rising ethnic tension around the country.

"You must be tired," I joked to him at a press conference once. He didn't reply.

By then, there was growing pressure on him to atone for his wrongs. In the last two years, he was criticized internationally for his adventures in neighbouring Somalia, for the manner in which he put down festering insurrections at home, and for accusations that he favored his minority Tigrayan ethnic group. A draconian anti-terrorism law was used to unjustly jail opposition leaders and journalists.

Diplomats seemed puzzled about the need to crack down now, his party having won all but two of the 547 parliamentary seats in a heavily criticized 2010 poll. Perhaps his long illness now offers an explanation, as the small group of comrades who ran the ruling party with him will want to ensure a smooth transition of power to a successor.

On Election Day in 2010, I was surprised to secure agreement to travel with Meles on an Ethiopian Airlines plane to his hometown of Adwa. Only a few weeks earlier, I had been summoned to the Information Ministry and threatened with expulsion for my reporting on the persistent accusations of opposition intimidation and harassment during the election campaign.

When we landed, his heavily armed security team directed us to get off the plane before him. But when the crew had difficulty opening the door, I found myself standing in the aisle next to him, so close that my laptop bag accidentally nudged his shoulder.

I watched the normally unflappable prime minister rocking nervously back and forth in his seat. His hands clasped tightly together, he stared out the window at the welcoming committee on the tarmac, made up of officials and small children bearing flowers. He didn't take his eyes off the window once.

I got off the plane ahead of him and, when he emerged, he was Meles again -- confident, powerful, with that quick strut that suggested there weren't enough hours in the day.

On the journey to Adwa, I noticed that he'd been reading the Economist magazine. He'd left the page open to a story about hydropower -- a pet project of his, and one of his most ambitious and controversial plans for spearheading the Ethiopian renaissance.

But the magazine also contained another story of interest -- one about him. It warned that the "strong hand" of his government was crushing the opposition, stifling the press, and scaring human rights groups. The crackdown threatened to overshadow his achievements.

He would have read that, too.

PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images