Meles Zenawi: A Life Spent Fighting Poverty

Human rights lawyer vs. trained healer

“Our first enemy is poverty and backwardness.”Meles Zenawi

Meles joined the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) as a young student to struggle for the right and equality of his people. He was one of the prominent leaders who contributed to the downfall of the Ethiopian military regime, the DERG. After the fall of the DERG , he was democratically elected to lead Ethiopia for 21 years. His party (EPRDF) has brought significant changes to the country. Economically Ethiopia was very poor country and many people died of hunger during Haile Sellassie and Mengistu eras. Now Ethiopia is one of the fastest-growing economies in Africa. The majority of the Ethiopian people depend on agriculture. The living standard of the rural population is significantly improved  because of the present economic policy. It is true that there is inflation and some poverty in the urban area, but the government is fighting to tackle these problems. As to the issue of infrastructure,  the government of PM Meles has brought huge changes. As we know, Ethiopia is a huge country(about 1,127,127 sq km) with approximately 87 million people. There were not many roads to link the provinces during Haile Sellassie and DERG era. The present government has built so many asphalt roads which connect not only the zones(provinces) and districts (woredas) but the sub districts are connected to each other. Educationally, during Haile Sellassie’s and DERG’s time, there was only one university. Now there are 31 public and about 60 private universities in the country. Thousands of students graduate every year. Health wise the country has built many hospitals and clinics throughout the country. Many health officers graduate every year to fulfill the health services of the public. According to the statistics of World Health Organisation the death rate of mothers and children in the country is drastically reduced. The cities in general and Addis Ababa in particular have been changing qualitatively every year. Skyscraper buildings have been built every year. For the lower income earners thousands  of condominiums are built and distributed fairly. The 5 year development transformation plan has already begun to be implemented. This plan includes the Great Nile River Dam Construction, the railways construction and the mining projects.

Unfortunately, PM Meles did not  live to see the implementation of these major projects. Last month he was taken ill and had been under treatment abroad. It was sad that his doctors tried their best but they could not save him and his death was announced on20-08-2012 at 11:40. Not only Ethiopia but Africa at large has lost a great leader. Let me give you some reactions of some world leaders when they heard the prime minister’s death. (I took these quotations directly as they are).

US Secretary Hillary Clinton said:

“I was deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia.

I admired the Prime Minister’s personal commitment to transforming Ethiopia’s economy and to expanding education and health services. He was an important and influential voice in Africa, and we especially valued his role in promoting peace and security in the region. I am confident that Ethiopia will peacefully navigate the political transition according to its constitution.

On behalf of the American people, I would like to offer my sincere condolences to the people of Ethiopia, and to reaffirm our commitment to a strong partnership focused on strengthening development, democracy and human rights, and regional security.”

US President Obama said “Meles deserved recognition for his lifelong contribution to Ethiopia’s development, particularly his unyielding commitment to Ethiopia’s poor.”


He recalled his “personal admiration for his desire to lift millions of Ethiopians out of poverty through his drive for food security” after meeting him at the G-8 Summit in May.


UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said:

“ Meles would be remembered for his exceptional leadership and advocacy on African issues within and outside the continent, as well as for overseeing his country’s economic growth and development.”

European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso said:

 “Meles demonstrated his strong personal commitment over many years to improving the lives of not just his own but all African peoples, through his work on African unity, climate change, development and in promoting peace and stability.”

British Prime Minister David Cameron hailed Meles “as an inspirational spokesman for Africa on global issues who had provided leadership and vision on Somalia and Sudan”

French President Francois Hollande praised PM Meles’s contribution to diplomatic efforts to advance peace in the Horn of Africa.

South Sudan’s Information Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin said:

 “Meles had been key in mediating the country’s post-secession rows with former civil war foe Sudan.

He was one person who could say in black and white what the position of both countries was — and was respected by both,”

Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki called Meles a “pragmatic and visionary leader who helped stabilise his country, adding that his death was a “devastating loss”.

South African President Jacob Zuma lauded Meles as “a strong leader, not only for his country but on the African continent”.

Then I began to ask myself: Do the Ethiopian people know the achievements  of their prime minister? The answer was yes; they know very well what he has done for them.

Yesterday morning at 06:30 my domestic worker suddenly burst into tears, shouting “Meles,Meles”. I waked up from my sleep and at last I could understand from the TV that PM Meles  passed away. I was deeply shocked and even I couldn’t believe the media. I went down town to see the reaction of the people. To my observation almost all the people I saw were absolutely in a deep grief. Many were crying and others were talking in groups. These were ordinary people in the streets and shops. The streets were not as busy as usual. There were not many cars though it was  rush hour . People were staying at home in mourning. I went to my office. There were not many students in the university either. Most of the instructors were absent too. I closed the office and I went home. Addis Ababa was in deep mourning.

The airplane which carried the body of the prime minister arrived at 10 o’clock in the evening at Bole Airport. Thousands people were waiting to accompany the body of their respected prime minister from the airport to the governments office (his residence). His generals saluted his body and put it in a special car. The prime minister’s body headed towards the government’s office accompanied by a military band. Thousands of residents of Addis Ababa were lining the streets from Bole airport up to the residence of the late prime minister, carrying Meles’s photos, displaying his quotations and lighting candles.   What impressed me most is the youngsters reaction. In spite of the bad weather, there were thousands of them there. They were in deep mourning, touching the car carrying their beloved prime minister, they were singing “ ‘jigna aymotm’ ( a heroe doesn’t die), ‘we will follow your legacy’, ‘you have created many Meleses for us. ” and so on.

I have to admit honestly that I am one of the admirers of Meles. Meles was a visionary leader. Meles was a great diplomat. Meles was intelligent. That’s why people call him ‘mels bekisu’ meaning the answer is in his pocket. He was a unique leader. I think it will be very difficult to have a leader like Meles with such quality of leadership. But on the other hand Meles has already paved the way for development and democratization in the country. Ethiopia has built an institutionalized system and Ethiopian politics is no more dependent on individual leaders like some African countries. Instability cannot be created in Ethiopia after Meles, as some people fear. I believe Ethiopia is politically stable and will follow PM Meles’s legasy.

Finally, I would like to express my heartfelt condolence and sincere sympathies to the family of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, his EPRDF comrades and the people of Ethiopia as a whole.


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