Melles Zenawi the Ethiopian Prime Minister was snatched by death on August 20, 2012 at the age of 57; he is survived by three children. The Ethiopian government has announced that a state funeral ceremony will be held on the 2nd of September.
Over the years I have met Melles repeatedly, the last of which was on April 29, 2011 for an interview I conducted and that was published in Al-Sharq, the Qatari newspapers. In that interview Melles talked openly about the major developments taking place in the Arab countries where the Arab Spring started and he showed a great understanding about regional events.
In the following paragraphs I will expand on a few landmarks through which I will share some amusing moments that show the personality of Zenawi the human being and the leader; and I am thankful that I was associated with such a charismatic leader with a distinct presence in the Horn of Africa: Zenawi the creative thinker who had a project and a whom I have known closely over the last two decades.
My first meeting with Zenawi was in 1992 at the presidential palace for an interviews that was facilitated by Ambassador Awalom and I was awe stricken before meeting him. But his demeanor removed the tension I felt about my weak Tigrinya language skill; he initiated a conversation to make the meeting feel as if it was a conversation between ordinary persons and not with a leader of a big nation like Ethiopia. He immediately raised the issue of my weak language and asked me if I spoke in Tigrinya or Arabic. And in spite of the embarrassing situation that I felt as a journalist in his first meeting with Zenawi, the interview went smoothly and my tension and anxiety eased. Here are the important landmarks:
Zenawi’s humanity and modesty caught my attention; he starts by asking side questions that carry an aura of leadership and reflect his ability to trace what is beyond the facade that is worn as a disguise. Maybe it is a requirement of a position to deal with an innate skill, beyond the formality that suppresses real feeling that haunts humans when they deal in simple relationships. I felt his compassion and personality distinctly; and that feeling never left me in any of the meetings that occurred with him between 1992 and 2012, meetings that totaled more than 14, some of which were held on the sidelines of international conferences. Through these meetings I knew the deceased and his human dimensions that prevailed over his official position and in his dealing; and those who met him would testify that Melles always initiated the building of bridges of human relationships before taking any other step.
The deceased also had a charm that distinguishes him from others, and his character was not complicated but simple and natural. That character was always there imposing its dominance in the relations that he established on the diplomatic levels as well as in the personal level, in dealing with his people and his friends.
The cultural dimension of Zenawi was deep and he understood the stages of history that links Ethiopia with its surroundings, a link that cemented the image of religious tolerance and real coexistence. He followed a flexible and excellent policy trying to lay the foundations for the establishment of a civil state where no one is oppressed for their religious beliefs and affiliation. Let me share with you an amusing incident: In an interview I had with him which coincided with the month of Ramadan of 1998, I was accompanied by my colleague Mohammed Shebaro who was representing MBC Television, and while we were still in Zenawi’s office carrying out the interview, it was time for the breakfast and Maghrib prayer. We were surprised that Zenawi had already prepared a breakfast in one of the halls where he joined us. The news was broadcast live on MBC with a headline: MBC breaks fast on Zenawi’s table. That incident reflected his deep understanding of Islam.
Zenawi was a man of many talents and he was an excellent conversationalist. I think it is difficult to outsmart him in order to extract statements from him. He never shied away from answering any question with confidence and a clear vision; and if you looked into his answers you would find it is well layered, clear and easily expressed. Furthermore, his answers did not need editing or rephrasing and editors did not have to exert efforts in re-write and re-arranging his words but transcribed it without any difficulty in the same way Melles utters his words to clear his different positions. His answers came in simple and clear manner.
Zenawi’s rare personality has always remained a topic that caused controversies regarding his ability to organize his time despite his tasking responsibilities. When you see Melles totally absorbed in public responsibilities you wouldn’t think he has a private life though he was a family man, yet he was a leader of the largest Eastern African country, and in his hands were files of extremely complex issues ranging from the problems associated with Sudan and Somalia, the Nile waters, to terrorism. In spite of all of that, he was a successful student who completed his academic education and earned a Masters degree in Management from the United Kingdom in 1995 and a Masters degree in Economic Management in 2004 from the Netherlands, and he speaks several local, African and International languages fluently . All of that did not prevent him from having a good grasp of the complex and minute political situations and events in the Horn of Africa. It is difficult to understand the dimensions and uniqueness of his character in its depth and thinking faculty, and it goes parallels to the different challenges that he faced and which enabled him to manage the crises skillfully by applying developed mental skills.
Perhaps public figures like Zenawi may facilitate the work of the media in the Horn of Africa–which is like working in minefields where conspiracies intersect. Therefore, as a journalist, one is targeted by the incumbent governments as well as by the opposition, and the two are always in disagreement on everything but agree on how they view and treat the media. That is true especially when working in a center whose name suggests that it is an Interface of Arab Media in African countries, such as The Gulf Information Center which I own. Add to that the feeling that this center has its doubts and dissatisfaction with the track record of the Arab media channels which are biased in favor of whatever is Islamic and Arab and is biased against everything that is African or Christian. And that is a hindrance to a journalist who is expected to appease all parties, yet deal with cases cautiously and have a good judgment on issues that are closely linked to the culture of the region whether it is African or Arab. Even with that, one will always be accused of prejudice against a party and in favor of another. Still, one risks being identified as being hostile to a political or cultural orientation.
It is not easy to succeed in situations like that, and the easiest example is the fact that some consider our work as simply being informants of the Arab media. Maybe that was enough to prevent us from establishing a successful media activity with an Arab facade like the Gulf Center in the Horn of Africa region. But the late Melles and the senior officials around him understood the situation of the Gulf Center with open minds and that helped the status of the Gulf Center to be a window to peek through to the Arab world, and then to create a new environment that allows for Arab Media to work freely. Thanks to this kind of thinking, we were able to find a space to transmit news from the Horn of Africa to the Gulf newspapers in particular and the international media in general.
But that was until we fell into another dilemma that came in the form of complications of internal problems of the countries of the Horn of Africa. For instance, there were challenges such as the failed attempt on the life of President Hosni Mubarak in the early nineties that overwhelmed the relations between Addis Ababa and Khartoum. And in the culture of the Horn of Africa, neutrality is forbidden in the conflicts between the states and their opposition; the dispute between Asmara and Khartoum on one hand and between Asmara and Addis Ababa on the other, where the biggest victim was the Arab media that is always accused of being biased by all parties. And to be just, Zenawi was wiser and more understanding of our journalistic work that he dealt with it objectively. He was not fooled by the traps and intrigues that were laid for us by some from the Sudanese opposition parties who exploited the tensions between Ethiopia and Sudan, and the relationship of Qatar with the Sudanese government. They tried to politicize our journalistic messages and tried to describe it as an facade of official Sudanese government media in the Horn of Africa. All that was intended to end our presence in the region, but Zenawi’s independent views prevented Ethiopia from falling in the traps, to empty our neutral message of its content. Therefore, we were saved from the crisis and political bumps that was imposed by the situations of internal conflict between the government and its opponents .
Once I conducted an interview with a leading Sudanese opposition figure who said to me that he met with Melles Zenawi in Addis Ababa and that Melles assured him that Ethiopia and Egypt have agreed to present a complaint to the UN Security Council against Sudan, and that the two countries reached a common understandings to work towards overthrowing the Khartoum government. When this information reached Zenawi, his office director summoned me and asked about the statements that were attributed to the Prime Minister, and after I explained the details of what had happened, he arranged a meeting for me with Zenawi. During the meeting Melles explained to me that all of the words attributed to him by the opposition figure were not true, and he said that his only concern is that what he or other officials say should be reflected truly without distortion. Zenawi said that he met with the Sudanese opposition figure and listened to his point of view, but that he left his office before the opposition figure could listen to Zenawi’s views due to shortage of time since Zenawi had other commitments and had to leave. Melles assured me that the relation between Ethiopia and Sudan is an eternal relationship, and that they have left the crisis related to the attempted assassination of Mubarak and its aftermath behind them; he added that what was said by the Sudanese opposition figure in his interview with me was not his statements. He said that Ethiopia will not complain against Sudan, and that his country does not allow any party to punish Sudan.
The second incident with the late Zenawi was in November 1999 when Addis Ababa invited President Al-Bashir’s to visit Ethiopia in his first visit after the incident of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. During that visit the Sudanese surprised their Ethiopian counterparts with arrangements that were made between the National Congress Party and the Umma Party for a meeting between Al-Bashir and Sadiq Al-Mahdi in Addis Ababa during Al-Bashir’s visit. The media published this information without mentioning that Al-Bashir was actually arriving in Ethiopia on an invitation–the meeting between Al-Mahdi and Al-Bashir took the limelight from Al-Bashir’s state visit.
After that the Ethiopian authorities knew about these arrangements they asked Sadiq Al-Mahdi to postpone his visit to Addis Ababa for a week prompting the two sides to look for another venue where they could meet. Here I entered in the line and I met Sadiq Al-Mahdi without prior arrangements after he arrived in Addis Ababa which Al-Bashir had just left. Al-Mahdi revealed to me about arrangements made between the National Congress Party and the Umma Party and he indicated a proposal of the desire of the two sides that Djibouti hosts the meeting between him and Al-Bashir.
Djibouti welcomed the proposal and the meeting was carried out on the sidelines of the IGAD Summit in November in 1999 and an agreement was reached under what was known as the “Call From The Nation” based on which Al-Mahdi returned to Sudan. That case had negative implications and it put me in an embarrassing situation of which Djibouti was not spared because then, the Sudanese opposition file was only in the possession of senior players such as Ethiopia, Egypt, Kenya and Eritrea in addition to the West and the USA. It is no secret that the said agreement caused splits that ravaged the Sudanese opposition. Its seriousness was increased because it was concluded in the headquarters of IGAD, and on the sidelines of a summit meeting which gave the agreement a regional cover. That invited criticism against Djibouti which is a member of the Arab League, and the implications gained Arab and African dimensions, thoiugh that paved the way for IGAD to sponsor another agreement between the Sudanese government and the SPLM. The declaration of “Call From The Nation” and what followed it was exploited by some to create a wedge between me and Ethiopia, but I came out of it miraculously due to Zenawi’s wisdom.
Nevertheless, the issue became more complicated a few months later in 2000 when the Somali Reconciliation Conference (Arta) was held under the auspices of Djibouti. The Sudanese and Somali reconciliation has resulted in confusing regional and international issues and it pushed me into an unenviable position, but Zenawi’s understanding and that of his associates helped me overcame the ordeal–the Horn of Africa is a minefields where interests intersects each other. And in many instances, experiences confirm that crossing the redlines is prohibited in the Horn of Africa and it is probably luck alone or exceptional circumstances that help some people to cross the redlines, but that was not safe all times.
And this is what I learned from a career that spanned over two decades working in the Horn of Africa.
Somalia was one of the hottest junctures, most notably the Somali Reconciliation Congress in Arta in 2000 where the late President Abdullahi Yusuf accused me of being biased in favor of President Abdu Qassim as a result of our coverage of the proceedings of the conference. Perhaps this prejudice was the principle of his rejection of the idea of the conference in Arta. If not for the wisdom of Zenawi and other Ethiopian government officials and their understanding of the situation, that would have had a direct impact and matters would have been more complicated after I accompanied the Somali President Abdu Qassim to Mogadishu. It would have possibly been more grave after I established an office for the Gulf Centre in Mogadishu, which would have increased the level of misunderstanding. But with the help of the Ethiopians under the wise leadership of Zenawi we overcame the problem and made an effort to bring Abdullahi Yusuf into the fold to be part of the reconciliation project. At the end, my relationships were not harmed despite criticism of my relations with Djibouti and Somalia.
The biggest challenge I’ve ever had can be considered a certificate and it is the most serious incident in my relation with Melles.
When “The Opposite Direction” , a program at Al-Jazeera Television aired a dangerous news stating that Gulf Center has sent a message in a letterhead to the TV Channel stating that Melles has agreed to participate in “The Opposite Direction” program face to face with President Afwerki. Perhaps the sensitivity of the situation is reflected in the fact that it coincided with the events of the border war between Eritrean Ethiopian, when Addis Ababa stated that there would be no dialogue, or negotiation unless Eritrean forces withdraw from disputed areas. What was aired by Al-Jazeera was a disaster for me personally and for Zenawi. The news was reported by international news agencies, and Ethiopia reacted through the government spokesperson Salome Taddesse who denied what was aired by Al-Jazeera regarding Zenawi approval to participate in the program, and demanded that Al-Jazeera apologize. But AlJazeera was stuck in its position stating that it has a letter that proves what it aired was actually sent to it by the Gulf Centre dated June 21, 1998, and therefore it will not apologize. Then I called Al-Jazeera and asked for a copy of the letter and they faxed me a copy and I was surprised to find that the byline was Asmara, Eritrea when I resided in Addis Ababa. Here I realized the dimensions of the trick and that someone was laying a trap to get me. Melles understood the situation and said that he knew what was being hatched against me for a long time and that I should not be affected by the situation. This position was so generous of him and I will appreciate it as long as I live–in the Third World and Africa, attributing such a news about the president means looking for trouble or suicide. Unfortunately, some people do not understand the reality of our suffering in the media work that is beset with danger.
On the sidelines of IGAD Summit in 2000, the first summit hosted by Sudan after an interruption, I took the elevator from the sixth floor to the ground floor in the company of Mohammed Osman, the Somali protocol officer. When the door opened at the fifth floor I became riveted for the severity of the situation because I was face to face with the Eritrean president who came to ride the elevator to go down with us. That was a great disaster, because some people believed what they witnessed with their own eyes, when the president grabbed my hands and said, “This is how I cut your relations with Ethiopia.” But my proof of innocence came from the Somali protocol officer and the head of the of an honorary mission who was with us in the elevator and who explained the truth to Zenawi. And Zenawi remedied the situation: in the closing session of the summit, Zenawi grabbed me by the hands and laughed in a way that attracted many eyes–it was a message to more than one party and he assured me that no matter what happened I am a journalist who has earned the trust of the regional countries and he jokingly said that I should be careful when riding the elevators in the future. And he laughed some more. “You live more, you see more.”
This was Zenawi, the man that I knew; and I pray to Allah that he accepts Zenawi to the level of his dedication to his people and his friends.
All that is given belongs to Allah and all that is taken belongs to Allah.