By Olaana Abbaaxiiqii
On August 20, following Ethiopia’s meticulously choreographed funeral for former dictator, Meles Zenawi, which was designed to buttress his legacy, a friend asked me to listen to the United States Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice’s encomium on the deification ceremony. I obliged but regret doing so because I came out a cynic.
It is no secret that US national interests trump human rights and democracy. In an oft repeated quote, Franklin D. Roosevelt said of US ally Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza: “He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.”
In the past, the US had pampered dictators like the Shah of Iran, Mobutu Sesse Seko of Zaire, and the CIA engineered the assassination of democratically elected leaders in Latin America and other places to install their puppets. Now that the Cold War is over, I believed those were things of the past, and that American foreign policy is, by and large, centered on the “singular greatness of American ideals, and their proven capacity to inspire a better world.” Besides, we were told, with a new dawn of “American leadership” on the horizon, America is back and ready to lead, again.
In his historic inauguration speech, President Barack Obama proclaimed: “to those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.“
On that momentous occasion, watched by millions around the world, “from the grandest capitals” to the smallest villages, little did we know that those were just words – used only for convenience and discarded at will. The more things changed the more they stayed the same. And even trivial and ill-conceived US strategic interests trump over people’s aspirations for freedom, liberty and democracy around the world.
Mrs. Rice’s encomium for the Ethiopian dictator was not only a reflection of a moral decadence of American diplomats, especially those covering Africa, but also a grand betrayal of the courageous ideals put forth by America’s founding fathers .
From her perch at the UN office, Susan Rice, does not see or feel the suffering, killing and humiliation that Zenawi had inflicted upon millions of his countrymen. Even if she did, since Meles implemented their wishes around Africa, everything else got secondary consideration.
The Oxford dictionary defines dictator as “a ruler with total power over a country, typically one who has obtained control by force.” Meles Zenawi, Ambassador Rice’s “consistently reasoned” friend, meets this definition on all accounts.
For 17 long-years, he wielded an immense power as the PM of Ethiopia and Chairman of the ruling coalition, the EPRDF. Prior to that he served five years as President of Ethiopia. He has been the head of Tigrean Peoples Liberation Front, the powerful coalition partners, since 1989. He was the Commander-in-Chief of the Ethiopian army. Oh! He also took over the reigns of power after violent overthrow of Mengistu Hailemariam, the communist boogieman.
Over the years, Zenawi, whom Mrs. Rice called, an “uncommonly wise [leader who was] – able to see the big picture and the long game” single-handedly closed the political space, dismantled the free media, enfeebled the opposition, and ruled the country by pitting rival groups against one another.
Meles was not my friend and I cannot attest to his personal qualities. But, unlike Susan Rice, I have intimate knowledge, personal experience, and direct accounts from people whom he brutalized and lorded over. Rather than his personal qualities in the abstract, I judge Zenawi based on what his policy did to my people. It is on that basis I pass judgment on Mrs. Rice’s eulogy.
So, who was Meles Zenawi to an average Ethiopian?
Zenawi had his hands soaked with bloods of thousands of innocent Ethiopians. Shortly after he joined the TPLF as a young fighter, Zenawi rose to the top of the organization through Machiavellian intrigue and his depraved actions. He allegedly ordered the execution of his own compatriots who disagreed with him. Even after coming to power in 1991, Zenawi maintained his ironclad rule by constantly purging those seen as a threat, real or imagined, to his power, including his own former comrades in arms.
True to a form of a real dictator, Zenawi never tolerated differing ideas and competitions. A typical megalomaniac, the “great leader” loved surrounding himself with equally sycophant yes-men. Unlike many other dictators, he was an ever-morphing actor. While he tormented the people of Ethiopia, Zenawi only showed his softer, caring, and smiling face to his foreign friends who adored his intellect, wicked sense of humor, and his intolerance for “for fools, or ‘idiots,’ as he liked to call them.” It is true that Zenawi had no patience for journalists, opposition leaders and anyone who dared to criticize him. That is why he institutionalized criminalization of dissent by devising draconian “laws” like “the deeply flawed anti-terrorism legislation” or the anti-NGO law.
The Ethiopian people who suffered the brunt of Zenawi’s brutality did not see his humane side, because he did not show it to them. To call Zenawi, a brute, wise, as Mrs. Rice did, is to demean the word or insult our intelligence. I agree with Mrs. Rice that Meles was a very smart man; however, this does not absolve his crimes. In fact, this is what made him all the more dangerous. Zenawi’s security forces committed crimes in the shadow of darkness. He filled prisons with opponents and ordered their torture in dark cells. Many of his opponents simply vanished – never to be heard from again in two decades.
Meles was not “selfless,” he had a depraved heart. During his guerrilla years, he devised tactics and strategies that showed his callous disregard for human life. After taking over the helm, he built a secretive regime whose existence depended on systematic repression and zeal to win at any cost.
Zenawi’s unhealthy obsession for winning became evident during the Ethio-Eritrean war of 2000. This senseless war over a barren wasteland of few kilometers took more than 100 thousand lives. He sent thousands of non-Tigrean foot soldiers as minesweepers before the well-trained elite Tigrean soldiers were deployed. The carnage Zenawi inflicted upon millions, in deadly competition with his ex-best-friend turned enemy number one, Isaias Afewarki – over a minor conflict that could have been settled through diplomatic channels – is a testament to his depraved soul. It is beyond any reasonable imagination why Zenawi spent over one billion dollars on armaments, $480 million in 1999 alone, while large parts of the country was suffering from famine.
Contrary to claims that Zenawi “lifted millions out of poverty, hunger, and strife,”he had no compassion for the suffering of others. Everything was a fair game so long as he gained from it. When he invaded Somalia in 2006, a large portion of Ogaden, the Somali-region of Ethiopia where Zenawi faced fierce resistance in recent years, was under the threat of famine. Zenawi didn’t care as long as the US foreign aid checks kept flowing.
In her hagiography, Susan Rice said, the young Meles was “spurred” to action by a “torment of terrible time” to drive out another “strongman who had turned Ethiopia into a parched field of sorrow.” But she forgot to add or deliberately ignored, Zenawi actually used the famine stricken people of Tigray for his political gains, by forcing them to flee to Sudan in thousands so that his organization could prove Dergue’s atrocities to the international community. Having successfully convinced donors that “a famine of biblical proportions” was taking place, TPLF cashed Bob Geldof’s Band Aid and Live Aid money to buy weapons.
At the time when the 1984 famine became a public embarrassment for the communist regime, Zenawi’s rebel group, the TPLF, controlled most of Tigray – an area severely affected by famine. As BBC’s Martin Plaut reported in 2010, channeling the relief aid through the TPLF “was the only way of reaching those in desperate need” in areas the rebels – fighting to take down the Dergue – controlled. As a TPLF army commander at the time, Aregawi Berhe, told Plaut: TPLF “made a policy decision that only five percent of the money received…would be spent on relief, with the bulk going directly or indirectly to support their military and political campaigns.” The remaining 95 percent “was allocated to buying weapons and building up a hard-line Marxist political party within the rebel movement.”
Mrs. Rice also forgot to mention what a senior US diplomat, Robert Houdek, who was in Ethiopia around late 1980s told Plaut, the TPLF members admitted “at the time that some aid money and supplies was used to buy weapons” – a fact also corroborated by CIA documents.
Instead of remaking “himself overnight from guerrilla to a statesman” as Susan Rice would have us believe, in the words of former Ethiopian president Negaso Gidada, whom he appointed, Zenawi became “a replica of the very strongman he replaced”– Mengistu Hailemariam. The genocide in Gambela, the carpet-bombing of villages and nomadic settlements in Ogaden, the more than 4,407 extra judicial killings of Oromo nationalists and over 900 disappearances, the 2002 Awassa killings, the 2005 killing of more than 200 people on the streets of Addis Ababa, were sufficient to land him in the International Criminal Court. However, thanks to his powerful friends and apologists like Susan Rice, Meles walked free in life and is lionized in death.
Fortunately, theirs won’t be the last word. A time will come when the peoples of Ethiopia write Zenawi’s true legacy. His historical verdict will not be based on the subjective personal accounts of a friend, but rather on the objective evidence of his victims: the voices of thousands of prisoners who languished and are still languishing in Zenawi’s dungeons and endure torture, stories of refugees who run away fearing Zenawi’s intimidation and etc.
The hopes of millions who yearned to live in freedom but instead suffered indignities by Zenawi’s policy will be told. The names of those who were killed by Zenawi’s forces would be inscribed on a stone as our heroes. We will put Zenawi’s name besides Mengistu Hailemariam, in the hall of shame, so that the future generation remembers them for the atrocities they committed against our people. Zenawi was not the father of our rebirth, but we hope he will be the end of our misery.
Susan Rice did not appear in the apotheosis drama just as a friend of Meles, but she led an official delegation to the funeral as a representative of the US government. She forgot that her words have serious implications beyond her personal feelings for Meles. Mrs. Rice’s insensitive eulogy will be remembered as the Obama administration’s endorsement of personality cult over institutional building, dictatorship over freedom, and minority over a majority rule.
Since her days as assistant Secretary of State for Africa, Mrs. Rice played a very important role in promoting the TPLF government. She remained a true friend to Zenawi until the end. She was instrumental in the Clinton administration’s naming of Zenawi as one of the new generation of African leaders. With a request from Zenawi, Rice did her best to categorize the Oromo Liberation Front as a terrorist organization, but failed. She exhibited a behavior so unbecoming of a diplomat in her zeal to defend Zenawi’s government.
It’s time for all Ethiopian-Americans to reconsider their overwhelming support to Obama during his first election. We should not be taken for granted.
The Ethiopian government spends millions of dollars to lobby the US government through firms like DLA Piper and others. It’s not clear whether Mrs. Rice’s affection for Meles was partly sustained by DLA Piper’s lobbing efforts. At the very least, Mrs. Rice’s judgment was clouded by the close personal relationship she had with Meles.
However, as a seasoned diplomat, she should not have allowed her personal feelings to run amok and take the best part of her. She should have shown a minimum of sensitivity to thousands, who were killed, imprisoned, tortured and became refugees as a result of Zenawi’s policies. Those “fools and idiots” were freedom fighters to millions or press freedom advocates who wanted to see better Ethiopia. We may be fools, we may be idiots, but one thing is for sure: we have an enduring cause, truth, and justice on our side. I am confident that in the final analysis, freedom and liberty will triumph over tyranny.
With the following wise words of Martin Luther King, until next time:
I know you are asking today, “How long will it take?….
I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because truth crushed to earth will rise again.
How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever.
How long? Not long, because you shall reap what you sow….
How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
(The writer can be reached at [email protected] The article was originally posted on opride.com)