Meles Zenawi’s legacy of terror

By Melakou Tegegn

Ethiopian dictator Meles Zenawi died in August after ruling the country from 1995 to 2012. Contrary to regime claims of economic development, he will be remembered for crushing all dissent to his rule.

Discussing Meles’ legacy is not discussing one person; Meles represented his party and government. The discussion on his legacy is political and not personal. I have nothing against Meles the person, and this discussion is not about giving or denying him credit; it is about the future of our country, it is about the plight of our people.


The TPLF was created in 1975, i.e. one year after the plebeian revolution broke out in Ethiopia and overthrew the autocrat. It is crucial to ask what the role of the would-be TPLF leaders/cadres was in the February revolution. Very few of them such as Aregawi Berehe had already been involved in the student movement but we don’t know what role they had during February 1974.

One thing we know for sure is the fact that some of their leading cadres such as Birhane Gebre Kirstos and Nestanet Asfaw were disinterested in the movement until the scourge of ethnicity rose at the end of 1974 when some Tigrean and Oromo students demanded to be sent to Tigrai and Oromiya regions for the Derg’s zemetcha campaign.

Actually, what is more important is their characterization of the February revolution. The TPLF leaders denied the class content of the revolution but held instead the view that the revolution brought out ethnic contradictions and antagonisms in Ethiopia. This was in fact advanced to ‘rationalize’ the extreme form of parochial ethnic construction that they declared in their 1976 Manifesto. As we will see below, this was a completely erroneous characterization.

The class content of the February revolution was so glaring that one only has to glance at the main demands that were advanced by the numerous strikes and demonstrations at the time. In addition, the fundamental demands in 1974 corresponded to structural questions pertaining to freedom and democracy.

On top of the numerous strikes and demands by the downtrodden of every sector of society, the earth-shaking action came when the young Ethiopian working class launched the first general strike in the country and perhaps in Africa as well. The resolutions that the then Confederation of Ethiopian Labour Unions (CELU) passed during the general strike was fundamentally political and went beyond the sectoral demands of the working class. It demanded democracy and freedom, abolition of the monarchy, land to the tillers and more demands that are related to the poor and oppressed.

If we sum up the nature of the demands brought forth in February, the main ones were freedom and democracy, an end to the monarchy (targeting the ruling class), land to the tillers (a class question), religious equality (the class content is reflected in the demand by poor priests who demanded the removal of the higher clergy), women’s equality (a class question), a people’s republic and a provisional government to form it and so on. These questions reflected the contradictions between social classes that existed at the time.

No apparent demands for ethnic rights and/or exclusiveness were observed in the entire period of the revolution. It was at such a time and under such a situation that the TPLF leaders completely denied the class content of the revolution and clung to their characterization that finally led to the ethnicization of politics when they came to power.

Actually, in their 1976 Manifesto, they unambiguously stated that the solution to Ethiopia’s problem is when the various nationalities wage an ethnic war against Shoan Amharas, bring about ‘national democratic revolutions in each nationality’ and see if they can reconstitute Ethiopia again. It is this same theory that Meles reintroduced as the ethnicization of politics when he assumed power both in the TPLF and EPRDF. The legacy of Meles on ethnicization of politics should be assessed against this background.

The overriding demand for freedom and democracy during the February revolution should not be seen as a sheer political demand for recognition of rights. Democracy and freedom are historical questions as far as Ethiopia is concerned as it is a poor country and hitherto ruled by autocracies of one type or another. Freedom and democracy constitute a negation of systems that strangled its people and subjected them to a poverty of biblical proportions. But, we all know that Ethiopia’s historical question was not answered by the Derg in the affirmative.

Quite the contrary, as the Derg ruled the country by official state terror. By negating the demand for freedom and democracy, the Derg opted to ‘generate development’ through its own way. But, we all know it never happened. At the end of the day, the legacy of the Derg is rule by official terror, total suppression of free and independent participation, the subjugation of the individual (despite the rhetoric on being revolutionary, proletarian, socialist, etc), the supremacy and unquestioned authority of the party and state, the consequent rebellions, the defeat of the Left and rise of ethnic-based movements and an over-centralized economy and colossal poverty.


In 1991, Meles’ EPRDF took power against the backdrop of the legacy left by the Derg. On top of their demand for freedom and democracy in 1974, the peoples of Ethiopia all the more wanted and demanded freedom and democracy when the EPRDF took power. What makes freedom and democracy historical questions is also the fact that they are so resilient that they are continuously being demanded by every new generation. Let’s now glance at the legacy left to us by Meles and his regime.

It was unexpected and a paradox of historical proportions that Meles has been anointed with all sorts portraying him as ‘genius’ and who ‘brought about development and economic growth’ not just by the propaganda machine he set up but also by leaders of the West, including Barak Obama and leading world media. What is their basis or source of information? It is not difficult at all to destroy these assumptions as they are founded on falsification. The legacy of Meles at the political level is not very different from that of the Derg.

In summary: similar to that of the Derg, Meles’ political legacy is a prevalence of rule by official terror [Mengistu resorted to the infamous Red Terror to destroy the left; Meles also enacted a law ‘against terrorism’ to destroy his critics and opposition in general]. Like the Derg, it did not permit free and independent expression, no independent existence outside the state. Mengistu framed up the left with criminal charges in order to destroy any opposition and critique, so did Meles Zenawi in the 2005 elections and after. The Derg made the unions his own instruments by quashing their independent existence; so did Meles Zenawi. In a similar fashion the Derg did not permit NGOs to function, Meles quashed them by ‘law’.

Meles’ legacy, like that of the Derg, also includes committing massacres in various parts of the country. Meles’ army committed massacres in Gambela, ostensibly to crush a resistance by the Anuak; in the Ogaden on the excuse of crushing the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF); and in the streets of Addis Ababa and other towns under the guise of putting down protests against the stealing of the election results in 2005. In his earlier days in power, Meles’ regime was also involved in three but little known massacres targeting Amhara communities in Wollega.

Another manifestation of the use of sheer force and terror is the practice of mass arrests. Since the advent of EPRDF power, a characteristic feature is the mass arrests conducted throughout the entire period of the 21 years of its acquisition of political power. The climax of the practice of mass arrests came in 2005 when Meles’ army and police arrested more than 11,000 persons throughout the country. Meles’ legacy on the mass arrest front also includes the mass arrests of individuals of Oromo extraction. Today, the country’s jails outside Tigray and Amhara regions are filled with Oromo political prisoners in the vain attempt to crush the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF).

By now, the entire world knows that one of Meles’ legacies is the mass arrest of journalists. In the entire period of its 21 years of rule, Meles’ regime has been characterized by international human rights organizations as ‘enemy number one’ of the free press. At the end of his rule, Meles even locked prisoners in jail, charging them with terrorism and sentencing them for a maximum period of 18 years.

Very recently and as the last repressive action of his rule, Meles resorted to a massive clamp down against Muslim protesters. His regime forcefully introduced a newly concocted interpretation of Islam and imposed it on the Muslim community through its stooges within the Muslim clergy. The Muslim community came out in protest, particularly after Friday prayers, but they were suppressed by force and its leaders are locked in prison.


Meles has also been praised for bringing stable and much better governance. However, from the perspective of sustainable development, how true is this? A glance at what is required in terms of having a properly functioning modern state that can generate sustainable development unambiguously attests to the fact that in his entire 21 years of rule, Meles Zenawi has completely failed to develop the institutions of governance at the level which is required in Ethiopia. What are the requirements to build a modern state that can generate sustainable development? In brief, it is crucial to transform the current institutions of governance into a proper modern state. This means there must be a clear division of power and role between the three major component parts of the state, i.e. the executive (government), legislature (parliament) and the judiciary.

The executive must be accountable to the parliament and judiciary, the legislature to the people and the judiciary to both government and legislature. In order to have such a clear division of power and role, freedom and democracy serve as the basis. Without freedom and democracy, one cannot come up with such distinct roles and powers of the major institutions of the state. We know very well that what Meles has instituted in this respect is exactly the opposite. The executive controls both the legislature and judiciary and that is why the legislature is a rubber stamp and the judiciary is a pawn of the executive. In fact, what Meles instituted is worse than that. Since 2001, i.e. after he eliminated his rivals within the TPLF and other EPRDF organizations, he has institutionalized a personalized power where he alone decided on issues ranging from major to minor.

In short, Meles has, just like the absolutist state of medieval Europe, institutionalized a personal dictatorship a la Louis IX who said, ‘L’etat est mois’ (‘I am the state’.) We can even call this the ‘Melesization’ of the state. He personified the state to the worst level. And this is the state of affairs that he called ‘the democratic developmental state’. What is ‘democratic’ and ‘developmental’ in this personified state, only he could explain. Unfortunately, he never did.

On top of all these, in order for a state to be called a state in the proper sense of the term, it must be accountable to society and society must have the mechanism to make the state accountable to it. Secondly, constitutionalism and prevalence of the rule of law must be one of the principal characteristic features of the modern state. Again, the entire world knows that these two characteristics never existed under his Ethiopia.


In political science, state and civil society are symbiotic to each other. That means a state cannot exist without civil society and vice versa. One cannot talk about the state without civil society because the evolution processes of both are simultaneous and inter-dependent. The institutions of the state can only develop through freedom and democracy which are also the basis for the emergence of civil society.

From the development perspective, civil society is a precondition for social development as civil society is the object and subject of development. If development should be human-centered, it should be designed for people. Development should be designed to lift the poor and marginalized out of the ashes and crown them with dignity, a title which all humans deserve.

This calls for crowning society with freedom and democracy through which it develops and transforms itself into civil society. We see here again that freedom and democracy are pivotal for the emergence of civil society and that without civil society ‘development’ is only material and not human centered. As universally recognized, Meles’ legacy in this respect is indisputably horrible. However, even those who accuse him of being a dictator but give him credit for the ‘economic growth’ he ostensibly brought about, failed to see the crucial role that freedom and democracy have in the transition period.

One crucial element in the process of social development is the transformation of individuals from subjects to citizen. This transformation process is historical, belonging to a period of transition from a situation of non-democracy to democracy and freedom. Without freedom and democracy, individuals cannot be transformed into citizens. It is only if they are free and independent that they can become aware and knowledgeable about the conditions (political, economic, social and ideological) that govern their existence.

The transformation of subjects to citizens is a crucial element in the development and governance processes. Viewed from this perspective, the legacy of Meles is absolutely negative and in fact a hindrance to this transformation of individuals. Under Meles, the individual Ethiopian has been reduced to less than the subject of the Haile Selassie days.

In summary, we have seen how freedom and democracy are crucial in the processes of the three transformations, i.e. government to a state, society to a civil society and subjects to citizens. We have also seen that freedom and democracy are the basis for these transformations. Meles’ legacy on all these transformation processes is absolutely negative and counter-productive.


Human rights, like freedom and democracy, are an integral part of both the modern state and development. What distinguishes humans from animals is not their capacity to think (as a few animal species have also been proved to have the potential to think), but their capacity to express in speech and writing what they think. Denying humans the right to express what they think is tantamount to reducing them to the level of animals. By denying the Ethiopian people their fundamental human rights, the right to expression and other fundamental human rights, Meles Zenawi has subjected Ethiopians to the level of animals.

We can also add here violations of other fundamental human rights such as women’s rights, the rights of indigenous peoples (pastoralists, hunter-gatherers), the rights of the child and youth, etc … All these human rights violations are executed in violation of international instruments such as conventions and declarations by the United Nations and African Union. That is precisely why the government of Meles Zenawi had come under fire by the various Treaty Bodies of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva as well as by the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights. In fact, in a rare move, the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights condemned the violation of human rights in Ethiopia in its last session in April 2012.


Contemporary development discourse has it that freedom and democracy is a precondition for development. This is the fundamental principle that has been universally accepted. But, what does Meles say on this? He rejects this principle and in one of his last public utterances he said, ‘I don’t believe in this night-time, you know, bed-time stories and contrived arguments linking economic growth with democracy’ (April, 2012).

Something that Zenawi has received praise for is his record on generating development and economic growth. It is only the people of Ethiopia who still wallow in abject poverty and under-development that simply dismiss such claims; because, neither development nor economic growth has taken place under Meles. Now, let’s separate our comments into two: development and economic growth.

Development: we only mention the fundamental domains for sustainable development to occur and ask whether or not they are attained in Ethiopia under Meles.

– Political democracy? Obviously no.

– Environmental preservation? The opposite has happened.

– Gender equality: never, women are still treated as slaves.

– Child and youth development has not been taken seriously (as inheritors to lead the future generation)

– Population: unchecked population boom contributing to poverty.

Economic growth: the truth about the hullabaloo on ‘economic growth’ is based on a propaganda gimmick introduced by Meles himself in the wake of the stolen 2005 election. The principal ‘lesson’ that Meles drew from the 2005 election in which his party lost miserably is that it was necessary to change the pattern of rule. Thus, closing down the private media, advocacy NGOs and human rights organizations as well as opposition parties was essential as these were the main institutions that contested government claims on economic growth.

Thus, closing down all avenues of alternative information was found out to be essential to embark on wild claims on economic growth. Then, all of a sudden, and precisely after 2007, wild claims of economic growth were made by Meles’ regime. Those who swallowed these claims seem never to ask how come this ‘economic growth’ is recorded all of a sudden after 2005. What happened after 2005? Did they find oil? Diamonds? What did they get that boosts their capability to accumulate capital and invest it? Meles made wild claims particularly in agricultural outputs.

These are very fishy figures and no independent verification was permitted. (It is impossible to take government figures on economic growth for granted without independent verification.) The whole stratagem of Meles was to dispel the pressure from the West who pressed for the liberalization of the political situation. To dispel this, he devised a propaganda gimmick that compels the West to drop its pressure on grounds that after all Meles has ‘ brought economic growth’.

This is not to deny that there have occurred incremental economic changes. Yes, roads have been built, buildings have been constructed in Addis, and real estate business has grown. Let there be no confusion, however, that in the first place, these incremental changes do not necessarily indicate economic growth. Secondly, there is always incremental change even under conditions of poverty and under-development.

However, the two main questions are: (1) what should have been the rate of the incremental change to label it as growth against the backdrop of size of population, level of the poverty prevalence, etc…? And (2) what could have the Ethiopian people attained had they instituted a democratic government of their like as they demanded in 1974? These are the questions we should ask before equating these incremental changes alone as ‘economic growth’. Thirdly, in order for economic growth to occur, there must be even development in the main sectors of the economy such as agriculture, industry and commerce.