By Toni Weis
Many obituaries have been written since Meles Zenawi died on August 20th. So many, in fact, that this is a comment on the obituaries as much as on the man himself.
There are many stories about Meles Zenawi. Here is one of them. The year is 1995, and the newly-elected prime minister is getting ready to sit the final exams for his MBA at the Open University. The proctor at the British Council tells Meles (who, like most former revolutionaries, sustains himself on cigarettes) that, unfortunately, he will not be allowed to smoke during the exams. “I am sure you believe in democracy?”, Meles replies. The proctor concurs. “So let’s put that to a vote”. There is a show of hands, and not much later the Ethiopian prime minister lights a cigarette, savouring one of the more marginal successes of his political career.
I wouldn’t exactly vouch for the accuracy of this little anecdote. But if it exaggerates, it does so for effect. It captures the essence of the Meles Zenawi we, as more or less distant observers, got to know over the last twenty years: his wit, his confidence, and his willingness to put people on the spot; the sheer boldness with which he played the games of others, but by his own rules; but most clearly perhaps his instinctive talent, honed by many years of Marxist exegesis, to see the political in everything.
This primacy of politics was a common thread running through Meles’ short but extraordinarily eventful life, from the 1974 student protests to the Hoxhaist years in the mountains of Tigray, and from the TPLF’s march on Addis to Meles’ later years as a pan-African statesman. So much so that, when I recently asked someone who knew Meles well about his legacy as a person, not just a political leader, my interlocutor rejected that distinction as artificial: “Meles was a profoundly political person”.
I’m not sure all of those who penned his obituaries – the eulogists as much as the detractors – have understood the importance of this point. If there is a consensus among the multitude of voices, it seems to be that Meles left behind a “mixed” legacy, a “checkered” or “conflicted” one: good for the Ethiopian economy (the famous ‘double-digit growth’), less so for Ethiopian politics (the infamous ‘authoritarian tendencies’).
What the commentators fail to understand is that, to Meles, these were two sides of the same coin. Development, in his eyes, was primarily a political process, not an economic one. Continue reading