Written by Hassan Hussen
A Joint Production of OPride and Hegere Media
After two months of a high-wire drama filled with titillating rumors and speculations about his ill-health, recovery, and death, it is now official; Ethiopia's ruler of two decades, Meles Zenawi is dead. Zenawi disappeared from the limelight, which he visibly cherished, on June 26.
Doctors would debate about what caused his early demise. Did blood cancer do him in? Was it brain tumor? Or was liver disease the culprit? Given the secrecy and the Ethiopian regime's tight hold on domestic media, we may never know the truth.
Politicians would debate on what kinds of policies, practices, and institutions he bequeathed to the country. His supporters would definitely remember him as a great leader that ever ruled Ethiopia, so we are told. To some of his opponents, extremist detractors as he liked to call them, he is the devil incarnate, one of the worst killers Ethiopia has known.
Diplomats would write about his negotiating skills, intellectual prowess, and continental stature. The U.S. would praise him for his service as a loyal ally on the "war on terror," who helped stamp out Islamic militancy in neighboring Somalia. Critics point to how Zenawi’s ill-conceived intervention in 2006 stoked the rise of al-Shabab and how his party’s increasingly Islamophobic policy led to self-assertive activism among his own restive Muslim population, perhaps the most lethal threat to the viability of a secretive regime he left behind.
The western media would narrate volumes about the deftness with which he addressed them, when he chose to, and his utter intolerance for press freedom condemning journalists to long sentences handed down by his kangaroo courts. Dressed impeccably and facing down a docile local media, Zenawi often forced them to throw out pre-cooked questions at him, which he theatrically answered with gusto.
Historians may analyze his contribution to the country – both positive and negative – for years to come and enlighten us about the implications of his rule for the diverse people of Ethiopia, and perhaps the region, whether his legacy towered or paled in comparison with other rulers and where he stands in the grand scheme of Ethiopia's tortuous history.
Opposition leaders would lament how Zenawi broke promises as quickly as he made them, outsmarted them time and time again at this and that juncture, unleashed his rich repertoire of cleverly disorienting tactics and his superb ability to distort the reality field at will. Many would generally describe him as a calculating Machiavellian, a masterful artist of political deception—in other words, the consummate prince, one that might have surpassed what was envisaged by the 15th century Italian writer.
Economists would write how Ethiopia's economy under his watch literally tripled. Human rights activists would acknowledge the growth, but question the magnitude of the growth and counter that he did so only to enrich his cronies and at a high human cost.
The real story, the true legacy of Meles Zenawi, however lies in how he affected the everyday personal lives of young people, the largest segment of Ethiopia's 94 million people. The story of Mr. Zenawi’s legacy is best told in the lives of the youth -- those who are the real owners of the legacy – whose destinies are shaped by Zenawi’s dictatorial rule, for better or for worse.
The young Meles was propelled to action by escaping to the bushes and secretly conspiring to topple a military junta that had earlier replaced a repressive feudal system. By secluding himself in the Tigrean dessert hideout called Deddebit dessert, he was able to bring down Mengistu’s huge army, with the support of many others, but did he succeed in ensuring that others would not have to make the same hard choice or endure such indignities?
In this in-depth report, longtime democracy advocate, Hassan Hussen fills this gap by weaving together the story of three Oromo youth and how their lives crossed with that of Meles.
Meles' Ethiopia being one of the worst enemies of press freedom, we could not profile the agonies of the thousands who survived miraculously after being thrown en masse into the senseless border war with Eritrea. Since a society's well-being is judged best by how it treats those accused of wrongdoing, we would have loved but cannot chronicle the stories of young idealist students, the mirror images of the young Meles, who still languish in Ethiopia's many jails merely for asking Meles to turn his rhetoric of democracy and rule of law into reality. We could not go to the refugee camps in Kenya, Somaliland, and chaotic Yemen to talk to those who fled persecution, risking a treacherous journey and facing daily abuse.
As a fledgling small media organization operating on a shoestring budget, a one-man band on many late nights, we could not make the long journey.
These left us with telling the story through the experiences of three new Americans who live in our midst.
The four characters, whom we profile in this story, were born hundreds of miles apart. Meles Zenawi, 57, was double the age of the oldest among the other three. He was born in Tigray; at least a thousand miles from any one of the youth whose lives were profoundly affected by his chosen meteoric rise and cling on power for two long decades. Zenaw was a Christian. So is Dawano. The other is a Muslim, Ziyad. Nadhi is a follower of traditional Oromo religion, Waaqeffanna.
These youth shared with Meles the instinct to serve, a desire that would shape their lives. But one born, unfortunately, not out of their free will and volition, but out of a history of oppression, of being marginalized, denied a voice and remaining subjects to a state unresponsive to their needs.
Zenawi, Dawano, Kadir, and Nadhi were all outstanding students who went on to go to college—a precious opportunity still unavailable to many in Ethiopia.
None of the three ever voted to install Zenawi as their leader, let alone become the absolute power in Ethiopia that he had been for the last two decades. Neither did their parents, nor their close relatives. But absolute power did Meles wield over their lives. Zenawi was able to exercise such an overwhelming influence over the trio because he came to power at the head of a victorious Tigrean army, and maintained his reign with an iron-fist, thanks to an equally efficient security apparatus. Moreover, he had powerful political and business friends in the likes of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Susan Rice, and Bill Gates, friends who refused to look into the human cost of his reign.
The three youth whose lives were turned upside down by Mr. Zenawi did not have powerful friends. The Oromo, the majority population group in Ethiopia who has been dealt a raw deal by successive regimes in Ethiopia, a plight that continued under Zenawi and might under his chosen successor, to whom they belonged, did not have powerful friends.
In addition to being Oromo, the trio had the misfortune of not only being born close to when Mr. Zenawi began to ascend the ladder of power in Tigray, his home region, but also being born to families that dreamed of better lives for their children, a dream that put them at odds with Zenawi's ambition for his small group to monopolize all power in Ethiopia.
They all immigrated to the U.S. and pursued higher education. But their people, their homeland, and the trauma of losing someone dear to them in the hands of TPLF troops, which Zenawi headed, forever preoccupied their minds, molding their daily lives until perhaps the last of their breaths.
Each agonized over the best way to preserve the legacy of their loved ones, at times, in the heat of youth, contemplating joining armed rebellion in the footsteps of Meles. But each finally settled on pursuing a nonviolent means of seeking their people's freedom, the dream of which enlivens their lives far away from their Oromo homeland. Their trajectories, despite their yearning for a normal life, was stamped for them forever at such a young age by Zenawi's policies and practices but each is determined to leave behind a more peaceful, more hopeful, and a more kind world, a world less tolerant to allowing one individual, like Zenawi to dictate the fates of millions still living and generations unborn.
To this effect each of the youth whose travails this report covers has pioneered media organizations out of the belief that a free press is the best guarantee for individual liberties and a pillar on which social justice could be secured. Finding Oromo news and stories totally neglected by the mainstream media, Ziyad, or as he is known among his peers BigZ, founded OPride.com along with a college mate, Mohamed Ademo, whereas Dawano, launched Hegere Media, which Nadhi joined as a reporter after resettling in Minnesota from her forced exile in Kenya.
OPride invites you to take this treacherous journey with these three brave survivors of Zenawi's rule. Their personal trials, tribulations, and triumphs, amidst untold ordeals, form the truest measure of Zenawi’s legacy.