Meles Zenawi – Footprints on the Sands of Time



Late Meles Zenawi in a hearse
Late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in a hearse

Africans usually say that “Great tree chooses where to grow and we find it there, so it is with the greatness in men.”

Mario Puzo in the western flick – The Godfather – added, “Great men are not born great, they grow great . . .”

Depending on how you see personalities and the actions that define their greatness. Puzo’s thought is arguable with the writings of the renowned English playwright William Shakespeare in Twelfth Night, which said, “Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.”

Is Meles Zenawi the father of modern Ethiopia or a Great leader in this 21st century, and are his footprints on the sands of time?


Meles Zenawi was born in the town of Adwa, Tigrai, in northern Ethiopia, to an Ethiopian father and a mother from Adi Quala, Eritrea. He completed from grade 1 to grade 8 in just 5 years. He was awarded a scholarship to complete his high school studies in Addis Ababa, the capital at the General Wingate High school. Upon completing his high school in great distinction, he enrolled to study medicine at Addis Ababa University medical faculty for two years before interrupting his studies in 1975 to join the Tigrai People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). If we can go down memory lane or inquire from those who have rudimentary knowledge and experience of Ethiopia, we can begin to understand the difficult task taken by Meles Zenawi in wrestling for over two decades to reconcile Ethiopia’s too many problems after the fall of communism and Mengistu. And before he was called to the great beyond, he still generated balanced and economic growth.


Michael Street put it succinctly in his tribute article titled – Ethiopia ahead of the curve: the green legacy of Meles Zenawi – “it is surely better now to concentrate on Meles’ positive achievements rather than dwell on negatives from the past. His legacy will be decided by what happens next.”

In 2012 when he was snatched away by death in a Belgian hospital at 57, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi left behind a country indelibly shaped by his career and life. It is worthy to note that Meles Zenawi took a historically pivotal Ethiopia, at an important geographical crossroads of Africa, and created the modern state that we celebrate today.

The descriptions of Meles Zenawi by those who have come in contact with him have often gone beyond admiration. We can describe Meles perspective in Brandon Sanderson’s remark that “The mark of a great man is one who knows when to set aside the important things in order to accomplish the vital ones.” I can comfortably say that the late prime minister, who was a former guerrilla leader, evolved while in office. It can be recalled that Meles Zenawi took power after the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) marched to Addis Ababa on May 20, 1991, and ousted Mengistu Haile Mariam, the communist leader.


According to Ray Suarez and I do agree “African leaders take advantage of strategic location of their countries, or the big challenges their country would pose if instability were to occur, and rather than create an opportunity, they would rather use that position to try to carve out a personal advantage for themselves.” Life after the exit of Meles Zenawi has shown that he is a man ahead of his time as those who have worked with or close to him showered encomiums. Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf described iconic Meles as an “intellectual leader for the continent” while David Cameron, the British prime minister called him “an inspirational spokesman for Africa.” Meles is a ‘primus inter pares’ when compared to his contemporaries due to his foresight and leadership. He is also an outspoken leader whose intellectual rigor was next to none during his time in-charge.        It was reported that Meles declared that he would consider his government a success if Ethiopians were able to eat three meals a day in his first media chat in Addis Ababa, in reply to a question about his goals. Hence his national policies were framed around the conquest of poverty, of which he dealt a decisive blow through robust policies.


Bilateral Deal - Negotiating for Ethiopia
Bilateral Deal – Negotiating for Ethiopia

He oversaw significant economic growth before his death in Brussels on August 20, 2012. Ethiopia’s GDP grew from 3.8% in the ’90s to 10% in 2010, and his successor has been wonderful in following his policies especially on increased agricultural output. Although critics argue about the boom, which they attribute to foreign investment and the leasing of land to China and India, but it takes strong and wise leadership to turn over a devastated economy, and that is what Meles Zenawi did. The progress Ethiopia has made today must be credited to the visionary leadership of the Great Meles Zenawi as he touched virtually all strata that make a modern State. Now Ethiopia have a modern system of land and business ownership rights, road and rail networks, hydro-electric projects on-going to bring power to places that never had it, and he initiated policies to end the cyclical famines in a country that rain often become luxury. Legesse Zenawi as he was called at birth before changing it to Meles in honour of his comrade (Meles Tekle) who was executed by the Mengistu Haile Mariam regime, encouraged gender participation in public life especially politics. Women were appointed in top positions in government circle while enabling environment created for all regions to be represented. His reformation gave rise to multi-party political system in Ethiopia, the introduction of private press and low child mortality rates.


Meles was pivotal in developing the African Union’s position on climate change since 2009 as he was appointed Chair of the African Heads of State and Government on Climate Change (CAHOSCC) on 31 August 2009. The Meles Zenawi led group had been inaugurated on the backdrop of February 4, 2009 decision at the 12th African Union Assembly of Heads of States to build a common Africa position on climate change in preparations for COP15. As a matter of his articulation and pan-Africanism, the AU trusted his initiative for their arguments at various negotiation talks ahead of Copenhagen 2015. Meles Zenawi was said to have made a memorable statement on September 3, 2009 to the Africa Partnership Forum. He said:

“We will never accept any global deal that does not limit global warming to the minimum unavoidable level, no matter what levels of compensation and assistance are promised to us… While we will reason with everyone to achieve our objective, we will not rubber stamp an agreement by the powers that be as the best we could get for the moment. We will use our numbers to delegitimize any agreement that is not consistent with our minimal position. If needs be we are prepared to walk out of any negotiations that threaten to be another rape of our continent.”


Mesfin Haile is the widow of Meles Zenawi and they have 3 kids, Semhal, Marda and Senay Meles.

Iconic even at death
Iconic even in death

What are great leaders remembered for that Meles Zenawi did not do? Fearlessly he led; with courage like a lion in its prime, he secured beyond his territory; like a leader, he took bold decisions no matter whose ox is gored; and like a dedicated farmer, he sowed in view of a bountiful harvest. O Death, where is thy sting? Ethiopia must endure for his dream lives. Truly, Meles Zenawi left his footprints on the sands of time.

Ukachukwu Okorie – Editor