On Meles Zenawi’s Passing; The Light Dimmed But Was Not Extinguished


When a great man dies, for years the light he leaves behind him, lies on the path of men.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

By The Strathink Editorial Team

Five years ago this month, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, departed this earth leaving behind a shocked and grieving nation, his three precious children and his beloved wife.

It is said that every man dies. Not every man truly lives

Meles Zenawi was a man who truly lived. Meles Zenawi was a man who lived true. His truth was to pull his people out of the darkness of poverty and backwardness. In his words, the generation of Ethiopians entering the third millennium was writing a glorious new page of our history where poverty will merely be a footnote in our long history.

These words have extraordinary power. Poverty had long been associated with the Ethiopian reality. The prevailing image of Ethiopia, up until the third millennium, was nightmarish poverty—horrifyingly depicted by the Ethiopian child, wasting limbs and lifeless eyes blanketed by flies. This was how the world viewed Ethiopia.

In 1991, the ragtag EPRDF coalition army led by the TPLF came into Addis Ababa after fighting one of Africa’s mightiest military for 17 years. Meles Zenawi, a former medical student, was only in his early 30s when he assumed the presidency of the new transitional government.

For over 20 years, Meles Zenawi was the face of Ethiopia rising. The changes were striking and visible. Numbers rose. Schools. Hospitals. Roads. Telecommunications. Power. Factories. Condominiums. Every nook and cranny throughout Ethiopia was marked by economic growth and development. Ethiopia, once a sleeping giant, had awoken and the Ethiopian people rose up to meet the challenge of becoming a middle-income country by 2030.

According to the Prime Minister, Ethiopia’s new page in its history was the result of the sweat and toil of millions of farmers and pastoralist, businessmen both small and big and workers and the intelligentsia. Every Ethiopian was credited with turning the page on poverty and backwardness. Ethiopia boldly opened its arms to the new millennium where, said Prime Minister Meles, our diversity becomes a source of strength through tolerance and democracy rather than a source of problems, through the patient and methodical efforts of all our nationalities, followers of all the great religions of our country, men and women, young and old.

 Under the Prime Minister and his coalition government, Ethiopia began the long and arduous journey towards democracy. Meles Zenawi famously said, over the years, I’ve come to recognize that democratization in Ethiopia is not just a matter of choice. It’s a matter of national survival. I am deeply convinced that we either democratize or have a good chance of surviving, or if we fail to do so, we disintegrate. 

 The Prime Minister had a deep-seated, firmly entrenched and enduring affinity for the virtues of democracy that was born out of a lifelong struggle against the injustice of oppression. It was part of him and could not be uprooted by the trappings of power. He saw himself as but one of many soldiers fighting a three thousand year old culture ensnared in a medieval hierarchy of haves and have nots. Under Meles’ government, it was the Ethiopian peasant, the poorest of the poor, who was elevated to nation-builder under the policies of the EPRDF.

What was misunderstood both inside and outside Ethiopia was the Prime Minister’s uncompromising position that Ethiopia’s economy and democracy would advance organically—not engineered by external forces. Ethiopia’s independence was non-negotiable. Ethiopian independence was as indelible as the Danakil Depression—an immutable characteristic of a country that existed in antiquity. He wrote this:

While we can justly be proud of the fact that every generation of Ethiopians during those centuries have paid in blood to maintain our independence, we cannot but feel deeply insulted that at the dawn of new millennium ours is one of the poorest countries in the world. Over the course of our second millennium we have gone from being one of the most advanced nations on earth to that of being one of the poorest. Through this process we have not been colonized by any foreign nations and hence we have always been the masters of our destiny, both our successes and failures.

Prime Minister Meles articulated the monumental achievement of Ethiopia’s independence during a period of time when Europe saw Africa as an extension of its dominance. Carving out Africa during the colonial period robbed the continent not only of its material and human resources, but of its dignity as an equal partner within the global community of nations. The impact of the slave trade, colonialism and neo-colonialism on Africa’s place in the world is immeasurable.

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi stared history in the face and told people the truth. Ethiopia was poor, but it was responsible for its successes and failures. Ethiopia’s democracy, although flawed, was an organic movement. Ethiopia’s economy was built using Ethiopian resources.

Ethiopia’s development would not be managed by the European Union or the U.S. Congress.

Ethiopia was the master of its own destiny.

The power of these words was unassailable. No longer would the world see Ethiopia through the lens of poverty and backwardness.

The Prime Minister, through his leadership on the continent of Africa, brought that same sense of empowerment to the world stage. Africa was no longer an extension of Europe but a global powerhouse on its own. Meles, representing Africa, sat alongside Western leaders, forcefully and unequivocally voicing African interests from climate change to the international monetary system. Meles spoke for Africa and nations listened.

In August 2012, Meles’ temporal voice was silenced. His body lay in state at the home he shared with his beloved wife, Azeb, and his three children, Semhal, Senay and Marda. Tens of thousands of people walked passed his coffin to pay respects to the man who had led them out of the darkness into the light of the new millennium. Battle-hardened government officials, men and women, openly wept for the loss of their brother, friend and comrade.

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, aged 57, was finally at rest.

It is said that every man dies. Not every man truly lives

His children will marry and have their children. His wife will continue her work, serving the people of Ethiopia. His comrades will retire. He will remain with them in spirit—in their thoughts and in their prayers. Life has a way of going on.

Ethiopia is rising and will continue to rise. There are problems and there will continue to be problems. Nation building is not easy and the path is not always linear.

Meles Zenawi set the nation on the path and led his people in a forward march out of darkness. He was the light and the people followed.

Meles Zenawi truly lived and lived true.















5 Responses to “On Meles Zenawi’s Passing; The Light Dimmed But Was Not Extinguished”

  1. Dawit Gedamu says:

    I have known Meles quite well, long before he adopted this name. He was one of the most intelligent people I came across and he contributed so much to pull the country out of quagmire that Ethiopia found itself for the millennia. What I admire most is his ability to learn quickly and raise himself to the level of a renowned world statesmen. He was acting somewhat divisively in the beginning, shouting slogans from his college days. He later emerged as a unifier, a statesman that Ethiopia had always been looking for equal to the stature held by previous Ethiopian kings like Tedros, Yohanes, Menilik and Haile Selassie.

    However he was human, and like most great people he had his weaknesses. His party’s Eritrean policy is troubling; he was the unchallenged head of the party; this party is still leading the country. As a result the state Eritrea is in is going from bad to worse and Ethiopian national security is at risk. I attribute the current no-war-no-peace situation squarely to Meles. Imagine where Ethiopia and Eritrea could have been had they pursued a different route.
    On the balance I prefer Meles to rule Ethiopia hundred times over than the alternative.

  2. Djqngo says:

    Well said!!!

  3. Dawit Gedamu says:

    I am not sure what it means when you say “your comment is awaiting moderation”. For that reason, I have no clue what I need to do to make it acceptable to you. Is this kind of censor? Let me hear from you, folks.

    Dawit Gedamu

  4. dagmawi says:

    Meles Zenawi which is the father of modern Ethiopia will truly be missed!

  5. Krime says:

    It can not be said better. Meles was and is the greatest leader that Africa has ever had. With out doubt, one of the greatest that the world has ever had. Thanks to Meles, Ethiopia as well as Africa will never be the same again.


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