Who Was Meles Zenawi?

Meles Zenawi
The late Ethiopian leader Meles Zenawi

Meles Zenawi and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)-led Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) came to power in 1991 after a 16-year armed struggle in the countryside. In subsequent years Meles Zenawi rose to have disproportionate power in the Ethiopian state, rising above the TPLF/EPRDF. As an instructor, theoretician, military strategist, intellectual and all-around, all-star politician of the EPRDF Meles shaped Ethiopian politics for over two decades and worked hard to sustain the political system he helped create. This is crucial in understanding the meaning of his death and its impact on the nature of political power in Ethiopia. And equally important, to understand what this says about the character of the Ethiopian state.

Meles Zenawi, with a touch of overstatement, is the most important person who has ever lived in the history of the TPLF and the post-1991 political order in Ethiopia. It need also be appreciated that Meles has effectively become, or merged with, the state and hence his absence or death is in effect a mortal blow to the health status of not only the political system but also the Ethiopian state.  This is not the place to write about the turning points in the political rise of Meles Zenawi, but instead to draw from existing analysis a comprehensive understanding of his political trajectory and the otherwise-puzzling aspects of his legacy.

Only few political leaders in contemporary Africa have been both great thinkers and astute political operatives. Perhaps the most gifted of them all was Meles Zenawi. Meles’s early rise to political supremacy has always been an object of fascination yet one shrouded in mystery. There are many ways to explain Meles’s rise to prominence in Ethiopian politics. My own sense points to three, in fact four, major factors. Prominent among which are his quick intelligence and communication skills. Meles is the most gifted orator the TPLF has produced. He has been a formidable debater, particularly in a closed circuit among party disciples. Often, he could be convincing as well as flirtatious. A veracious reader he had the tendency to read everything that mattered to his cause. He was known for his piercing intellect and brutal study schedule.

He read at a prodigious speed, extracting the essence of a book along with a vast amount of detail, which he blended with information derived from other sources and the reality of his environment. This doesn’t mean all his ideas were great. Some of his inputs would be more brilliant than others; and some might be wrong, but his hard work and his propensity to supply fresh ideas would cumulatively convey the image of a brilliant leader. Meles was an accomplished politician. He was also an unusually gifted thinker. The intertwining of these talents formed the overriding force behind his quiet and stealthy rise to power. But also he was, by default or design, strategically placed to make an impact in the early days of the struggle. He was fortunate in his assignment and his colleagues, but he was more fortunate still in some of his closest friends in the TPLF leadership. From the beginning of the armed struggle Meles was well positioned to advance in the leadership of the TPLF.

Meles Zenawi
Zenawi as a rebel during the fighting in Tigray

The young revolutionary, whose rise to prominence owed everything to quick study in the TPLF Cadre School, had little involvement in the war. Meles’ work on political and ideological perspectives to the exclusion of military or other responsibilities permitted him to develop a considerable level of knowledge, as well as the opportunity to train and organize cadres and disseminate his views. He used to invoke great leaders and depict them in his style of teaching in order to get across his arguments. He got on well with students, the rank and file and his colleagues alike, because they expected him to know more than they did, and they rarely knew enough to challenge him. These roles also gave him a unique relationship with, and understanding of, the cadres that was to prove beneficial in the future.

It was his skill as a political operative, his devotion to reading and writing that won him the favour of his party leaders that it can be easy to forget that he has spent the better part of his 16 years in the armed struggle not as a military leader but an ideologue and debater. Likewise, in the last three years that led to the downfall of the Derg, while certainly immersed in military affairs, spent much of his time putting out political fires and preparing himself for big roles. Was this sharp intelligence, inexhaustible curiosity, and encyclopaedic knowledge intimidating? Certainly. By late 1989 he was getting near the top. He didn’t claim it; he earned it.

There are other ways, too, that Meles has departed from his comrades. Far more interesting, and potentially more consequential, was his sense of appreciation of power. Meles and his thoughts on the nature of political power is a story that has received only intermittent attention in the mainstream narrative of the TPLF/EPRDF. Though his theoretical excursions were extremely relevant and highly considered by the top leadership and Meles provided ideological perspectives to save the organization, of equal significance was a contest over power. There is an element there that is extraordinary creativity, but I can’t say it is divorced from a sense of ambition. This is the more so because in almost all the political struggles that broke out within the TPLF personal differences figured prominently along with ideological differences. No doubt, in each inter-party crisis Meles assumed a leading role providing solutions, which at the same time enhanced his power in the organization.

However, the event that transformed Meles into an undisputed leader in the organization and the country as a whole was the 2001 split within the TPLF, which dealt a serious blow to democratic centralism and collective leadership, while at the same time giving Meles a major tactical advantage. The turn of events in the last round of the war with Eritrea and the crisis within the TPLF brought Meles back into the center stage of Ethiopian politics. He was the first to suffer personally from the war and its outcome. But he made the best out of it and emerged much stronger. Once the most formidable leaders of the TPLF, who made collective leadership both possible and attractive, were pushed from the scene, it was probably a matter of time before Meles would become the unchallenged leader of the country. The few prophetic views which drew attention to this trend passed unheeded both within and outside the party. Meles Zenawi, Prime Minister, chairman of both the TPLF and EPRDF, together with his close followers quickly assumed the upper hand in the contest and then initiated what was held to be a wide-ranging restructuring of power in the Ethiopian state. Everything that happened after that was the direct consequence of this fateful political intermission.