By Oromsis Adula*
I learned about the invitation of Mr. Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia to “World Leaders Forum” with a shocking disbelief. As the world’s most important research center and top academic institution, Columbia University has a long tradition of engaging world leaders on the multifaceted issues facing our global world.
Established in 2003 by Lee C. Bollinger, the World Leaders Forum has featured an impressive list of heads of states including Presidents Bill Clinton, Nicolas Sarkozy of France, Vladimir Putin of Russia, Michelle Bachelet of Chile, Václav Klaus of the Czech Republic, and the Dalai Lama. Indeed the Forum’s decision to invite an African Head of State is an awe-inspiring idea considering its stated aim of advancing “lively, uninhibited dialogue on the large economic, political, and social questions of our time.” However, I am deeply troubled that Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, now in power for two decades, fits that bill.
As rightly stated, dubbed “the cradle of mankind” – Africa’s second most populous country, characterized by rich but complicated history, it suffices to say, Ethiopia is making strides in areas such as the economy and education, albeit overly exaggerated. However, it must be clear that under Meles Zenawi’s ever tightening grip, Ethiopia has jettisoned the path to democratic governance and the respect for human rights. With no free press to speak of and the once vibrant opposition effectively muzzled, Meles Zenawi has managed to set up a de facto one-party system in Ethiopia.
After the dubious 2005 election, the Ethiopian government slowly but surely emasculated the country’s fledgling free press, using a draconian press law that went into effect despite international condemnation and local outcry, followed by a similarly heavy-handed legislation enfeebling an otherwise budding civil society. The two combined to take the steam, energy, and vitality out of an already fragile and fatally fractured pro-democracy movement.
Recently ranked the second poorest country on earth and the world’s second most expensive place to gain access to information technology, mainly broadband, Ethiopia has ways to go to make the kind of progress that can be hailed as exemplary. Its leader described by the Forum as “seasoned” is an absolute dictator quite in the mould of Ethiopia’s repressive past rather than a departure from it. Perhaps the only state, claiming “a history of over 2,000 years”, without a single peaceful transfer of power. Ethiopia’s long history is haunted by tales of repressive, brutal and oppressive rulers wedded to a murderous path until beheaded or killed withstanding to relinquish office.
With 80 million inhabitants, Ethiopia is home to over 80 ethnic groups. Ethiopia’s unique attributes, such as the national alphabet, time system, and the calendar, which the Forum alludes to, all came into being at the expense of egalitarian social systems of oppressed peoples that were violently subjugated. The incumbent party of Meles Zenawi, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), has introduced an ostentatious ethnic federal system. However, Ethiopia’s federalism is all but in name and the glaring disparities in access to power and decision making among the country’s rival ethnic groups resemble apartheid’s pecking order of racial segregation and risk producing the cataclysms that befell the former Yugoslavia. To ever consolidate its grip on power, Meles Zenawi’s administration is wantonly sowing the seeds of mistrust and hatred even among ordinary subjects. Vigorously employing a perilous divide and rule policy, amid increasingly recurrent ethnic conflicts, the regime is also promoting religious dogmatism.
It is therefore, an affront and a walk out on the tradition of advancing dialogue for the Forum to invite a tyrant of unrivaled distinction to speak at a renowned global university. Accurately, it is only through dialogue that discourses can be advanced or the leaders can be pressed on those pertinent issues, but Meles Zenawi has long forsaken reason and dialogue. Since the thwarting 99.6% “election victory” in May 2010, Meles Zenawi has reiterated, time and again, his determination to forge ahead with the course that he has single-handedly charted for the country completely disregarding the chatter about democracy, rule of law and human rights.
When the outcome of the election and the only observer team, the European Union group’s, report drew a worldwide criticism prompting among others the White House to issue a press release, Meles Zenawi, the tyrant of Ethiopia immediately fired back. In Associated Press story dated May 26, 2010, Anita Powell, quoted the premier saying, “quite a few people in Washington were more interested in the outcome than the process…If (the U.S.) feels the outcome of the elections are such that we cannot continue our relationship, that’s fine and we can move on.” Congressman Ed Royce, the former chairman of African Subcommittee, once said, “Ethiopia is one of the few countries that jam Voice of America radio service.”
Ethiopia’s judicial system is characterized by a woeful lack of independence. The over 30,000 Oromo and other prisoners of conscience have no realistic chance to see the light of day, or get their day in a court of law. The Chinese and the Asians are engaged in a burgeoning investment ranging from agriculture to construction all the way to mining— thereby displacing subsistence farmers, polluting lakes and rivers and filling the pockets of corrupt officials. The rise of the Al-Shabab in next door Somalia, fuelled by Mr. Zenawi’s disastrous and ill-conceived military intervention in 2006 and years of meddling in internal Somali affairs, sends shivers through the spine of the West. And hence the West is too preoccupied with the “war on terror” to risk alienating a reliable ally. However the illusively false and short-sighted sense of stability that Meles promises to provide is drowning the call for democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights.
Meles Zenawi has been invoking the model of Southeast Asian Tigers recently. The EPRDF leader believes economic development is the quickest route to political legitimacy. The reason, he argues, is that rapid progress requires a “developmental state”. The thesis is that the public would be amenable to lack of political liberty if the regime delivers the economic goods. The reality of the matter is that while a handful of cronies of the regime are becoming billionaires and ruling party owned businesses dominate the commanding heights of the economy, the vast majority of the rural poor are being displaced from their ancestral lands condemned to a miserable life of destitution, despair and disillusionment.
To make matters worse, Mr. Zenawi has just last week inducted his own wife to the highest position of power, an action reminiscent of Kim II Sung of North Korea, Mubarak of Egypt, Cuba’s Castro, Indonesia’s Suharto, Philippines’ Marcos and last but not least Saddam of Iraq.
Given the fact that Meles Zenawi is trampling on freedom and democracy in Ethiopia, the designation of him as someone with a “seasoned governmental leadership” is tantamount to blessing his utter disregard for human life, human dignity, justice, liberty and equality.
I therefore call on Columbia University, the Committee on Global Thought, and the World Leaders Forum to reconsider their invitation to a man drenched with the blood of the innocent up to his neck. A failure to heed this call would mean an endorsement for the tyrant and a slap in the face for the impoverished in Ethiopia who look up to the West and the free world for deliverance from his 20 year long reign of dictatorship, dashed hopes and denial of basic freedoms and liberties.
With Kind Regards,
- Dictators on Campus: A Free Speech Issue? – Reason Online (blog)
- Tyrant Meles Zenawi at Columbia University – Gadaa.com
- Columbia University withdraws statement about Meles : EthiopianReview.com
- Open Letter to Dr. Lee C. Bollinger President of Columbia University -ECADF Ethiopian News