Ethiopia’s tumultuous Ethiopian revolution: You know it as Meles’ era, but he’s still carrying a heavy load

Ethiopia’s prime minister recently promised an honor for an enemy he once called a genocidal murderer: He would bury him in the same capital cemetery as the heroes of the Ethiopian Revolt, a 1918 rebellion against British rule.

His spokesman offered a very different interpretation of that symbolic gesture.

By “honor,” Addis Ababa says Tigrayan movement leader Mengistu Haile Mariam means “incompetence.”

Ethiopia’s media are awash in the Eritrean history project amid a sense of nepotism, pandering and corruption driven by Mengistu’s struggle for power that persists to this day, notes journalist Girma Wake. The country’s leaders have blood on their hands.

“I have never seen a prime minister display such ambition,” Wake said. “He wants to return in an aristocracy (the Emperor Haile Selassie) as president. How is that appropriate?”

This is Wake’s fourth and final chapter, where he compares the experiences of Tigrayans to those of Eritreans today. Beginning in 1996, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) routinely used war and persecution to push former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi aside. His victory at the polls led to the title of Ethiopia’s “Corruptest President” from Bloomberg in 2018.

The Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front tried to replace Meles with his son, in 2002.

Mengistu’s transformation from anti-revolutionary revolutionary to a despot wasn’t uniform. Some younger Tigrayans replaced Mengistu with hapless elder statesmen and resigned in 1999. Many Tigrayans worked against Mengistu during the 2007 Democracy and Unity Party revolt and are now imprisoned. They are some of Meles’s top lieutenants.

Eritrea has faced its own arrests and the indefinite detention of former leaders that represents a violation of freedoms and human rights, Wake told GlobalPost.

The war waged by Eritrea’s revolutionary Janteun army against Ethiopia is “indefensible by any criterion,” Wake said. “It was cowardly, brutal and murderous.”

The Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front took control of the capital, Addis Ababa, in 1991, helped Meles and his henchmen hide from Western pressure and held the country. After Meles’ execution by his military and his security apparatus in June 2001, many Tigrayans joined the trial process and Ivo Takimoto, who served as Prime Minister from 2003 to 2013, is a Tigrayan and holds Meles’ place in many Ethiopian’s imagination.

“It was his loyalty to Addis Ababa that won his political survival,” Wake said.

His capacity for effective governance continued into the new millennium. “He did not relish the task of governance, but once it started he was outstanding,” Wake said.

“The narrative is that Meles forced Addis Ababa to be totally ineffective because the conflict was relentless. That is very inaccurate. There were times of success.”

In 2009, the African Union dispatched a commission of inquiry to investigate Meles’ handling of the Cedar Revolution and the 2008 elections. Its report condemned Meles and called for his immediate resignation and investigation. The commission’s recommendations were whitewashed by the country’s state-controlled media.

As a result, the ruling party claimed that it had prospered during Meles’ rule. Only during his dying days did Meles turn himself in and face trial. TPLF chiefs took his place. Thousands fled the country. The west blocked Ethiopia from accessing resources. The international community has cut back donor aid.

The belt-tightening has forced the old guard to look beyond Addis Ababa, Wake said.

“Economic and political elites are trying to represent the rest of the country,” Wake said. “Part of that is education, and part of that is charity. Those who can help are benefiting.”

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