The Brilliance and Brutality of Melez Zenawi

If the reported demise of Melez Zenawi at the ripe age of 57 is confirmed, it would be a monumental event for the countries of the horn of Africa as a whole, but particularly for Somalia and Ethiopia. Zenawi single-handedly dominated the political and security destiny of the horn for the past 20 years, and was undoubtedly a ruthless and brilliant dictator. He suppressed dissent at home and pursued a policy of dismantling, fragmenting and destroying Somalia in any way he could with the vision to eliminate the long-time threat Somalia posed to Ethiopia’s hegemony in the horn and beyond.

For hundreds of years, the people in the horn accepted Ethiopia as their big brother and deferred to it in matters of politics and security; the exception was the people of modern day Somalia, who held the repeated incursions of the Ethiopians on their land at bay, even when they had no comparable arms, resources, and friends to back them. Now, at the behest of the Super Power, or perhaps his own will, Zenawi ordered his forces to invade Somalia whenever and wherever he wants. Without any one batting an eye lid, he leveled part of our capital and killed thousands in the process, and today his un- invited occupying forces are in the Central Region, Hiiraan, Bay and Bakool. He dared to do this because he prepared the ground. He found our weakest link –which is the scourge of clannism –and exploited fully to the maximum. Therefore today, instead of finding confrontation when he invades Somalia, he finds a reception committee.

To be fair, when Zenawi seized power, he apparently had high hopes to ally his Tigre minority with the Somalis in Ethiopia and intended to maintain good relations with Somalia; but this did not work out as he hoped, as the Somalis in Ethiopia failed to present a united front. In Somalia, the situation was even worse so he decided to move on and pursue other options available. The brilliance of Zenawi shows itself in the fact that when he was on the verge of victory, he suddenly abandoned Marxism-Leninism and opened a dialogue with the US, which in turn, played a significant role in the orderly coordination of the smooth take-over of the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, by Tigre forces and surrender of forces loyal to Mengistu. In such, he avoided a blood bath, saving the capital and public institutions from destruction. In our Somali case, the combatants did not have the foresight, nor did we have friends in the international community, to bring us to our senses. One has to wonder whether Ethiopia’s 3000 to 4000 years of independent governance played a role in the different outcomes of our somewhat similar experience.

We should admit Zenawi has changed Ethiopia economically, and uplifted millions from poverty to a reasonable existence. Today, Ethiopia is one of the fastest growing economies in Africa, if not the world, and a recipient of some of the largest amount of aid from the West– after Egypt. The country is experiencing huge foreign investments from India, China and countries in the Arabian Gulf. Zenawi cemented excellent relations with the West, especially the US, which uses him conveniently as proxy force in the horn. There is no doubt Zenawi exacted a commensurate price for this role.

It is unlikely that any one with the satanic brilliance of Zenawi will succeed him, but we cannot be complaisant, as many of his minions already in place are past experts on how to handle Somalis, unless there is a radical change in people and policies. Any serious changes would be in Somalia’s interest, so that we can begin a new respectable relationship, assert a policy of good neighborliness, non-interference in internal affairs of each other, and cooperate on matters of mutual interest. The lesson should be conveyed directly, or indirectly, that Ethiopia consists of over 70 ethnic groups and, if there is any implosion, Somalia’s experience would be merely a child’s play.

There is a myth that is widely held that Zenawi lived in Somalia during his days as a rebel leader, and that he was a frequent visitor to our capital. I am unable to subscribe to this assertion, but, on the contrary, believe that Zenawi never visited Somalia at all, prior to 2007, when Abdullahi Yousuf and Ali Geedi headed the Transitional Federal Government (TFG). His representative in Somalia was Atto Mesfin, his long-time former foreign minister. No one, to the best of my knowledge, has confirmed that Zenawi was ever present in Mogadishu publicly or clandestinely. It is, however, true that he had a Diplomatic Somali passport to facilitate his travels; that Somalia used to order arms for him, which he paid for in the majority of cases; and that arms were once landed at Berbera port and transferred to small vessels for transporting them to Port Sudan, and from there to the Tigre hills in north of Ethiopia, where the rebel Tigrean militia had its major bases.

The stark lesson we can learn from the demise of Zenawi is this: whether you call yourself a secular politician, religious leader, tribal leader, nominal head of an enclave or a warlord, when you tie your future and the fate of your country to a foreign leader, like Zenawi, one day he will be no more and you will stand alone. However, what you invest in your country and its people will be everlasting assets to your people, to you, and to your children.


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