Oakland’s Ethiopians divided over Prime Minister’s legacy

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi died August 20, at the age of 57, of an undisclosed illness.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi died August 20, at the age of 57, of an undisclosed illness.

On a table by the door in Addis Restaurant on Oakland’s Telegraph Avenue, a tall stack of solemn invitations sits amid piles of business cards advertising nearby Ethiopian-owned beauty salons, photography studios and computer repair services.

“All Ethiopians and friends of Ethiopians who live in the Bay Area are invited to join us for the memorial service in Honor of the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi,” the invitations read.

Meles (Ethiopians are formally referred to by their first names) died August 20, at the age of 57, of an undisclosed illness. The Bay Area will host two memorial services on Sunday – in Oakland at the Jack London Aquatic Center, and in San Jose at the Masonic Temple.

Nunu Kidane, Director of Priority Africa Network, a Bay Area-focused organization that serves those of African decent, estimates that between 20-25,000 Ethiopians live in the Bay Area.

“Most Ethiopians in the Bay Area would have heard about Meles’ death by text message,” she says. “I received seven texts about it myself.”

Biniam Girma, a volunteer at the Ethiopian Community and Cultural Center, said he first heard of Meles’ death online.

“I was following the announcements on the Voice of America Amharic website and also on ETV,’’ he said, referring to Ethiopian Television, Ethiopia’s state broadcaster.

Many in the Ethiopian diaspora are likely to watch ETV’s live coverage of Meles’ funeral online and via satellite, broadcast from Addis Ababa on Sunday.

Meles’ legacy is a divisive topic amongt Bay Area Ethiopians, most of whom live in Oakland and San Jose. Some say his skills as an economist will drive development in Ethiopia for decades to come, while others view him as a dictator responsible for human rights atrocities.

A little farther up Telegraph, three taxi drivers sat outside Café Colucci, a popular meeting place for the Ethiopian community, eating the Ethiopian flatbread called injera, and laughing in between bursts of Amharic. Mohamed, Misganaw and Menge, all of whom asked that their last names be omitted, had contrasting views of Meles’ 21 years as Ethiopia’s head of state.

“He kept the opposition away the whole time through tribal separation – he was a dictator,” Mohammed said. “But his plans to build a dam on the Nile and bring about African unity were good for the country.”

After taking a sip of buna, Ethiopian coffee, 29-year-old Misagansaw said,  “He will be remembered for separating different ethic groups, favoring some and hating others.”

“He helped build roads, hospitals and schools,” Menge added.

Fatahun Beerarra, a 60-year-old Oakland resident, recalled Meles’ reputation as a bright young medical student in Addis Ababa. “We were at university at the same time,” he says. “I never met him, but people thought he was a genius.”

In 1987, Fatahun, his wife and their three children – the youngest was only three months old – fled the violence of Ethiopia’s bloody civil war, settling in Oakland. Many of the Bay Area’s Ethiopian community sought asylum in Oakland in the late 1980s as the war at home escalated.

“Some people disagree with his politics,” Fantahun said. “But he brought the country into the modern world much better than anyone else. He was able to bring Ethiopia into the G20”—a group of the world’s biggest economies—“ and that’s a big achievement.”

Meles, who visited the Bay Area once in 1991, was often criticized by local human rights organizations for supressing political opposition, imposing heavy restrictions on Ethiopia’s media, and targeting certain ethnic groups.

The Oakland Institute, a research group focusing on foreign investment in Africa, remains a vocal critic of the former Ethiopian Prime Minister, and has published several in-depth reports on investment flows into the country. The reports have  asserted that Ethiopia’s government exploited specific groups by leasing their land to international investors.

“The whole development methodology is based on a handful of people prospering at the expense of indigenous people in areas such as lower Omo, Gambella and Afar,” said Oakland Institute founder Anuradha Mittal, an India-born political economist.

“Research from OI and other human rights groups shows that any kind of dissent was criminalised,” she said.

But Wondewossen Tadesse, the Bay Area liaison officer for Meles’ political party, said the former PM will be remembered for his efforts to spur economic growth in the country.

“Meles was one of a kind,” Wondewossen said. “He dedicated his whole life to tirelessly improving the lives of the people of Ethiopia. He was self-educated, and he created a group of leaders to continue what he started.”

A group of Ethiopian waitresses from San Jose, who asked not to be named, gathered around a table at the back of Addis Restaurant. Despite the Ethiopian community’s mixed feelings toward Meles, they said, a period of mourning is customary in Ethiopian culture.

“Even if we hate someone,” one of the waitresses said, “we still mourn for their death.”

47 Comments

  1. Adv Trek

    Typical…Anuradha Mittal’s “non-profit” Oakland Institute has never set foot in Ethiopia, yet she is interviewed to criticize a Black African leader with a Master’s in Economics from Erasmus University, who tripled Ethiopia’s economy in 15 years and posted double-digit growth for past 7 years (World Bank).

    “Meles Zenawi showed that, with the right policies in place, even a poor African country could experience sustained economic growth,” Joseph E. Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate in economics and former World Bank Chief Economist.

    • Gorja

      Those advocating double digit economic growth are those who sold land & participated in looting the country’s economy. They built huge unimaginable multi store buildings in major cities and even in the rural vilages where they come from. The writer could be among them or …

      • Ras Mitat

        “Double-digit growth…huge unimaginable multistory buildings in major cities and even rural villages…”

        Yes, millions of construction jobs, even your criticism sounds like a compliment…Thanks!

  2. anon

    Gellaw said it best when he said “food without freedom”. You can’t go far with food and bogus statistics but you can with freedom and choice, none of which the people are getting as we speak.

    • Ras Mitat

      “You can’t go far with food…,” so says the man who hasn’t skipped a meal in his life. Comedy.

    • Hanna

      When was the last time you were hungry? You waste too much time talking about what Ethiopian want and don’t want. Yet you are too disconnected from today’s Ethiopia. When Meles opposed the political order of then he joined the struggle in Ethiopia. He did not seek asylum to sit in a safe place and talk and discuss about the problem. He walked in the face of danger; he risked his life and of course won. What did you do? We Ethiopian know the difference between “struggling for us” and “talking about us”. You need to swallow the fact that Meles was a great leader loved by his people. The last two weeks should have made this clear to all of you with doubts or blind hatred. For those of you imagining a “perfect government” time to learn that there is none in the world. Everything is about context and balance as you cannot make everyone happy at once. Meles was the man who restored our dignity. For that he will always be remembered and his ideas will be thought in schools for generations to come.

      • befekadu

        God bless you Hanna, I fuly agree with everything you said. Yes every one who is writing this and that did not have the gut to sacrifice his youth time for the country, and instead went out seeking assylum and to better his/her own life. Yes there could be mistakes and problems to be solved, even then Ethiopia is much better now than ever. Meles is the best ever leader we ever had at least in the last 100 years!!

  3. Behailu

    Meles was beyond genious, one of kind!! Ethiopia would miss him dearly. Africa would miss his leadership and far sighted, visionary Pan African designs.

    As the man himself has said it best, he will be remembered as one who helped start the Ethiopian renaisance!!!

    It is now time for the rest for us to pickup where he left off and run with it!

  4. Teddy

    He has done many good things, but he never was a democrat.

  5. Tolla

    Meles was a strange man. He achieved remarkable economic growth. He built infrastructure. He built schools. On the other hand, he brutalized and humiliated his opponents. He was so cruel that he brutally abused his opponents and made them ask for mercy in public. I lived under Haileselassie, Mengistu, and Meles. Although Mengistu killed more people, Meles made people lose their diginity in public. That bothered me. Sometimes, it is better to die with your pride. And Meles landlocked Ethiopia. In my book, he was a criminal.

    • yohannes

      Meles did not land lock Ethiopia the people of Eritrea wanted out they never felt they were part of Ethiopia they were colonized by Italy for over 60 years no ethiopian people or king menelik ii went to rescue them.

      • berhany

        @yohannes, Meles had every chance to demand a port as a precondition when Eritrea ask for separation. Don’t even mention Menelik name here.

  6. ermias

    Thanks mark for bringing this topic but meles was a dictator and his death will bring a change to Ethiopia. as far as memorial service for Meles, i will watch his funeral online to make sure he is gone for good. One less dictator is good for a better tomorrow.

  7. asmamaw

    whether he did good or bad he has gone for good not to come back. The question is how are we going on towards!! May the almighty give him rest in peace and peaceful transition for Ethiopia!

  8. Tazabi

    “Son of man, you are living among a rebellious people. They have eyes to see but do not see and ears to hear but do not hear, for they are a rebellious people.

  9. observer

    Great Leader,dedicated and intelligent ever.
    About ethnicity: Look who is calling black!

  10. michael tedla

    Honesty is the best policy. You can not hide what you can see. You can fool people sometimes but not all times. Seeing is believing. Go and explore modern Ethiopia and judge for yourself. No need to be miss led by liers.

  11. Solomon

    Before we start judging “dictator Melese”, let us clearly understand the term economic growth and development,policy and strategy, living standard,democracy and human rights so on and so forth…… otherwise, we can make a mistake. Please, I urge you to ask yourself and others to hear more from the general public the true picture of the situation.

  12. Solomon

    It is true that Melee is gone but his legacy, wisdom and vision will stay with us forever. If it was for the extremist and naysayers, Ethiopia would have been in a worest shape. Yes Meles is a dictatorvin the eyes of the wicked opposition groups and human right organizations because he never allowed them to be masters of Ethiopia’ s destiny.
    Individuals like Anuradha Mittal, who are enjoying six figures salaryvin the namevof non- profit org., can say a lot from Oakland about Ethiopia. However, Ethiopians from Omo, Afar and Gambella are far better now than during the emperor and Mengistu. Those who don’t accept the equality of nations and nationalities in Ethiopia and abroad shamelessly try to shade a crockodile tears about minorities. Ethiopia will continue the path of development started by the genius leadership of Melese Zenawi. We will carry the torch he lit and move it to finish.

    • Most people who consider Meles a dictator are only able to point out the fact that he was in power for so long and not what he accomplished in those years. The constitution allows him to be re-elected, indefinitely. Under his leadershiop,
      -Many universities were built including in places such as Afar (where most were nomads)
      -primary education enrollment is now 90% from a mere 20% (keep in mind population has doubled since he ascended to power)
      – Child mortality has fallen drastically
      – Access to healthcare, telephone service in almost every village
      -Recognizing Ethiopia is no longer about Tigre and Amara ( current PM is from Wolaita)
      Too many things to list but you get the gist.

  13. Abel

    Those bunches who are condemning the late P.M are way back and out of date in contemporary politics of Ethiopia. Some of them are just legacies of Butcher Mengistu who abruptly changed themselves into rediculous human rights advocacy. Some of them are just useless chauvinists who are not by any means willing to credit the fundamental change for simple vendetta. They think they are legitimate to the Menilik palace for ever and we know Meles’ leadership has shifted power out of their hands and delivered it to the nations and nationalists.
    Meles had offered the oposition and journalists a free atmosphere during his early reign, however these people have abused every freedom and almost turned the country into a kind of anarchy. Which government in the world can tolerate a situation of this kind?
    Responsible journalism and opposition is still prevailing in Ethiopia. Those who fled the country in the famous pretext have earned them Green card in the west. Nothing more nothing less.
    With regard to the noisy claims against the efforts of the country to utilize its centuries idle natural resources, no one in Ethiopia wpuld give it even a slight attention. We know the motive behind. They want us to starve and make mockery of that in their TVs and papers.
    Today’s Ethiopia is different and we will march on the development path which our selfless late P.M paved. Period!

  14. I am very sorry meles die as humanity but why people to cry that much we are going to die meles he is 21years dictitor he is never to leave top leader why he give chance for his friend always keep pm for what tplaf have only him what going next i see ethiopian with out food and shelter how meles develop economi everyboby struggle there life you guys see ethiopian parlament meeting opposition party struggle with meles lied every meeting maybe tiegry poeple u lived good life don’t be selffish

    • Hanna

      Why people cried for Meles? Because he is the man who brought positive changes to our lives and food on the table. He is the one who made Ethiopia realize it worth. If you are able to listen, listen to all those testimonial s given by the public and by African leaders. And seriously, you need to look for the meaning of dictator” in a dictionary. I bet it is different from ‘someone who stayed in power for 21 years’.

  15. betty

    Do you think the Jew people would have a sympathy on the death of Hitler? Do you think the people of Libya would have a sympathy on the death of Gaddaffi? So how come the people of Ethiopia would have a sympathy on the death of Zenawi who was responsible for the death of thousands of innocent Ethiopians? Regardless of your wishful thinking Meles Zenawi is a murderer who had so many bloods on his hand. Let him burn in hell along with Hitler & Gaddafi for evil crimes that he committed against humanity.

  16. Eskinder

    Mittal must be talking about India. Ethiopians economic transformation was all based on a pro-poor strategy. And the whole reason Meles was resented by the Likes of IMFA and other neo liberal messengers such as the Oakland Institute. As for the few toxic loud mouthed Ethiopian Oklanders; they relly matter little in Ethiopia. Where Millions of poor Ethiopians have benefited from the vision of Meles and that will continue. As for those who think Meles divided the country with ethnic federalism, the opposite is true Meles gave recognition to all and brought them to the table. To be frank some of these people we see now in the Ethiopian Parliament, I never saw them growing up in Ethiopia. Some I thought were from Sudan, Somalia or those who we called bush people in Addis or thought they were from other countries but never Ethiopian. Meles introduced us to our new brothers we are now one. Think of the brother toiling in the East Oakland ghettos who never set his foot in San fran sico or shared its riches.

  17. Elias Mastawal

    The Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is a clay in the poters hand of Global Imperialiesm.It was like what John Savibmi was 20 years ago for Angola,Mois Cohmbee for Congo,Chief Buthalizi for South Arica. I do not know why the Western Powers want to put in a new package this barberian Tigrey leader to the world. African stiill prefer Mugambe of Zimbabwe and Mabki of Soth Africa.

  18. Solomon

    If you say the country’s economy is growing and the living standard of the people improving, Why we ethiopians abroad sent money to our family day by day after each pay day? I do not understand how people living in USA and other developed nations can not understand the meaning of human rights and democracy. In addition, it is not clear to me what makes them unclear to understand the meaning of justice and equality since they are exercising in their every day life. Do they get chance president Obama and others kill their own people in the street in day time? Do they see again president Obama jails the journalists because of they oppose him not to be elected as president of the USA?

    • yohannes

      Solomon you need to ask your family that question not the goverment of Ethiopia

      • Solomon

        What is up Yonny? Do you think it is my family responsibility only to ask this bad government? If you say … Let us ask together, that will be fine…But, your comment is just like WOLEFENDI (Amharic word) for good for nothing people just like you. I hope I give you to learn at least one ethiopian amharic word.

        • Safia

          Dear Solomon, what does “human rights” mean to you?

          You even try to throw a rock at a United States police officer, you’ll be shot dead…You print false newspaper report in United Kingdom, your 100 year old newspaper company (News of the World) gets shut down and editors are arrested…Yet the same activity in Ethiopia is called a violation of human rights by “non-profit” White Western rights groups…Racist hypocrisy.

          Just because they are White, does not mean they are right…Think for yourself.

          • Solomon

            Woizero / woizerit Safia, Even Woyanes constitution says… Nobody can lose his/her life with out the court decision….. You do not understand the difference between rock and bullet. They are very different things at east based on the amount of injury they cause in reality. Do you think for those who throw a rock against well trained woyanes police, the answer should be a bullet. At last, I can not say nothing and I do not have time to say something to you because our opinion is very far away from each other. It seems like the distance between the earth and any planet you know in this world.

  19. mamo

    The ignorance of some Ethiopians on matters of such importance as the political predicament of Ethiopia is mind boggling. How could the person called Fantahun proclaim that Meles brought up Ethiopia to become a member of the G-20. Listen man. Meles has been invited at the meeting of the G-20 for the last several years as a representative of NEPAD- African Economic organization. To assume that Ethiopia is a member of the G-20 tells me that TPLF government has so many fools following them to the cliff.

  20. Berhan

    No matter what people say he is surely a great leader. People follow thier feeling based on current situation. The work of Meles is historical. He didn’t die only passed away. he will be remembered through out generations to come.
    some people don’t like him because of personal issues nothing to do with Ethiopia. They are not happy because their interst is touched, where are others hate him because they don’t know much how things suppose to work. They say he divided Ethiopia based on ethnicity. Yes they are right he didn’t created it they were there since Ethiopia was founded. What he did was gave them a right to be themselves then when they feel good about themselves they willingly acknowledge they are Ethiopians.
    It is time to abondan empty unity when their is no unity at heart. I hope his legacy will live for ever. He is a man 21st century. Sharp, articulate, full of knowledge, visionary etc. He alived a worthy life. Let’s bring the ball to our court and ask ourselves what did we do to have a right to critisize Meles?
    Dear Meles rest in Peace.

  21. yohannes

    will everyone is intittled to their opinion but not their own facts .this man work hard for 38 years with out a vacation take a moment and think about that .he took Ethiopia from dark edges to the present the difference is night and day.he made sure every ethiopian has the same right regardless of what part or tribe they are from that is the first to the disappointment of the angry Amharas who think they have a right to rule Ethiopia forever and look down on the rest. As for the indian Anuradah Mittal worry about India not Ethiopia or Africa .We know how the Indians in Africa are Nairobi is a good example that is not happening in Ethiopia keep your nose out. I encourage all to visit Ethiopia and see what this great ethiopian has done. his legacy will continue the young ethiopians will see to that those who were beneficiaries of the education with out having the the money to pay for it.by the way the memorial service is only in Oakland no san jose memorial

    • Solomon

      Hello Detera Yohannes, You can and even if you want you can be buried with him. Whether you like it or not, Ethiopia and Ethiopians are happy because recently two enemies of the people were gone. They never come again. Their spirit may be in your head but ,it is not very much dangerous and injurious to our people. Again ,two Ethiopian enemies were gone forever. By the way, do you remember the sing song Gone…gone… forever….

      • Solomon

        You are right our hero Meles and our father Abune Paulos are gone but your happiness will last short as the power you are hungry to grab is far away. Their legacy and vision will be with us forever. We will show you once again. Yederg rezerazoch are salivating to take power thinking EPRDF is weak post Meles. Think twice dude. You will be burned badly.

  22. justice4all

    Some say meles brought huge development to Ethiopia. He constructed roads what else? Buildings in some cities. But roads were also built during the 5 years of Italian occupation. Ofcourse, Construction of houses is underway in some cities. But who is behined it/who is the owner?
    It is true that very few groups are enjoying life in his regime. They are his party members, his officials, his own ethnic groups. His cabinets at federal, zonal, woreda and kebele levels loot the property of the country such as land and they become the owner of different storey buildings& modern cars. The same person(cabinet) loot land from different towns& cities where as the vasty majorty, poor like me, couldn’t get an acces to land to construct a house not in the city even at the woreda level. Life becomes extremly bitter now days for the vast majority of Ethiopians. The prices of food, clothes, house rent& transport are unfordable. About 95% of the population are suffering due to high cost of life and at desperate situations. I couldn’t undertand the definition of develpment if we claim these situations development.
    His has zero tolarance for dissidents. He organized his own parties from each ethnic groups& at the same time he appointed terriorsts. A person out of his party is regarded as an enemy of the country and member of the terriorist group (appointed by his parliament). There is no freedom of press&speech.
    People including me mourn. But it doesn’t mean that meles is a democrat. That is just our culture. Also remember that people are pressed by medias and officials at different levels to mourn.
    I’m not concluding that has’nt done any thing good. But his success is extremly exaggerated by his supporters and state medias.
    We expect a basic change in freedom of press, speech, actvists and opposition parties. Our developement is at infancy stage. Cost of life is unfordble these days.
    Pretention can’t bring change. Let’s serve the trueth. The coming leader must work hard to pull the people out of poverty.

    • Solomon Frew

      @ Justice4all,

      You mean justice for few select during Hailesselassie and Mengistu era. You are right you don’t have the capacity to understand development. The high cost of living is always correlated with development and no one has said life is better in Ethiopia for the poor. We need to work more to make poverty history but as long as there ditractors like you we can’t waste time explaining to you about development. Meles didn’t bring development. The Ethiopian people under his leadership brought the change in my beloved nation.If you want the type of ESAT and Ethiopian review media to be allowed in Ethiopia in order to satisfay your wish of free speech and press, you can hung yourself. Ethiopians don’t want berewelede free press.If you measure tolerance by allowing wicked opposition to cause havoc and chaos, that is not good leadership. I don’t think you believe in equality of nations and nationalities. If you do, I don’t think you have problem of seeing nations and nationalities organized to defend their rights and culture.
      There is no pretention here. It is real and Meles has accomplished a lot and no one has said Meles is perfect. Leaders can make mistakes and it is not easy to satisfay everyone. But you are confused about the true meaning of development. Ethiopia has achieved a lot under Meles Zenawi and EPRDF leadership but it is true that the poor and middle class are struggling. That doesn’t mean that there is no development. Forget about the free press and opposition. Focus instead how can you help your country to eradicate poverty. Do your part.

    • Hanna

      You know, you don’t need a reason to be a Diaspora. It is okay to chose where you live. SO don’t make an excuse of Melse or his political system to live abroad. Don’t be in such denial. I live in Addis and I am not affiliated with the ruling party. No one forced Ethiopians to cry for Meles. But we did because we deeply feel the loss. The mass you saw at the funeral doesn’t even compare with the crowed lining up at the palace to bid farewell and pay their respect. People lined up the whole day. He deserved such respect and much more. You know what? Meles won even by his death because he crashed the assumption that he is not supported by the people. The last two weeks proved that he was not only supported but loved.

  23. Doud

    Meles is Ethiopias hero and Africas dynamic leader. Who ever said what ever no one can deny his intelligence. After all to say something abt him, one must have to c himself first and say what did I do for my country.

  24. Tergume

    Dear Oakland North writer
    In the digital world, the quality of reporting has been changing. Your information on this page lacks serious factors to provide accurate and validated information. You mentioned on your article that there are about 20-25,000 Ethiopians living in the bay area. I am not sure how many of the Ethiopians (I didnt say Eritrean) asked if we are divided on the performance of our late leader, PM Meles Zenawi. You could have surveyed at least few Ethiopians. You could have also post a survey online to reach at the conclusion. I hope you may observed the the response of my dear fellow Ethiopians on this page. I am not trying to give you examples of our late visionary leader rather to suggest that you could have better write an article of such nature. Hopefully, next time, you may take extra effort to produce a balanced and fair article. After all, we live in a society where you can outreach to your audience in smart way.

    Thank you

  25. Solomon Frew

    The hero Meles in fact has shown you and your masters how Ethiopia born system can develop a country like Ethiopia and other African nations as long as the stupid people like you shut off from being a detractors. We will continue to keep you at Bay and finish what our hero has started. You have an eye but can’t see, you have an ear but can’t hear, you have a brain but can’t think. My hero is gone but his legacy, wisdom, vision and resilient will stay with me and I will keep up the resolute to make you and your yederg rezeraochz from the planet earth.

    To deal with you, I don’t think I need to graduate from any school. The political school that germinate in Dedebit marched to the Menelik Palace is changing Africa Unfortunately, you are trying to teach me to read and be myself. I hope an ignorant like you can’t teach himself let alone me. I wish I could have 1/3rd of Meles’s knowledge. If you were truly independent minded, you wouldn’t have blinded by your haterd. Wake up and smell the coffe beans. Ethiopia is growing and marching foreward. You are crawling like a turtle. Once we say goodbye to our reverend leader, we will show you how we can make another history. The power you are dreaming for won’t come forever.

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