Meles Zenawi was born in Adwa, Tigray in Northern Ethiopia, to an Ethiopian father from Adwa, Ethiopia and his mother from Adi Quala, Eritrea . He joined the Medical Faculty at the Addis Ababa University(formerly known as Haile Selassie University) where he studied for two years before interrupting his studies in 1974 to join the Marxist-Leninist League of Tigray within the Tigrayan Peoples' Liberation Front (TPLF).
Photo: Meles and his wife
Rise to power
The TPLF was one of many armed groups struggling against the dictator, Colonel Lieutenant Mengistu Hailemariam. Zenawi was elected Leader of the Leadership Committee in 1979 and Leader of the Executive Committee in 1983. He is the chairperson of both the TPLF and the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) since the Derg regime was overthrown in 1991. The EPRDF is an alliance of the country's four main political parties coming from the Amhara State, Oromia State, Southern Nations Nationalities & Peoples State and Tigray State. He was president of Ethiopia during the transitional period after the Derg, during which Eritrea suceded from the country and the experiment of ethnic federalism started. Then in 2000, he was elected to PM in Ethiopia's first ever multi-party elections when his ruling EPRDF party shared parliament seats with the opposition party United Ethiopian Democratic Forces (UEDF). Irregularities were reported by foreign observers. Meles Zenawi is currently ranked 16th on Parade Magazine’s 2009 World’s Worst Dictator list.
Early support for EPRDF
EPRDF's victory was said to be a triumph for the thousands of Ethiopians who were killed, for the millions of Ethiopians who were victims of the country's biggest famine during the Derg regime when some estimates put up to 1.5 million deaths of Ethiopians from famine and the Red Terror. Accordingly, the big support it received from peasants and rural areas helped EPRDF maintain peace and stability. Foreign support was diverse; Western nations, as well as the Arab League, supported the EPRDF rebels against the communist Moscow-supported government (although the TPLF was at the time Marxist) at the height of the Cold War.On April 23 2009 in a letter written to the united nations commission for human rights office, the president of Genocide watch has appealed for the UN office to take the initiative to call the ICC to indict Meles Zenawi for ordering the crime of Genocide against the Anuak of Ethiopia, a tiny ethnic group found in South western Ethiopia.
(Photo:Meles Zenawi (r) and Berket Simon (c) at a congress during the struggle)
There were some misconceptions that the United States helped the EPRDF rebels to get power in Ethiopia and many angry demonstrators in Addis Ababa protested against Herman Cohen, the State Department's chief of African affairs who attended a conference that demonstrators viewed as legitimizing the EPRDF. A New York Times article in 1991 said,
"Demonstrators cursing the Americans ignore two realities. The cold war is over in Africa, and Ethiopia is no longer a focus of superpower rivalry. Otherwise it would have been unthinkable for four contending Marxist groups to turn to Washington for help. The other reality is that Mr. Cohen cannot undo at the conference table what has happened on the battlefield.
Since then, Addis Ababa remained the base of the massive nationwide opposition to EPRDF, while the southern region of Ogaden remained the most active region for armed opposition forces.
Even though EPRDF's success was praised by none and there was an anti-EPRDF sentiment in all over Ethiopia the dictator continued to cling to power through brutal force. These were just the beginning of the opposition to Meles Zenawi's EPRDF party after it gained power and more strong opposition was followed.
Interim to Prime Minister
Following the defeat and exile of Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991, the July Convention of Nationalities was held. It was the first Ethiopian multinational convention where delegates of various nations and organizations were given fair and equal representation and observed by various international organizations including the United Nations, Organization for African Unity, European Economic Community, and the United States and the United Kingdom. Out of the 24 groups, the ones with the most number of mandates in the council were EPRDF (32), OLF(12), IFLO (3) and OILF(3.) Near the end of the year, Meles Zenawi became the Interim President of Ethiopia from 1991 to 1995. Meles Zenawi was then elected as Prime Minister and Dr. Negasso Gidada as President of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia in 1995 following the first elections, that were heavily boycotted by opposition parties. International Election Observers concluded that had opposition parties contested, they could have won seats. In 2000 Meles was elected Prime Minister after national elections where the main opposition UEDF gained parliamentary seats. Meles was also elected for another term after his party, EPRDF, won the elections, while the top opposition groups, the CUD, UEDF, UEDP and OFDM, gained a lot of votes in the 2005 elections.
More than 30 other political parties participated in the election. Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was elected into office after the elections, the top favorites being the EPRDF and Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD). These elections have been the most contested and the most controversial in Ethiopia's short democratic history, with some opposition parties arguing that the election was stolen by the ruling party. Allegations of fraud were especially strong in the rural areas, as the opposition parties won in most urban areas, whereas the EPRDF won mostly in rural districts.
Although the aftermath of the election led to riots and demonstrations against the results, particularly in the capital, it had to be stopped by unprepared peace officers, that were killed in line of protecting the public from the chaos that was intended to change the Government unconstitutionally and by force. Some opposition parties blamed the government for the violence, even though they were tried and convicted in the court of the countries law. At the end of the demonstration, with the seven police officers 193 citizens were dead showing both the violent nature of the protesters as well as the unsuspected action of the police force. Many protesters and around 75 police officers were also injured.This led to many rounds of accusations between the government and the protesters where the Information Minister Berhan Hailu said the government was "sorry and sad", but blamed the violence on the CUD.The opposition parties have continuously accused the government of a massacre. EU election observers concluded the election failed to meet international standards for a free and fair elections while the Carter Center concluded the election was fair but with many irregularities and a lot of intimidation by both sides especially the government.Meanwhile CUD opposition members continued to accuse the ruling party of fraud. However some accusations of fraud coming from opposition parties were very strange. For instance, a day before the final count of votes in Addis Ababa, the CUD opposition party accused the ruling party of fraud and decided not to accept the result in Addis Ababa. But it ended up that the CUD party was actually refusing its own victory, since the vote count showed that the CUD won 100% of the votes in Addis Ababa. According to critics, this strange event led to speculations that the main opposition party, CUD, had already planned not to accept the result no matter what, in order to paint a bad image of Meles's ruling party, the elections and gain the support of the international community for the predestined failure of the election.
In an interview, the United States AID director repeated that the Carter Center understands that the ruling party (EPRDF) won the election and most of his peers confirm that as well. The USAID director also blamed some EU observers, accused them of bias and blamed them for favoring the opposition. He said some European observers practiced out of their jobs and went "over board in encouraging the opposition and making them think that somehow they had won the election. He concluded that American government never believed the opposition won the election.
Also an inquiry on the violence claimed the property damage caused by the rioters and protesters in Addis Ababa and other cities totaled to 4.45 million Ethiopian Birr, including 190 damaged buses and 44 cars as police officers tried to restrain the rioters. The SBS journalist, Olivia Rousset, indicated that the government used too much force to calm the rioters. She also said that the "stone-throwing rioters" tried to take the guns from the security forces.
Meanwhile many international media outlets continued to display the post election bloodshed, followed by criticism of Meles's ruling party. At the same time, some people implied that opposition members were planning to use violence or provoke it as a means to gain power. In fact, various events were said to show that many opposition supporters, even in universities, try to provoke the police hoping that the security forces will overreact and create chaos.