Maaza Mengiste on Meles’s conflicted legacy
Maaza Mengiste, the author of the critically acclaimed novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, writes on Meles’ legacy. Writing for the prestigious literary journal Granta, the New York-based Ethiopian novelist lauds the late prime minister for spurring economic growth in the country but raises issues on the omnipresent leader’s record on human rights and freedom of speech. The author in this softly flowing article says Meles has both pushed Ethiopia forward and held her people down. Extracts.
Meles Zenawi is dead. After weeks of speculation, the body of Ethiopia’s Prime Minister has come home from a hospital to be buried in the country he led for nearly twenty years. I sit at my desk in New York City, trying to fathom what this means for the Ethiopian diaspora and for those still at home. As surely as I can go to Ethiopia and see the country’s stunning growth, I am aware of the rapidly shrinking freedoms for both foreign and national press in the country. Eight journalists, including Eskinder Nega, winner of the 2012 PEN Freedom to Write Award, still languish in prison. Meles is dead, I tell myself. I erase his name from the sentence, and imagine his grieving family. My sympathies go to them. But it is the name that adds weight and meaning; it is everything.
Meles Zenawi’s legacy is as complicated as the life he chose to live, under a name (Meles) that he took from a fallen comrade during his days as a guerrilla fighter. The fact is that under Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia witnessed unprecedented growth and became one of the stabilizing forces in the Horn of Africa. He worked to eradicate poverty and for seven years, nearly sixty per cent of the country’s total expenditures went to sectors that could help alleviate the problem. He has both pushed Ethiopia forward and held her people down. I suspect I am not alone in teetering between these two sides. But I’m bothered by this vacillation, by the necessity of thinking that one right can negate another.
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