Meles’ Columbia Nightmare: Step-by-Step Guide – Eskinder Nega, Addis Ababa

September 24th, 2010 Print Print Email Email

First, I take off my hat to a brilliant week in which people power prevailed over the trappings of power. The heros of this saga: Ethiopian websites; DC Amharic talk radios; and Freedom Riders from DC and Boston.

Here is the full story:

September 13 2010—Meles’ bio: the “seasoned leader”!

Columbia University’s World Leaders Forum, which is controversially enhancing the university’s profile by giving it global exposure, announces a scheduled speech by Ethiopian PM Meles Zenawi on September 22nd 2010. Profiling Meles, WLF’s website lauds him as a “seasoned leader,” sparking outrage. But while the entry on Meles noted
“Ethiopia’s progress in many areas including education, transportation, health and energy (under his seasoned leadership),” the omission—hardly an oversight—of democracy, rule of law and civil liberties is overwhelmed in the storm of protest that ensues.

Ethiopian websites lead the charge as political parties watch from the sidelines. “It is unbelievable that such a description about (Meles) is posted on a prestigious American university’s website,” protested one of them, the Ethiopianreview.

September 14 2010—- Call for a Grand Public Demonstration!

Ethiopians in the Tri-State area( New York, New Jersey and Connecticut) call for a “grand public demonstration against Meles Zenawi.” Detailing their reason, they say: “Certain Columbia University Professors…. have chosen to give the dictator a platform that he does not deserve.” The “Certain Columbia University Professors” are Joseph Stieglitz and Jeffery Sachs, both economists, for whom human rights an democracy are best left to others.

September 15 2010— PEOPLE POWER: Meles’ bio withdrawn!

Reacting to a barrage of irate emails, Columbia does the unprecedented: withdraw a bio of a leader of a country in response to public outrage. People’s power prevails over conventionally unbreachable protocol. No doubt, the diplomatic world is stunned!

The new bio is at best banal: “An address by PM Meles Zenawi followed by a question and answer session with the audience.” No less staggeringly, the theme of the speech is also changed from “ Ethiopia and African Leadership,” a role he clearly covets but which is increasingly elusive after his party’s 99.6% “election victory,” to
the nonsensical “The current global economy and its impact.” A soap opera twist is developing to this saga.

WLF issues statement about its bio fiasco. “It’s a long standing editorial policy to limit the biography to basic factual information,” said the statement. The mishap was blamed on an unattributed text obtained from the “Ethiopian mission (to the UN.)” Embarrassed university officials refuse to comment further. But Columbia
Spectator, students run paper, disputes the university’s statement.

“We did some googling,” wrote Spectator’s Thomas Rhiel, “and we found that theWLF website probably drew heavily not from Ethiopian diplomats, but from a random internet comment(from a certain Shewit 1) when they drafted the original bio page for Zenawi.” A full blown scandal is in the making! Will the New York mainstream press pick it up? Probably not; the November elections are just around the corner.

September 16 2010—Meles’ bio flop becomes news!

Columbia Spectator runs a story on Meles’ bio “that proved(to be) inflammatory.” WLF brings in (to Columbia) global leaders, wrote Alix Pianin quoting promotional sources, “in an attempt to advance lively, uninhibited dialogue.”

September 17 2010 —- Calls for Freedom Riders rally in DC!

The campaign to rally protesters from DC,where the largest concentration of Ethiopians live in the US, escalates with two popular radio stations, Addis Demits and Nesanet le-Ethiopia; a civic group, Ethiopian Civics Group; and UDJ-DC organizing Freedom Riders to New York on chartered buses.

The first of two articles by Professor Al Mariam appears. “Ethiopians eagerly await your statement on September 22, 2010 that Columbia University condemns all violations of human rights, repression and theft of elections in Ethiopia by Mr. Zenawi and his regime,” wrote Al Mariam to Lee C. Bollinger. Columbia’s President. Yilma Bekele, Robele Ababya, Tatek Menji and others also write open letters to Columbia.

The conservative Washington Times runs a commentary by J.P. Freire. “Three years after inviting Iranian President Mohammed Ahmedinejd…yet another dictator(is)to join Columbia’s anti-democracy pavilion,” writes Freire, citing Parade magazine’s “World’s Worst dictators” list of 2009,in which Meles is placed at number 16.A true conservative, Freire couldn’t resist a jibe at Columbia, a bastion of east coast elitist liberalism to him: “Columbia has an appreciation for totalitarian sensibilities when it comes to free speech. Check out its rating on You can be punished for “leaning over, invading a person’s space” as “sexual harassment,” and “behavior that is motivated by hostility to race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, national origin, gender identity and expression, age, or disability.” Hummm. Does hating “neftegnas” qualify for “behavior motivated by hostility to ethnicity?(ha ha ha)

September 18 2010—“Entrepreneur Professors” (obviously, Stieglitz and Sachs).

Columbian Economics Professor Jagdish Bhagwah issues a statement supporting the invitation in the spirit of free dialogue, but harshly condemns “entrepreneur Professors” (obviously, Stieglitz and Sachs). They have personal agendas, he argues. “In short, the real issues are different from what you worry about. We need a dialogue on how Universities are being “captured” by such enterpreners who should not be in inivresities, or at least in prominent positions at Universities,” he sums up. Ouch! Will they respond?

September 19 2010—Spectator urges protest against Meles!

Columbia Spectator comes out with biting editorial, urges students to protest against Meles. “His government has carried out numerous extrajudicial killings, imprisoned political dissidents, and brutally suppressed protests by activists at Addis Ababa University… We do not oppose the decision to invite Zenawi to campus. Rather, we believe the University should take more seriously the fact that the Forum serves as a powerful platform for invitees, particularly those who fall on the margins of the international community….. There isn’t a large Ethiopian community at Columbia, but that doesn’t excuse us from examining that nation’s political strife…. Activists from outside Columbia have scheduled a protest here for the day of Zenawi’s speech. It would be a shame if no one within the gates raised a voice about this event.”

The theme of Meles’ is yet again altered, this time its “ The current global environment and its impact in Africa.” This event is deeply in trouble. Nothing like this has ever happened at WLF. It’s easy to imagine Meles’ rage. This is supposed to be his shining moment.

September 20 2010—“There are his victims for you to consider, Columbia!”

Columbia Spectator runs a story about students’ reaction to Meles’ invitation. Heben Nigatu, an Ethiopian student at Columbia comments, “I called my mom. She was even more furious than I was. It was outrageous that Columbia didn’t fact-check. It was beyond insensitive.”

Serkalem Fasil, a well known victim of Meles’ rights abuse, writes a letter to Columbia President from Ethiopia. “There are his victims for you to consider,” she tells Lee.

September 21 2010—The Fall: Meles moved to Ahmedinejad’s hall!

A totally unexpected and humiliating development for Meles . Columbia moves Meles speech from the venue-of –choice for its respected speakers, the Low Library, to Roone Arledge, where Iran’s Ahmedinejad delivered his speech. A clear snub. Unprecedented. Ample reason for Meles to cancel the speech. He is clearly unwanted. They are daring him to cancel. Will he do it?

Al Mariam deals with Columbia’s decision to invite Meles in a second article. “In my view, it would be a crying shame for Zenawi to hop on his plane and go back to Ethiopia mumbling to himself something about the “extreme Diaspora” and so on because he is heckled, disrupted or somehow impeded from speaking. I say if we can tolerate racist and hate speech on university campuses, we can also tolerate the rant of a petty tyrant for an hour or two,” writes the principled Al Mariam.

September 22 2010—The climax!

9:30 AM—Chartered buses leave DC and Boston with Freedom Riders. EPRDF supporters finalize their own pro-Meles rally. Solmon Tekalign reportedly to join them.( Where are the public figures on the other

10:00 AM—Security beefed up at Columbia. No protesters to be allowed on Campus grounds.Meles at the UN to deliver speech on MDG.(yawn!!!)

11:00 AM— Freedom Riders—heroes of the democratic cause— in Delaware, the first (US) state.

12:00 PM—Columbia media center announces Meles’ speech will not be broadcast live. One more snub?

2:00 PM—Freedom Riders arriving in the Big Apple.New York is oblivious to the presence of Meles. (Meles who?)

4:00 PM:—Two demonstrations underway. One against Meles. One for Meles. Each side doing its best to outshine the other. But no doubt the enthusiasm lies with the Freedom Riders. There lies the real story. The others are spoil sports. It rarely works!

4:09 PM:—Meles onstage. Columbia President Lee Bollinger absent.

Whew!( Thank you, Columbia! Thank you, Lee!) Provost Claude Steele introduces him “We do no endorse our guests!” Meles takes it all. Ouch! Ouch! Ouch! Doesn’t look too Presidential! An Embarrassed Stieglitz takes over from Claude. In no mood to stand up for his friend, he is back in his seat in less than five minutes. Not a good day for Meles. And worse, about twenty empty seats.

4:16 PM—Meles begins to speak. As usual, a clear commanding voice.

Good English. You have to give him that much. But no enthusiasm. He is not even trying to look engaged. He is pushing himself to do this….Yawn!… Hoping this is not a long speech. Everyone is waiting for the questions and answers session. What is he saying?….

4:30 PM—Wait a minute!…Is he done?….Yes!…Yes!…Yes!… He is done!!…How long was that?…Less than 20 minutes!… A new record for him!….A new record for WLF!…One that will stay put for a long time to come!!… Meles’ real message, beyond the stale speech: I am unhappy!,,,, Well, so is Columbia, sir!!!!… You should have
canceled!. This is more embarrassing!…Long live People Power!!!!

4:31 PM:..Time for questions and answers….The usual answers to important questions…Dodging the real issues…Too trifle to be detailed here….But then, what is new about Meles?…Will look at you straight in the eyes and say that 99.6% “election victory” is within the realm of reason in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious Ethiopia!….Such cynicism!!!…

5:06 PM: It’s over!…Indeed a teachable moment for Meles in the land of the brave!

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