Picture: Tewodros Mekbeb – Large crowd of protesters have gathered at Broadway in New York to confront Africa’s worst dictator, Meles Zenawi.
23 September 2010 CS — Dueling protests faced off on Broadway Wednesday as Columbia anticipated the arrival of Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi.
Wielding horns and drums, a large crowd gathered on Broadway in the early afternoon to support Zenawi, while a rival protest against the prime minister led a demonstration on the other side of 115th. Meanwhile, audience members already began to line up outside Roone Arledge auditorium in Lerner for the 4:00 speech.
Zenawi spoke for less than 20 minutes inside Lerner, where he said that people have given up on Africa’s contribution to the world economy and that Africans have the chance to generate growth themselves. The continent must continue to produce and consume goods, he said.
The questions and answer session, however, is where most of the criticisms of Zenawi’s regime were raised.
How was Zenawi able to get 99.6 percent of the votes in the last Ethiopian election?, the first questioner asked to applause.
“We got 99.6 percent of the seats” not the votes, Zenawi said, adding that in their system one just needs a majority of the votes for each seat to win each seat.
He then cited the growth in Ethiopia as being the reason, he suspects, of the support he received in the election.
Another questioner asked about the free choice of Ethiopians.
“Should we really take you at your word when your country is known to restrict the press and to restrict the websites the Ethipoian’s might read?” the questioner asked.
“I think choice is important and fundamental to every human being’s free impression of himself,” the prime minister replied.
“I believe I have contributed my fair share to fighting the systems in Ethiopia that were unmistakably oppressive,” he said, referring to the previous regime.
However, a Nigerian Columbia College senior later asked how Zenawi believes his regime is different than the previous one.
“The period of Red Terror is a period where people were killed without any recourse to the courts,” Zenawi said. “That time of criminality and oppression is dead, is finished, and is not coming back.”
Another person asked what the most important role is in Ethiopain’s happiness and what role Zenawi plays in that factor.
“I want to study that factor in ‘gross domestic happiness.’ As of now, I don’t know enough to understand it yet,” Zenawi said.
But, he added, “The main challenge in Ethiopia is poverty. Most of you who have heard of Ethiopia will have heard of it in terms of poverty … It is my hunch that overcoming poverty and ensuring full security could contribute to the happiness of Ethiopians.”
Another questioner said that some of the media outlets prior to his speech used the term “dictator” to refer to the prime minister. She asked, “Any regrets?”
“I have none. I’m particularly proud of the efforts of my party,” he responded.
Zenawi was also asked his thoughts on term limits.
After explaining that Ethiopia has a parliamentary system that is just as democratic as the presidential system, he said, “In case you are wondering whether I will remain in power until kingdom come, I can assure you that this will be my last term in power.”
Outside, members from the loud gathering of Zenawi supporters said they were there to stand up for the prime minister’s improvements to the country’s infrastructure, while his detractors called him a dictator who killed opponents and crushed free speech.
Anteneh Desta, 32, came from Arlington, Va. to protest Zenawi. He says Zenawi’s supporters represent less than 1% of the Ethiopian population — but are part of the ethnic group he supports, and get special treatment in the country. Zenawi “promised freedom from the leaders of the previous government” when he was running for office 20 years ago, Desta said, but “introduced ethnic division in his rule. He divided the country into nine different ethnic groups. Things are becoming worse and worse. There is no freedom of speech. All the journalists have fled out of the country.”
He and others gathered outside Morton Williams instead supporting jailed opposition leader Birtukan Mideksa.
On the other side of the street, Weldu Reda, 45, spoke favorably of Zenawi. “We are in support of the Prime Minister. He is intelligent. He is the number one administration in Africa. He makes a lot of differences. There is a grown economy, all democratic, it is peaceful.”
He then rejoined the people around him in chanting “We love Meles Zenawi.”
Earlier Wednesday, Zelalem Dawit, a first-year SEAS grad student from Ethiopia, was walking by Lerner when he spotted two posters advertising the speech on a nearby a bulletin board, turned around, and ripped both down.
“I don’t think he will even need to use his question-evading skills that much, because I don’t expect the students here to know the reality of the situation. He is supported by the American government. In terms of aid, in terms of moral support, in terms of military aid. I don’t expect Columbia to know what he is really like, so they can’t ask the pertinent questions.”
“He’s been in power for 20 years. You can’t call that a democracy,” Dawit added.
Ethiopian-born Sara Elemayehu, 45, said she couldn’t believe the school had invited Zenawi to speak.
“We are very angry that Columbia, as if they don’t know what is going on for the past 18 years [in Ethiopia], invited Zenawi. This is like inviting Hitler, only it’s happening in Africa, so it doesn’t matter.”
And Tuleu Mamo was torn. “I want to be a voice for my people and I believe in the freedom of speech, but this is a big pain for me,” he said. “Why is Columbia inviting controversial dictators? They are giving the green light for dictators because despite what they do, they can show up in public and talk about it. Come on!
Shouts of “Viva Zenawi!” were audible as the prime minister’s supporters sang “Agarachin Ethiopia,” a call-and-response chant with a pulsing drumbeat.
“The song supports the development of the country. It is a song to move forward,” Mulugeta Wedge, 51, of West Harlem said.
Zenawi’s government “came here and overthrew the Derg regime, the Communist Party,” Wedge added. “He asked all his opposition to form a government with him. 26 parties joined with him. He unified the country. The people across the street [detractors] support the old regime.”
Solomon Michael, 52, another Ethiopia transplant to New York, held a sign with his friend that read “Shame on Bollinger for hosting a tyrant.”
Zenawi is “leading by killing. I don’t know why he [Bollinger] brings him here,” Michael said. “Nobody benefits from having him here. One ethnic group is the whole government.”
Michael also expected that in his speech, Zenawi will give off the wrong image of Ethiopia. “What do you expect from the devil?”