While insults were hurled outside the gates, all was peaceful in Roone yesterday afternoon as Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi addressed the issue of “The Current Global Environment and its Impact in Africa” as part of Columbia University’s World Leaders Forum. Mark Hay reports on this smooth-talking politician’s calm yet controversial visit to Morningside.

Zenawi in 2008

Zenawi in 2008

From the protests outside, one might have expected more of a ruckus in Roone yesterday as two-decade Ethiopian leader (currently Prime Minister) Meles Zenawi prepared to take the stage. But it seems that Columbia has learned from Minutemen, head-kicking, and Ahmadinejad fever: no bags were allowed into the event, suited men ominously lined the south wall, keeping sentinel watch over the full crowd, and the question and answer segment was kept pegged to artificial pacifism.

Though docile, the crowd inside represented the staid counterpart of the protests outside—a slightly larger group who view Zenawi as the face of an independent and growing Africa, as a paragon of stability and savvy, cheering wildly at his every answer; a slightly smaller group who view the man as a dictator limiting free press, jailing and intimidating opposition parties and minorities, and manipulating his Western allies, cheering with equal vigor but less mass at every critique of the man and then grumbling to each other in Amharic. And clever man that he is (view him as the devil or, as he seemed to wish, the savior, he is a smooth operator), Zenawi did not want to stir the waters.

Zenawi’s address itself presented little of interest on the surface. He focused in on an element of Ethiopia lauded by Joseph Stiglitz in his introduction of Zenawi: economic progress via uniquely African methods. In a soft and drowsy, yet audible academic’s voice, Zenawi presented the audience with his summarization of neoliberalism’s flirtation and eventual abusive and destructive relationship with Africa. The reforms of neoliberal financial lenders “were sold as the ultimate salvation of [Africa’s] problems,” said Zenawi. “The reforms could not and did not lead to salvation,” but instead, he argued, created three consecutive lost decades for Africa.

In the past this may have been a daring assertion, to march into the universe’s financial hub and speak ill of the reigning financial order, but Zenawi knows when to tap discontent with existing institutions, to mine the discontents of the world as he accuses the larger world of mining Africa. And he knows when to play the cards of hope, ideals, and faith. For, not to fear, said Zenawi, “there is a silver lining for Africa because of the global economic crisis.” There is a chance for Africans to determine their own future, to overcome the handicaps imposed by circumstance and foreign hands, and to find salvation, utilizing itself as a source of vital resources and the site of a future manufacturing hub. It’s a happy note that jabs at America and its old financial order, but does so in a way that feels inclusive to spurned Americans and calming to those jittery with apocalyptic visions.

The audience, their curiosity piqued by the protests and screeds flowing in over the past weeks, attempted to draw Zenawi towards confronting the more dubious aspects of his legacy. What of his 99.6 percent victory in the last elections? Well, said Zenawi, that was just the percent of seats won in the parliament, meaning it only represented a 50+1 victory in 99.6 percent of precincts—not a hard task when one has provided seven years of growth and stability. What of free choice for Africans when a man who tethers the press voices it? Well, Zenawi has “contributed [his] fair share to fighting systems in Ethiopia that were unmistakably oppressive” and given a voice to everyone. But when his former enemies speak they are less than grateful accepting the man who overthrew their regime, and so some toes must be stepped upon (i.e. it is apparently fair to deny Voice of America broadcast rights because it is dominated by old regime allies and the U.S. restricts VoA broadcasting in America as well). How does one prove that Ethiopia gets along with its neighbors? Well, we are on good terms with all of them but Al-Shabaab in Somalia and Eritrea, but they’re Al-Qaeda-linked and no one wants Ethiopia to go soft on that. On and on, Zenawi slid by offering up calm, rational and almost totally convincing explanations for his track record, eliciting raucous applause and nods of enlightened understanding from most in the crowd.

But there remained the little cracks in Zenawi’s arguments—how can a man with clear ethnic enemies in distinct regions of his nation have secured a 50+1 percent majority even in those regions? When one man, who grilled Zenawi about political prisoners and limitations on the press, attempted to redirect the Prime Minister to answer the entirety of his question, or to offer more than one showy example in his favor, he was emphatically denied the opportunity to follow up by the moderator, Professor Mamadou Diouf.

In his introduction of the event Provost Claude Steele, as so many others, defended Zenawi’s presence by claiming that the PM would face a lively dialogue with students, perhaps forcing him to answer questions he would not in his own nation. Instead of a dialogue, Zenawi faced a platform through which he could answer questions on his own terms (short and sweet and tinged with guilt, authority, and a sense of competence) without fear of refocusing or substantive discussion and argumentation from the strong and willful minds trapped prone before him by the moderator’s lash. Steele and the university promised a robust and uninhibited dialogue, that was the key to justifying Zenawi’s presence to detractors, but such a thing does not exist if students may receive answers, but not question them, follow up on them, or explore them farther.

This question aside momentarily, Zenawi may not have shown any more than he would have liked, but he did show a finesse and wit that explain his decades-long retention of power far better than claims of coercion or of national adoration. The man caters to the interests of his hosts, playing on American financial misgivings, preoccupations with regional stability, showing the abstract signs of progress and promise one desires from an ally. He legitimized himself by appealing to what Americans wish to see in Africa, telling us all “that [Ethiopia is] making progress, that [they] are getting out of the circle of poverty and violence.”

And those thornier issues of rights, legitimacy and democracy, he swept under the rug with a backhanded compliment. Zenawi commended students for attempting to learn about Ethiopia in response to the hubbub around his visit, even if what they figured out wasn’t consistent, as he said, with reality. Perhaps at some point the University ought to re-invite this man—though dubious, he has a sweet silver tongue, and is an enigma to unravel—so that we might pull out our misconceptions once more, and examine them in more detail, in a real and enduring dialogue in which the quality and depth of and completion of an answer to a question is respected more than the quantity asked.

Photo from the Wikimedia Commons