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Oakland’s Ethiopians Divided Over Prime Minister’s Legacy

August 30, 2012
Oakland North


On a table by the door in Addis Restaurant on Oakland’s Telegraph Avenue, a tall stack of solemn invitations sits amid piles of business cards advertising nearby Ethiopian-owned beauty salons, photography studios and computer repair services.

“All Ethiopians and friends of Ethiopians who live in the Bay Area are invited to join us for the memorial service in Honor of the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi,” the invitations read.

Meles (Ethiopians are formally referred to by their first names) died August 20, at the age of 57, of an undisclosed illness. The Bay Area will host two memorial services on Sunday – in Oakland at the Jack London Aquatic Center, and in San Jose at the Masonic Temple.

Nunu Kidane, Director of Priority Africa Network, a Bay Area-focused organization that serves those of African decent, estimates that between 20-25,000 Ethiopians live in the Bay Area.

“Most Ethiopians in the Bay Area would have heard about Meles’ death by text message,” she says. “I received seven texts about it myself.”

Biniam Girma, a volunteer at the Ethiopian Community and Cultural Center, said he first heard of Meles’ death online.

“I was following the announcements on the Voice of America Amharic website and also on ETV,’’ he said, referring to Ethiopian Television, Ethiopia’s state broadcaster.

Many in the Ethiopian diaspora are likely to watch ETV’s live coverage of Meles’ funeral online and via satellite, broadcast from Addis Ababa on Sunday.

Meles’ legacy is a divisive topic amongt Bay Area Ethiopians, most of whom live in Oakland and San Jose. Some say his skills as an economist will drive development in Ethiopia for decades to come, while others view him as a dictator responsible for human rights atrocities.

A little farther up Telegraph, three taxi drivers sat outside Café Colucci, a popular meeting place for the Ethiopian community, eating the Ethiopian flatbread called injera, and laughing in between bursts of Amharic. Mohamed, Misganaw and Menge, all of whom asked that their last names be omitted, had contrasting views of Meles’ 21 years as Ethiopia’s head of state.

“He kept the opposition away the whole time through tribal separation – he was a dictator,” Mohammed said. “But his plans to build a dam on the Nile and bring about African unity were good for the country.”

After taking a sip of buna, Ethiopian coffee, 29-year-old Misagansaw said,  “He will be remembered for separating different ethic groups, favoring some and hating others.”

“He helped build roads, hospitals and schools,” Menge added.

Fatahun Beerarra, a 60-year-old Oakland resident, recalled Meles’ reputation as a bright young medical student in Addis Ababa. “We were at university at the same time,” he says. “I never met him, but people thought he was a genius.”

In 1987, Fatahun, his wife and their three children – the youngest was only three months old – fled the violence of Ethiopia’s bloody civil war, settling in Oakland. Many of the Bay Area’s Ethiopian community sought asylum in Oakland in the late 1980s as the war at home escalated.

“Some people disagree with his politics,” Fantahun said. “But he brought the country into the modern world much better than anyone else. He was able to bring Ethiopia into the G20”—a group of the world’s biggest economies—“ and that’s a big achievement.”

Meles, who visited the Bay Area once in 1991, was often criticized by local human rights organizations for supressing political opposition, imposing heavy restrictions on Ethiopia’s media, and targeting certain ethnic groups.

The Oakland Institute, a research group focusing on foreign investment in Africa, remains a vocal critic of the former Ethiopian Prime Minister, and has published several in-depth reports on investment flows into the country. The reports have  asserted that Ethiopia’s government exploited specific groups by leasing their land to international investors.

“The whole development methodology is based on a handful of people prospering at the expense of indigenous people in areas such as lower Omo, Gambella and Afar,” said Oakland Institute founder Anuradha Mittal, an India-born political economist.

“Research from OI and other human rights groups shows that any kind of dissent was criminalised,” she said.

But Wondewossen Tadesse, the Bay Area liaison officer for Meles’ political party, said the former PM will be remembered for his efforts to spur economic growth in the country.

“Meles was one of a kind,” Wondewossen said. “He dedicated his whole life to tirelessly improving the lives of the people of Ethiopia. He was self-educated, and he created a group of leaders to continue what he started.”

A group of Ethiopian waitresses from San Jose, who asked not to be named, gathered around a table at the back of Addis Restaurant. Despite the Ethiopian community’s mixed feelings toward Meles, they said, a period of mourning is customary in Ethiopian culture.

“Even if we hate someone,” one of the waitresses said, “we still mourn for their death.”