Revisiting the Life of the Late Meles Zenawi: Part One

By Seble Teweldebirhan



Meles ZenawiAddis Ababa, September 3, 2012 ( - There are several dates given as a birthday of Legesse (later Meles) Zenawi. However, his father Ato Zenawi Asres, in an interview with Infotainment Magazine in 2003 said Meles was born on March 30, 1947 according to Ethiopian calendar (May 8, 1955 GC). His mother Almashe Gebreluel and his father Ato Zenawi Asres gave birth to six children. Meles was the third son for the family.


His father expressed Meles as a normal happy child. He was disciplined, respectful and loved by his neighbors and the elders in the village. According to several biographies, Meles loved swimming and he was one of the top swimmers in his village. Eyasu Mengesha in his book titled “Meles Zenawi ena Yehewahat Ytegel Guzo” or ‘Meles Zenawi and the Journey of TPLF’ wrote a story about the young Meles and his courage when it comes to swimming.


The story goes like this. There was a lake near to Melese’s village known as ‘Yeseytan Mewagna” or the ‘Devil’s Swimming Place’’. The children in the village were told never to go to that lake especially on mid-day. The villagers believed that the Devil shows up when the sun is straight to the head, which is around the mid-day. There was a great fear that if anyone goes near to the lake around that time of the day, they will drawn and their body will never be found. However, this story, instead of frightening the children, made them more curious. Meles and his friends wanted to see if the Devil actually appears on the lake. If he does, it was something they were certainly wanted to see.


Therefore, one day, they went to the lake on mid-day. They hide behind the mountains to see the devil make his appearance. It did not happen. That really tested the patience of Meles and he asked his friends to swim in the lake and see if the Devil really lives inside the water. His friends agreed and all of them started to jump to the lake. They did not find the devil. However, their courage has become a legend in their village, breaking a long-lived fear on the relationship of the lake and the devil.


According to a book by Tekuhe Baheta titled ‘Meles Kelejent Eskeweket” or “Meles from Childhood to Adulthood”, Meles had a normal happy childhood in his village.



Meles joined Nigeste Saba elementary school in his hometown Adwa at the age of nine. His record testifies that he was a brilliant student with a constant high grade in both elementary and high school. He was able to skip and transfer to the next grade before the end of school year. He finished elementary and junior school in five years, instead of the regular eight years.


He was able to pass the eighth grade national exam with a high score, which opened a great opportunity for young Meles. At the time, one of the countries prominent high schools in Addis Ababa, General Winget High School used to give scholarships to young students who manage to pass the 8th grade national exam with a high score. The school, after an entrance exam, accepts those who mange to pass. Meles was one of the students who joined General Winget High school in Addis Ababa in 1969.


The young boy from Adwa was indeed deserving of the opportunity. He managed to keep his high scores throughout his stay in the high school. At the 12th grade national exam, Meles was one of the top ten scorers in the entire country. He was awarded for his achievement by the then Emperor Haile Selassie Award Organization.


In addition, Meles was an active student who participated in many extracurricular activities, which probably contributed for the leadership qualities he showed later in his life. His schoolmates at the General Winget told Author Eyasu Mengesha that Meles was a committed student who loved to play table tennis and basketball on his spare time.


Meles’s father Ato Zenawi told Infotainment Magazine that medical school for his son was his idea. In fact, at the time, Meles was with his mother in Adwa, while his father came to Addis and chose medical school for his son by filling the form. His father even wished for his son to go abroad and study Medicine in a prestigious international institution.


Life as a Guerilla Fighter

However, the young Meles did not end up in medical school. At the age of 19, while in second year medical student at Addis Ababa University, Meles Zenawi decided to join the guerilla fighters who were at war against the military regime. He answered about his decision to throw his future away and become a fighter with similar answer as many of his generations who saw no other way except overthrowing the Derg with armed force.  On several occasions Meles said he could not handle to ignore the brutal treatment of his people in Tigray by the military regime Derg and he wanted to do whatever it took to end the regime’s cruelty.


As many of his warrior fellows, the first step when joining the guerilla world was to change his name. Raised as Legesse Zenawi, he changed his name to Meles on the same year he joined the fighters. Meles in one occasion said that he did not personally know who the real Meles was. The name assignment by the warriors was random and he happened to get the name Meles. He added that the real Meles was a student revolutionary at Addis Ababa University who got killed by the military regime.


Pictures of Meles Zenawi with an afro hair and long beard have been all over the social media. That is a reminder that Meles Zenawi has spent many years in the bushes as a member of TPLF.


There are several opinions and controversies over the life of Meles as a guerilla fighter. However, the agreement is that he actually hardly spent much time in the trenches fighting during the war. He was a political commissar for much of this period. Still, with his speech and debating qualities, he served the TPLF very well.


Some claim he never deserved to be the leader of the TPLF and he played a very smart political game to oust the leaders at the time and to be in charge of the group. The controversy also includes that Meles changed the ideology and personal philosophies of original TPLF warriors by his own discretion and betrayed the identity and the cause of the struggle.


Asrat Abraham on his book “Kehager Besterjeba” or “Behind a Nation” refers to one of Meles’ old friend who told him Meles was a different man when he first joined the guerilla war. The friend gave Abraham the following statement: ‘While we were guerilla fighters, Meles was a brilliant man. He never compromised on the things we believed in. However, he gradually changed after we started sending him to the United States. Americans are very clever people. They understood Meles was a smart man with a bright future and they brain-washed him to fit their expectations. We were deeply sorry to learn our leader whom we used to call Lenin changed all the ideologies we fought for.”


In deed, as many of his generations, Meles was deeply in to communist ideologies. That is the reason why his fellow warriors used to call him Lenin.


However, he also takes credit for introducing a new ideology for the TPLF. TPLF is a front, which means people who are determined to overthrow the Derg regime are members and it has no defined ideology per se. The only thing TPLF fighters had in common back then was that they were determined to oust the regime and free Tigray and Ethiopia from oppression.


Meles Zenawi and Abay Tsehaye proceeded to establish what they called Marxist-Leninist League of Tigray (MLLT) inside the TPLF. They used the opportunity to get the attention of the warriors and then recognized as leaders of the front. MLLT was considered by some as a trap to highjack power by Meles Zenawi and his friends from the former leaders. Especially since Meles and the other MLLT members changed most of their communist attitude right after they got the leadership of TPLF, the argument is that they used Marx and Lenin and their philosophies to impress the under-privileged and mostly peasant warriors.


Eyasu Mengesha in his book Behind a Nation argues MLLT worked to create TPLF and its leaders as we know them today.


To be continued in Part Two.


Seble Teweldebirhan



Seble Teweldebirhan is Addis Ababa based Reporter for She can be reached by sending email through this form.



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