When Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi came to give a speech on “The Current Global Environment and its Impact in Africa” on Wednesday, he faced tough questions from student attendees on his leadership of his home country.
Zenawi’s short lecture focused on African economic growth and globalization, but afterwards an audience pressed him on details of the recent Ethiopian election, freedom of speech and the press in his country, and his regrets as prime minister.
Provost Claude Steele—standing in for an absent University President Lee Bollinger, who is in Washington, D.C.—stressed in an introduction that the role of universities is to create a space for discussing controversial issues, despite not endorsing them.
“Every visiting leader faces unscreened, uninhibited questions,” he said.
University professor Joseph Stiglitz also took to the stage with a formal introduction about Zenawi’s and Ethiopia’s history.
While there had been extensive build-up to Zenawi’s World Leaders Forum address, he kept his speech short, opening with a discussion of Africa’s recent “lost decades.”
“Africa was explicitly abandoned,” he said, adding that it was considered a “continental ghetto of a fast globalizing world.”
But, “the first decade of the 21st century marks one of change for Africa,” he said, adding that there has been a high growth rate in the country.
Now, Africans have the chance to generate growth themselves, he said. “The fact that Africans now have a choice is … fundamentally liberating.”
“The challenge is to use the unique global environment…to forge a new and more inclusive globalization,” he added.
The event quickly changed tone, though, in a question and answer session that focused on the current state of Ethiopia and its politics. Audience members raised many criticisms of Zenawi’s regime.
One audience member asked how Zenawi was able to get 99.6 percent of the votes in the last Ethiopian election, a question that was met with applause from the room.
“We got 99.6 percent of the seats,” not the votes, Zenawi responded, adding that in the Ethiopian electoral system, a candidate just needs a majority of the votes for each seat to win that seat.
He then cited recent economic growth in Ethiopia as being the reason, he suspects, of the support he received in the election.
Zenawi, who has served as prime minister since 1995, was also grilled on his thoughts on term limits.
He responded that Ethiopia’s parliamentary system is just as democratic as a presidential system. In the parliamentary system, the party who wins the majority of the seats gets the power every time, 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,” he added.
Another 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 Ethiopians might read?” an audience member asked.
“I think choice is important and fundamental to every human being’s free impression of himself,” Zenawi 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 Derg regime.
He added that the government also made sure that past leaders were given the free choice that they denied Ethiopians.
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.”
But, he admitted, the country still has an uphill battle. “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 noted that some media outlets had referred to him as a dictator. “Any regrets?” she asked.
“I have none. I’m particularly proud of the efforts of my party,” he responded.
In an interview after the speech, moderator Mamadou Diouf, the director of the Institute of African Studies, said he thought the questions posed were difficult—and that many of the questions focused on Ethiopia instead of Africa and globalization, the subject of Zenawi’s speech.
“I think Columbia provided an opportunity for activists to ask questions to the prime minister of Ethiopia and to confront him,” Diouf said, adding “I think he handled the questions very well and gave his own view and disagreed with many of the views asked by the students.”
“One of the most important pieces of information he provided was that he was not running for a next term,” Diouf noted.
Alisher Shaiken, a student from Kazakhstan who is taking ESL courses at the School of Continuing Education, said that he was surprised at the open dialogue between the students and the leader.
“It was a very good experience for me seeing for the very first time the First Amendment rights of America,” Shaiken said.
Oren Bitton, a GS/JTS first-year, thought that Zenawi seemed “very prepared for the types of questions he would receive.”
Bitton said that if the flyers outside, which criticized Zenawi’s actions in Ethiopia, were true, “then he was very successful at dodging.”
Max Druz, CC ’14, who didn’t know anything about Zenawi before the speech, said he got a favorable impression of the prime minister.
“I believe he’s actually trying to progress the country. When I look back at his [Zenawi’s] history, it’s more questionable, and especially when I see these type of protesters around, it becomes very questionable, but my first impression of him just by hearing him talk was favorable.”
Daphne Chen contributed reporting.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misrepresented the political system in Ethiopia. It stated that Ethiopia has both a presidential system and a parliamentary system. In fact, it only has a parliamentary system. Spectator regrets the error.