While the Columbia campus quietly anticipated the arrival of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, outside the gates, dueling protests faced off on Broadway.
Wielding horns and drums, a large crowd had gathered outside Pinnacle by early afternoon to support Zenawi, the divisive figure who was scheduled to take the podium at Columbia’s World Leaders Forum. Meanwhile, a rival protest against the prime minister led a demonstration on the other side of 115th Street, many of whose participants called him a dictator who stole elections and crushed free speech.
The gathering of Zenawi supporters, often chanting loud enough to be heard across the campus, said they were there to stand up for the prime minister’s improvements to the country’s infrastructure and economy.
The occasion drew buses of native Ethiopians from all over New York, as well as D.C., Ohio, and Boston.
Anteneh Desta traveled from Arlington, Va., to protest Zenawi. He said that Zenawi “promised freedom from the leaders of the previous government” when he was running for office 20 years ago, 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 supported jailed opposition leader Birtukan Mideksa, instead.
Dereje Alemeu appeared to have the longest commute—he flew in from Ethiopia to “oppose and shame on Columbia” for inviting a prime minister that he says runs the country in an unjust and undemocratic way.
On the other side of the street, Weldu Reda spoke favorably of Zenawi. “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.”
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, who lives in West Harlem, said.
Tizzy Giordano came up from D.C. to provide the beat for the supporters. But Giordano isn’t steeped in African politics; she was hired by the Ethiopian Embassy to drum, she said.
While Giordano brought music, Girma Segni, a student currently studying at Marist College, brought a poster covered in photographs of those that had been killed or permanently injured: “Some of them were my childhood friends, some in elementary school. They were shot by the police because they were protesting government policy,” he said.
Back on campus, Zelalem Dawit, a first-year School of Engineering and Applied Science graduate student from Ethiopia, was walking by Lerner when he spotted two posters advertising the speech on a nearby a bulletin board. He turned around and ripped both down.
“I don’t think he [Zenawi] 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,” Dawit said. “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.
Sara Elemayehu 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,” she said. “This is like inviting Hitler, only it’s happening in Africa, so it doesn’t matter.”
But 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!”
Protestors mostly kept to their own side of the barricaded lanes of Broadway, though a minor scuffle did break out between a member of the Committee to Protect Journalists and Zenawi supporter Dagne Desta.
“There’s corruption—” the CPJ member started.
“There’s corruption everywhere!” Desta shouted. “There is corruption in this country! Have you been in Ethiopia before? No.”
“No, I haven’t,” the man answered.
“You can’t say this and that. You’ve never been there. I have been there. I saw the difference. I saw the progress,” Desta said.
Solomon Michael, another Ethiopian transplant to New York, held a sign with his friend that read, “Shame on [University President Lee] 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 would give off the wrong image of Ethiopia. “What do you expect from the devil?”
Shenkute Shalle, who now lives in D.C., said he hasn’t been back to Ethiopia in seven years, but could see moderate improvements.
“It’s true, we need a better government for ourselves, but now there’s no alternative option,” Shalle said. “He’s all we have.”