In December 2010 I traveled to Cancun, Mexico to cover the UN climate change talks – the COP16.  It was there that I met and had a brief chat with the late Ethiopian President Meles Zenawi. Zenawi had been selected by African heads of state to represent collective views of African states at the talks.

It wasn’t easy to access him, just like any other leader at such a big world summit but I got a moment after he appeared on a panel talking about economy and climate change. He was as sharp as a tack cutting through all figures of what price the continent’s people were paying as a result of global warming and other climatic effects and what it would take for us to adapt to the changing patterns.

After the session I had a brief interview with him before he was led to some stall he had to visit. On the way back I had one more question for him and I did make a successful attempt.

I was amazed by his interest in details. I had told him am Ugandan but he wanted to know where exactly in Uganda I was from. When I mentioned west,  he still wanted to know which town I was from. Then I went on to say near Mbarara and on his insistance I finally said Bushenyi. I had yet to visit Ethiopia where I have great friends who are like family to me in many ways.

When I finally visited the country later that month, I was told about the suppression of the people. I was shocked to know that even a Facebook status complaining about food prices and what government was or wasn’t doing could put one in trouble. I found it a great country with great history whose peoples were yet to see freedom.

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Ethiopia appears in the last deck of countries when it comes to civil liberties, press freedom and Meles presided over a government that did little listening to dissenting voices.

Zenawi fought his way to power and when you come from one country that has such leaders you understand the twists that these leaders take and the extremes about the legacies they leave behind. From revolutionary or freedom fighter or whatever they choose to call themselves to intolerant, oppressive, unquestionable leader whose date of departure is only up to himself and God.

When such a leader falls ill, it becomes a national security issue and citizens who supposedly voted him in power are not even supposed to talk about it.

So after two months of rumours and speculation about his health, the government in Addis Ababa finally announced this week the death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. In a televised announced on Tuesday Ethiopians were informed of the passing of their leader although no much details were revealed. The details about liver cancer and having died in a Brussels hospital were from other sources reported by foreign agencies.

Writing in The New York Times, Dayo Olopade stressed what many on the continent found telling about Zenawi seeking medical attention abroad in secrecy.

“By seeking medical treatment abroad he won admission to the club of African leaders who fled the health systems over which they presided in order to save their own necks. Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that Meles died at 57, the average life expectancy for his still underdeveloped country.”

Just last month, when Ghana lost its president Atta Mills it was hailed because the leader died in his country and under the care of his countrymen as it should be. And then followed a quick flawless transition.

We have limping health systems that most leaders can successfully avoid stepping into.  In Uganda our president who has been in power for 26 years had his daughter flown out to Germany to deliver a baby leaving behind a health system where 16 mothers die everyday during child birth due to preventable conditions.

In a CPJ Blog, Mohamed Keita highlighted the efforts that government in Addis Ababa put to keep Ethiopians in the dark about the health of Zenawi including shutting down media outlets.

My Ethiopian friends wrote about the death of their leader.

On Twitter @halelule wrote:  ‘Ethiopia’s late dictator was a complex & sophisticated leader a self-taught ex-guerrilla who brought his people econ growth & repression’ BM

My friend and Ethiopian Blogger Billene Seyoum wrote a reflective status on Facebook capturing the sorrow, confusion and vulnerability that the country is facing.

For the first time in my life, last night i witnessed people in the ET govt being openly vulnerable. Such vulnerability expressed in a display of emotions for their fallen comrade. “Seeing” people i never imagined i could see beyond “roles” and feeling empathy. The intensity of that moment brings to reflection that we are all united in our common humanity of complex expressed and unexpressed fear and pain. This is an invitation to reflect. As the passing of life, that we cherish or not, is always a call to stop for a minute and reflect. On our thoughts, our actions, our emotions, our intentions, our fears and hopes. To reflect on how we are all connected to the problem as we are to the solutions. To reflect on how we negotiate between two different realms of being the “other” and also “other-ing”. To reflect on how the “other” is never quite disconnected from us. To reflect on our own assumptions, expressions and contributions towards fostering stability and understanding. May peace, stability and understanding prevail over these lands and others. Peace Ethiopia-ye!!! 

The death of Zenawi is another moment for many in countries that live in almost one -man states to reflect. Ugandan cartoonist Fred Senoga stressed the importance of clear political transition. Lives of millions of people should never depend on a life of one man and we don’t have to wait for the deaths of our leaders to appreciate the fact that our countries need institutions not just one man! Malawi and Ghana already set a good example but that example can only work for those who have an interest in having all power centered in one person for decades.

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Cartoon by Fred Senoga Makubuya.

We wait to see how Ethiopia will handle without a man that has dominated for more than a decade. And hopefully the country will build on the positives of his legacy. It will take real work to reverse oppressive laws and ensuring thousands in jails and those –some of my friends- who fled and all Ethiopians can finally have a better government.