Report By Protest Organizing Committee:
On Wednesday Sep 22, several hundred Ethiopians came from Washington, New York, Boston, Delaware, New Jersey and Connecticut to protest against the invitation of Tyrant Meles Zenawi to speak at Columbia University. The protesters carried the Ethiopian tricolor, posters showing the massacred Ethiopians by Zenawi’s forces, poster size photos of the jailed leader Ms. Birtukan Mediksa, as well as placards and slogans that read and chanted the following messages: No forum for Meles at Columbia University, Columbia say no to Meles, Shame on Bollinger for inviting A Tyrant, Shame on Stigliz and Sachs, Free Birtuakn Mediksa, Meles is a fascist, Meles is war criminal, A Genocider, A Tyrant, a child killer! Say no to Meles, the butcher!
Ethiopian dictator Meles Zenawi was invited to Columbia University on Wednesday 22, September to give a speech on the topic “The Current Global Environment and its Impact in Africa”. The speech was attended mostly by young college students, and the room was mostly devoid of senior academics and professors, Zenawi would have likely to have in his audience. Similarly conspicuous by their absence were any senior African experts or scholars–which would have surprised, given the topic, if it weren’t for the questionable choice of the speaker, and the resulting controversy, which may lead African representatives to stay away.
According to the protest organizers, the dictator’ speech appeared to have been reviewed by Joseph Stiglitz–his close confidant and tight friend–as it was primarily focusing on Stiglitz’s pet issue, “Neo-Liberalisim”. Zenawi’s 20 minute long lackluster lecture on “Neo-Liberalism” and African economic growth was followed by a Q & A. The young audience pressed the dictator with questions related to the recent rigged and sham election, freedom of speech and freedom of the press in Ethiopia, and any regrets he may have as a ruler.
Zenawi was introduced by Provost Claude Steele—standing in for another conspicuously absent figure: University President Lee Bollinger, who failed to show up (see Prof. Bhagwati’s comment ) on the need for Mr. Bollinger to stay away in order to convey an important statement and to distance Columbia University from any association with the Ethiopian dictator). Provost Claude Steele strengthened Bollinger’s gesture through his absence, by emphasizing that Columbia University does not endorse Zenawis policies and speech.
Following Provost Claude Steele’s remarks, Meles Zenawi’s friend Joseph Stiglitz made an unexpectedly and surprisingly brief introduction. He opened 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. Some observers argue that the brevity of Stieglitz introduction seems to be a direct result of the profound public pressure and denunciation of his conduct in promoting a ruthless dictator, leading him to cut to the shortest possible length as regard to his customary accolades he otherwise may have liked o shower on Zenawi.
During the question and answer session, no one appeared to be interested in Zenawi’s anti-neo-liberal cheap talk. With the exception of two individuals, all questions and criticism that were raised had direct links to current desperate state of Ethiopia and its politics. Audience members raised many criticisms against the brutal dictator and his 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 a tedious and rather (in the Ethiopian context) irrelevant technicalities about voting and electoral procedures. He appeared arrogant as well as evasive, trying to lecture his audience about democracy and term limits, despite the political oppression and his extensive longevity in power, 20 long years.
For Meles Zenawi and his posies, this event was originally meant to be a golden opportunity for Meles to bask in the rarefied intellectual space of this prestigious institution of higher learning, with two important professors of Columbia as his close confidants amplifying this effect throughout the institution. Instead, the passion, time, energy, and resources put on display by patriotic Ethiopians from around the United States and beyond, and the activists organizing this event, completely transformed the character of Meles’ visit to Columbia. The event was therefore transformed as a moment of humiliation and embarrassment for Meles in the hands of attendees who asked pointed questions about the atrocities he and his regime have been committing. The loud voices of vigorous protest by Ethiopians and non-Ethiopians alike resonated to all of Columbia and the rest of the world that this has been an abominable pick on the part of the university’s president (who was most likely egged on to make the invite by Professors Sachs and Stiglitz). Even before this day of reckoning had come for Meles, the high-energy campaign by Ethiopians has made all of Columbia University –newspapers, student groups, faculty, and others– realize the true nature of this man.
Anywhere where Ethiopians reside in the U.S. and Europe (and even where they don’t reside, since they can travel there) will no longer be a welcome place for Meles. In this country of freedom, Meles will not be able to escape the discomfort and humiliation of being exposed for the cruel and ruthless dictator that he is.