Some students say the invitation of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is an offense to human rights, while others say it's meant only to spark academic discussion.
By Amber Tunnell
Published September 20, 2010
Throughout the week, the World Leaders Forum will bring heads of state from around the world to address Columbia.
But as far as controversy goes, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi tops the list.
Zenawi—who has allegedly intimidated voters at polls, detained political opponents, and been labeled by the New York Times as an example of “autocratic repression”—is set to appear at Low Library on Wednesday to give a talk on “The Current Global Environment and its Impact in Africa.”
Many people, on and off campus, have spoken out against his invitation.
“He’s supposed to be a spokesman on African leadership, and I think that’s absurd because he’s not,” said Haben Fecadu, a student in the law school and vice-chair of the African Law Students Association.
Fecadu, who is from the neighboring country of Eritrea, said it is not Zenawi’s human rights violations that bothers her the most, but the recognition he receives from organizations like Columbia. “It’s kind of offensive.”
She added that even though Zenawi is known for rigging elections and murdering dissidents, “it tends to get overlooked by the U.S., the U.N., by the African Union. … All of these international organizations don’t really say anything when he violates these human rights standards.”
When the prime minister appears on campus, “I would like him to address the human rights violations and whether he thinks they were justified,” Fecadu said.
A recent graduate and past vice president of the African Students Association, Mena Odu, CC ’10, shared similar frustrations.
“I hope PrezBo [University President Lee Bollinger] gives him the kind of welcome he did Ahmadinejad,” Odu said in an email, referencing Bollinger’s harsh introduction to the Iranian president’s speech in 2007. “I’m not a fan of the president of Iran, but at least he’s not pandering to Western governments while systematically terrorizing, disenfranchising, and stunting the development of his own citizens.”
Despite the protest, Mamadou Diouf, director of the Institute for African Studies and a professor of African studies, said he still supports the Institute’s and the Committee on Global Thought’s decision to invite the controversial leader to campus.
“We are not inviting him on the basis of his leadership in Africa,” Diouf said. “He has been playing an important role in the global scene on behalf of Africa,” particularly in regards to climate change, he said.
“I think this is also an opportunity for Meles to talk about African issues and to showcase what he has been doing in Ethiopia,” he said.
Diouf emphasized that the invitation is “not about promoting Meles, or supporting Meles’ actions. It’s about opening an academic space” for discussion.
“We welcome any reaction,” he said. “People have the right to demonstrate against him and against our decision to invite him.”
Diouf continues to support the decision despite Zenawi’s actions regarding human rights.
“If you decide on the basis of inviting a head of state as having a clean record on amnesty and human rights, you would have a problem inviting people,” Diouf said.
Zenawi was also only one among many African heads of state who were invited to the forum, Diouf said, adding that the president of Nigeria had accepted but had to cancel.
The University is also working with the presidents of Malawi and Liberia to get them to come in the future, he said.
And, as if Zenawi weren’t controversial enough, many believe Columbia made the situation worse by posting a brief laudatory biography last week about Zenawi and his “seasoned governmental leadership” on the World Leaders Forum page.
The biography was taken down the day after it was posted, and the University released a statement that said the “long-standing editorial policy” of WLF is to limit the biography pages to “basic factual information” about the speakers.
The information was put up by its staff from the Ethiopian government’s Mission and not properly cited as such, the University said.
The mistake was particularly upsetting to some students with personal ties to Ethiopia.
Heben Nigatu, CC ’13, who is Ethiopian and lived in the country until she was 5, said she was “really, really surprised” when she saw Columbia invited someone like him.
But when she saw the bio, she was horrified. At the time, she remembers thinking, “I can’t believe this is actually happening.”
“I called my mom. She was even more furious than I was,” Nigatu, who is also the publicity chair for the Black Students Organization, said. “It was outrageous that Columbia didn’t fact-check. It was beyond insensitive.”
In spite of this initial shock, Nigatu said she is still going to the event. “I’m still interested in what he has to say,” she said, adding that she hopes he talks about his regime and the elections. “But in general I’m still pretty outraged.”
Of his oppressive regime, she said she visited Ethiopia in 2008, and at that time, “you couldn’t go into a restaurant and talk about the president openly.”
Fecuda agreed that the mistake was particularly egregious. “You need to do your research before you put up something false like that. I’m just disappointed with Columbia in general.”