Nega Mezlekia was born in Jijiga, Ethiopia, the oldest son of Mezlekia, a bureaucrat in the Imperial government.
Although initially supporting the revolution that deposed Emperor Haile Selassie, he grew strongly critical of the regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam. As a late teenager he abandoned his mother and siblings and set off with his best friend to join one of the armed rebel groups. In 1983 he left his position at Haramaya University to accept an engineering scholarship and study at Wageningen University. After two years in the Netherlands he was still unable to return home so moved to Canada instead. He has still never returned to Ethiopia.
He recounted his life story in his first book, Notes from the Hyena's Belly. Published in 2000, his book won the Governor General's Award for English language non-fiction that same year.