Messay Kebede and his “Manifesto” By Tecola W. Hagos

June 19th, 2011 Print Print Email Email

In our troubled times, the written word is a powerful tool. I am referring to the recent article by Professor Messay Kebede titled “Meles’s Political Dilemma and the Developmental State: Dead-Ends and Exit” that has been posted in most Ethiopian Websites on 15th June 2011, which has started a tsunami of controversial ideas. I found also some well written pieces in response to the article by Messay Kebede, which comments and criticisms I read with great interest, such as the pieces by Said Hassan [“A Rejoinder of Professor Messay’s article: ‘Meles’s Political Dilemma…’”], Abiye Teklemariam [“Mind the Jump: A Brief Response to Prof. Messay Kebede”] et cetera. Thus, let me interject that one must read the statements of our fellow Ethiopians with alertness, care, and respect.

This article or “manifesto,” as Messay identified it, is a piece of writing which raised and resolved several complex issues in mere twelve pages that others would have written books and still fail to reach the profound insights that Messay generously shared with us. I wish Messay had not used the word “manifesto” to identify his article, for the piece is far more insightful and reasoned than being mere reductionist declaratory advocacy that a “manifesto” usually is.

First, let me consider in much generalized form what some of the critics of the Article by Messay had written: in case of Said, the criticism revolves around allegation that Messay had left out some significant aspects of a “developmental State” vis-à-vis the situation of Ethiopia under Meles Zenawi and his EPRDF supporters; and in case of Abiye, an expressed “deep disenchantment” of Messay’s “abandonment” of the election based democratic development struggle, for elite-controlled authoritarian “developmental state” processes. Of course, both Said and Abiye have stated much more in their responses, both authors have augmented their comments with theoretical insights and practical observations of our Ethiopian struggle for “democracy.” I understand the concerns of both, for their concerns are genuine and very much well known to us all from their long list of articles and commentaries posted in Websites and their long standing unwavering opposition to oppressive and dehumanizing political and economic systems focusing on Ethiopia under the iron-rule of Meles Zenawi and his supporters.

I see misunderstanding in the reading of Messay’s Article by very many other readers as well, who actually cared to read the Article (highly commendable) and shared their comments. I read also very few belligerent and irresponsible statements that were completely out of line. Personal attack in all instances is ad homineum, it does not enlighten or expand the discourse at hand; it is more of a detraction and undermines the seriousness of the subject matter under consideration. As an aside, I have noticed in general in recent time that there is a decline of Ethiopians attacking each other in delinquent and irresponsible manners in blogs/websites except in Warka. I give great credit for such positive changes in the polite and disciplined responses of very many Ethiopians, such as Eskinder Nega, Abebe Gelaw, Abiye Teklemariam, Said Hassan, Teodros Kiros, Lt. Ayal-Sew Dessie, Seyee Abraha, Fekadu Bekele, Aregawi Berhe, and Messay Kebede himself who under fire in websites, public conferences, and/or radio programs lead the way in civility. Actually, several more could be listed here. I do have serious disagreements with some of the aforementioned individuals; nevertheless, I acknowledge here their contributions in presenting their ideas with manifest respect of their audience, for they have greatly ennobled public discourse. I hope we all adopt their public demeanor in dealing with some belligerents or hacklers.

What seems to have irked both Said and Abiye, for example, Messay in his article is not defending or writing an apology for “developmental states” economic theories. For example, Abiye wrote, “It seems to me that what prompts Messay to consider this path to democratization is his enthusiasm for the developmental state.” Here is where the first misunderstanding starts. Messay is merely explaining what “developmental states” stands for, what local conditions need be taken into account, how genuine the leadership ought to be or whether the leadership has the capacity to carry out the intricate structural adjustments that need be made, et cetera. I understand there is a very thin line between explanation and justification. Some may have misunderstood the essence of Messay’s article and may have read it as justification rather than for what it truly is—an explanation and discussion of a concept. Messay is not supportive of the “developmental States” let alone the brutally oppressive Government of Meles Zenawi. It would require some tortured logic to squeeze out such finding form the Article by Messay.

There are, on the other hand, some pointed superb discussions on the point of democratization (on its philosophy and manifestations), about a magical point in the life of a struggle where the breakthrough to democracy manifests. Especially, I find Abiye’s statements, in defending views that he thought was abrogated or abandoned by Messay, namely the roughs in liberal democracy vs. neo-liberal democracy and the process of development quite impressive, but presumptuous. The attempt to delaminate philosophical theory from economic theory is futile, for we may be surprised to find how interconnected the two are. This is a situation where we are in circular argument, the old dilemma of the “chicken or the egg.” My concern goes beyond mere issues of rhetorical arguments, but why must we need to have contrasts to understand problems. I find the same type of problems in mathematics “equalization” process too, to mention an analogy to better understand my concerns. Why should there be such designation in order to understand a situation. The economic ramifications is even more problematic, bordering the absurd if we try to use the economic concepts that go with neo-liberalism in case of Ethiopia whose economy is not of consequence in the global economic system of globalization.

I find it quite presumptuous for us Ethiopians to be hairsplitting between liberalism and neoliberalism when we are the list developed nation on earth with minuscule involvement in the global economy. Labeling and categorization had done us tremendous harm in the past. I cannot forget the countless Ethiopians murdered as a result of pseudo Marxist theoreticians and military thugs who wiped out whole generations of Ethiopians by labeling them “Adharis,” Tsere Abyotegnoch” et cetera. I am always skeptical about any argument that is based on definitions of particular words. I prefer to consider the facts of a case and the circumstance in which it figures rather to match label to some selected facts or situation.

The dispute whether a “developmental state” is a democratic state seems superfluous, for it seems to equate economic development with democratic system of government, which of course is not a bright argument or supposition. All one needs to present is the case of China, or the case of former Soviet Union, or the cases of countless East European countries and Latin American countries; even the United States is a borderline socialist state with its social welfare system and extensive regulation of production not to mention its extortionist tax system that effectively redistribute income. We soon find out that we are dealing with shades rather than stark or sharp contrasts. The dispute could be resolved by defining what is meant by development and what is meant by democracy. It is possible to see a confluence point for such understanding, and we will have less zeal in establishing differences, but devotion in finding solutions.

Messay is not a hasty thinker; he is capable of maintaining sustained discourse on a subject matter for years at times. He is a reflective thinker, as would be expected of his caliber and stature. We had several conversations on such issues on Meles Zenawi and the political and economic situation of Ethiopia. Although our discourse were contentious, we usually seem to end up with similar conclusions on a number of controversial issues including the many points Messay discussed in his article. The reason I am saying all this is to lay out some background setting. However, I have serious disagreement on some suppositions Messay has made in his article, although not that important in the overall picture of his analytical essay. He made the unnecessary delamination between power and wealth in characterizing the leaders of the EPRDF and TPLF, namely between Meles and his supporters “cronies” as Messay would call them.

“One outcome of Meles’s rise to absolute power that could turn out positive is his ability to dismantle the rent-seeking state. I venture to say that absolute power has given Meles some autonomy vis-à-vis his followers; I even suggest that a disparity between his interests and that of his followers is inevitable. The passion of Meles is power; the goal of his followers is enrichment. The rent-seeking activities that they use to enrich themselves prevent Meles from achieving the economic growth by which he can justify his control of absolute power. He has now the choice of maintaining the old structure, with the consequences that his power will become increasingly fragile, or resolutely dissolve it through reforms. In order to do the latter, he needs the support of the opposition.” [page 11]
I believe in order to make such grand distinction about the motives of political players, Messay, must depend on careful individual psychological profiling of Meles Zenawi and his supporters. In short of that, one may make guarded suppositions based on empirical evidences collected over a period of time on the life-histories of the same. In both Meles and his supporters’ cases, their families’ histories establish the facts of their poverty, almost all coming from poor rural or semi-urbanized peasant families.

Meles’s primary needs from childhood to the time of his adulthood were of the material kind; he is no different than Mengistu Hailemariam’s social and economic poverty as his background. He suffered social ostracization, poverty, and social stigma of a different kind, but no less traumatic than the one suffered by Mengistu. Thus, in contradistinction to what Messay’s thesis, I hold that Meles’s first and foremost motive must have been the acquisition of wealth and material security rather than power. And he used that control of material wealth to acquire political power, and more wealth, with the absurd result that he now controls fabulous wealth estimated to be worth billions of dollars. Even now with all his billions, people who knew him closely say that he is the stingiest/miserly individual in the TPLF. Thus, the deriving motive for Meles and almost all of the TPLF members first and foremost was materially secured existence. I have not seen in my research of over fifteen years any convincing evidence of Ethiopian nationalism or patriotism in the history of TPLF and its Leaders. The moving force behind all the power struggle and tenacious attachment to power is insatiable greed for money and wealth.

Messay is clearly convinced that Meles cannot bring about even the “developmental State” let alone democracy based on elections because Meles’s interest is in staying in power, and not economic development per se, but Messay also points out the eternal contradiction that Meles’s pursuit of power stands in conflict with economic developmental changes that need be in place to maintain the state structure and Meles’s power. Messay was not advocating that Meles must do this or that, but simply pointing out the fault lines where Meles Zenawi falters and the deep chasm of political and economic outlooks and understanding between Meles and his supporters in Government and/or the EPRDF.

“To the question of whether Meles and his cronies are anywhere close to being a developmental elite, the answer is, of course, no. This negative answer does not, however, mean that they are unable to become developmental. I am not saying that some such transformation will occur or that it is inevitable. As a strong skeptic of determinism in history, I am simply referring to the possibility inherent in the human person to finally make the right choice and laying some conditions necessary to effect the transformation. Since my position will certainly cause an array of objections, even angry attacks, it is necessary that I set out the arguments liable to back it up.” [page 9, emphasis mine in bold]

Messay went on explaining the basic theory of transformations and theories on power. His statements are not justifications for a particular action or program helpful for Meles and his supporters; rather it explained the situation most likely to be the case. In this instance, Messay is at best just sharing his conjectures based on his deep understanding of both philosophical underpinnings of political systems and the surprises of historical reality in the day to day life of a system with people in it, and at worst one may dismiss it as some wild speculation of an aging Marxist. I prefer the former.

I admire Messay Kebed greatly, he is one of the finest philosophers I had the good fortune to have met in my life, even comparing him with some of my own teachers who are quite renowned philosophers. He is my enduring good friend, a man of great charm, who is a truly polite and civilized man. And I say all these with emotion, for I am witness of Messay’s greatest love being Ethiopia, all of it. He is someone I could entrust the fate of Ethiopia. It is of no interest to me how he lived his intellectual life before 1991. What I see in Messay now is a sincere deep thinker who loves his country and his people dearly. It pains me greatly when we translate our failure in understanding his profound and deep thoughts and attack his person because of our own mediocrity or hasty conclusions.

The highly informative and well presented criticisms and/or statements by Said Hassan and Abiye Teklemariam on Messay’s Article are not in the categories I am castigating. In fact, such brief responses by two greatly gifted and skilled scholars are of tremendous importance in promoting discourse and understanding with depth. I commend them both. My concern here is that even the best of us could make mistaken assessments under our overcharged political and economic circumstances. And such differences of views ought not be raised to a point of condemnations or personal attacks. I believe there is a misunderstanding, maybe a confusion between what is being offered by Messay as an explanation and hypothetical positing of our current political and economic situation, and a perceived justification of unacceptable flirtation with the work of a deranged and brutal dictator Meles Zenawi, whose traitorous crimes against the State of Ethiopia and the People of Ethiopia will never be excused on any ground.

God Bless Ancient and Lovable Ethiopia.

Tecola W. Hagos
Washington DC
June 18, 2011

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