Another rejoinder of Messay Kebede’s article: Meles Zenawi’s dilemma – By Prof. Minga Negash

June 20th, 2011 Print Print Email Email

Professor Messay Kebede of the University of Dayton recently wrote a philosophical article entitled “Meles Zenawi’s Political Dilemma and the Developmental State: Dead-Ends and Exit.” Abiye Teklemariam, the founding editor of Addis Neger responded by alluding that political liberalization is difficult if not impossible in present day Ethiopia.2

In a third and short rejoinder Professor Seid Hassan of Murray State University, using euphemism, argued that everyone in Ethiopia, including the members of the ruling party, must “think out of the box”.The two professors appear to focus on finding ways and means for resolving the apparent stand-off between the ruling regime and the opposition. With regard to the so called developmental State, in my August 2006 commentary, I argued that Mr Meles Zenawi’s incomplete essay was self-serving, contained no new knowledge, and more importantly it did not address the then critical issues of governance. I shall not return to it now.

In this short rejoinder, I attempt to show that within a number of Ethiopian political organizations, the opportunity for an out of the box thinking does not exist. The parties mix scientific research with policy and propaganda. One might attribute this void to poor leadership, intransigence, authoritarianism and to our collectivist culture that instills conformance, fear and submission to authority. I submit that it is the absence of this critical mass of independent thinking within organizations and government that plunged the country into a sorry state of polarization. Independent thinking is even more risky in organizations that are armed, secretive, sectarian, radical and in networks that attempt to convert themselves from liberation fronts to modern political parties. Hence, a successful out of the box thinking in our settings require time, space and more importantly a visionary leadership.

Furthermore, new thinking has had its own rewards and risks. In the late 1980s the new thinking in China resulted in unprecedented economic growth without a political development. In the Soviet Union and South Africa the new thinking ended up washing away the regimes themselves, sparked revolutions in Eastern Europe, and dismantled one of the superpowers of the century. Meles Zenawi’s series of thinking: – from his days as the chief ideologue of the Marxist Leninist League of Tigrai to the chief conductor of Ethiopian affairs for 20 years, might be considered as an out of box thinking. The results are there for all to see. An out of the box thinking within organizations therefore is both difficult and risky if implemented without the scrutiny of democracy. It instills fear among the intellectual community. In this short rejoinder I argue that the ruling party in Ethiopia has been incapable of providing the required leadership for the development of the culture of an out of the box thinking. It has missed several opportunities. Hence, if TPLF is to have relevance to the new environment, it ought to have new vision and new leadership. New thinking cannot come from its present leaders. It is also unexpected of Meles to return the country to the 2005 situation. As regards his exit plan, if he has one, he has missed the opportunity of stepping down with grace. His present efforts appear to be focused more on preventing the bubbles from bursting.

If one turns the clock back to 2006, the time when Mr. Meles Zenawi wrote the article entitled “African Developments: Dead Ends and New Beginnings”, the reader would quickly realize that the idea was not original. However, Meles is smarter than some of his Ambassadors. One cannot accuse him of ordinary plagiarism. Leaving the intellectual debate to scholastic forums, there were, as Professor Messay has shown, the developmental State argument, which was a response to the 2005 election crisis. Since 2006, a number of unexpected political and economic developments have occurred. First, within the TPLF/EPRDF, Meles Zenawi and his wife were able to consolidate power. Every contender of power within the party was either sidelined or purged without an event. The net effect of this power concentration was to solidify Meles Zenawi’s authority and a build-up of cult within the party, and the entire governance system. By May 2010 the consolidation of power within the party manifested itself in an absurd election statistics. It resulted in a 99.6% control of the 547 seats in the parliament. In other words, the space and time for an out of the box thinking within TPLF/EPRDF and the country was completely closed, and the likelihood of reopening the broader political space now is remote as the regime is even more threatened by the revolutions of the Middle East and North Africa and hyperinflation.

Indeed, like most of the rulers who are threatened by youth revolutions, rather than dealing with the root causes of the problems of governance, Meles unfortunately elected to label his adversaries, including the legal opposition, as Eritrea’s agents and terrorists. On June 15, 2011 the House of Peoples Representatives (Parliament) regrettably failed to correct Meles’s excesses. It labeled the regime’s adversaries as terrorists. Hence, I argue that it is impossible to exercise an out of box thinking within TPLF/EPRDF. Meles’s dilemma therefore appears to be more on the modalities of extending his prolonged rule, evidently at all costs. Consequently, one can argue that Meles is no exception to the ordinary dictators of Africa. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s speech on June 13, 2011 at the summit of the African Union, in Addis Ababa, in the presence of Meles Zenawi, is interesting. Her speech contained the following:-

“….But, even as we celebrate this progress, we do know that too many people in Africa still live under longstanding rulers, men who care too much about the longevity of their reign, and too little about the legacy that should be built for their country’s future. Some even claim to believe in democracy – democracy defined as one election, one time…”

And on the link between revolutions Mrs. Clinton argued as follows:-

“…Every country in the world stands to learn from these democracy movements, but this wave of activism, which came to be known as the Arab Spring, has particular significance for leaders in Africa and elsewhere who hold on to power at all costs, who suppress dissent, who enrich themselves and their supporters at the expense of their own people. To those leaders our message must be clear: Rise to this historic occasion; show leadership by embracing a true path that honors your people’s aspirations; create a future that your young people will believe in, defend, and help build. Because, if you do not – if you believe that the freedoms and opportunities that we speak about as universal should not be shared by your own people, men and women equally, or if you do not desire to help your own people work and live with dignity, you are on the wrong side of history, and time will prove that.”

Mrs Clinton’s speech might embarrass her host, Mr Meles Zenawi, but she also appears to be fishing for an out of box thinking in the wrong waters. Her speech did not take cognizance of the institutions that manufacture dictators. It is the presence of separation of powers in the governance system and term limits that prevent the rise of autocracy. Notwithstanding this, if the rulers of Ethiopia have the willingness to learn, there are still many ways to safely exit from political power. Within the realms of the African experience, TPLF/EPRDF leaders can still arrange an exit for Meles and his close associates. How the dominant ruling regimes in Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Tanzania arranged safe exits to their former leaders is an important reference point. The recent election histories of Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Zambia, etc also show that loss of government power does not necessarily lead to retributions and loss of privileges. My sense however, is that the TPLF has lost both the space and the time for an out of box thinking.

Meles could have exited honorably from both party and State power just after the May 2005 election. He could have opted for sharing cabinet positions. He could have kept his words and exited after the May 2010 election, however deficient the election might have been. Any one of these missed opportunities would have earned him respect. It would have changed the political landscape for the better. If he allows an out of box thinking within the secretive party at this late hour, the process opens a major Pandora box. There is no known succession plan and, the scandals are too many to be put under the carpet. There are also competitions among the various wings of EPRDF. In other words he is at a point of no return. Meles’s dilemma aside, if and when TPLF’s out of the box thinkers come out, as was the case of the Afrikaner intellectuals in the early nineties, the opposition and the broader Ethiopian society are duty bound to give them the opportunity to succeed.

Prof. Minga Negash can be reached at

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