Melese’s Departure: A Watershed Moment for the Democratization of Ethiopia By Fereda Molla
It has now been almost two months since Ethiopia’s strongman Melese Zenawi has disappeared from office. Despite the government’s obfuscation and theatrics to hide the truth from the public, Melese is either incapacitated or dead. If he were in a better state, a short audio or video message from him or a statement from his doctors would have calmed things down. In the absence of such evidence and with the passing of each day, the chances of his returning to office in his former self is diminishing fast. Ethiopians of all stripes and persuasions would be well-advised to think through the consequences of his departure and engage in the deliberations that are necessary to bring back the country on to the democratic path it once started and to embark on the long arduous process of healing the wounds that have been festering for far too long.
The first step is to recognize that with Melese’s possible departure Ethiopia has experienced a monumental political shift and that it is already in a transition to an era without him. Those controlling state power within the minority TPLF/EPRDF are busy scheming behind closed doors on how to perpetuate the incorrigible system that is benefiting them to the detriment of the large majority of Ethiopians. It behooves those in control and the powerbrokers around them to recognize that the system is unlikely to survive without Melese. This is simply because the TPLF/EPRDF, despite assertions to the contrary, has been a one-man show hinged on the extraordinary talents (though mostly used for the wrong purposes), intrigue and strategy of Melese as well as due to the external stature he assiduously built for himself. Even if Melese was to miraculously return, the status quo is unsustainable because the system is irreparably broken and reform is way overdue on its own merits.
Let us face it, Melese was the best ideologue, CEO and salesman that the TPLF/EPRDF ever produced, and there is no one in sight within the party’s hierarchy to replace him and maintain TPLF’s/EPRDF’s dominance and perpetuate the system ad infinitum. Melese outwitted longtime guerrilla colleagues and serious contenders in the TPLF and emerged as the uncontested supreme leader of the TPLF/EPRDF using his shrewdness, street smarts, and decisiveness. He used Machiavellian divide-and-rule tactics and brute force to emasculate and eviscerate the opposition. He used similar underhand tactics to decimate the budding civil society and free press, which are so critical to building an accountable, democratic system.
As is always the case with dictatorships, the TPLF has no heir apparent to guide the TPLF/EPRDF ship in treacherous waters ahead. Confused and in fear of losing power, the party has resorted at what it knows best — scheming in reclusion and away from public scrutiny. This demonstrates that the TPLF has no succession plan and there is no singular figure that members and supporters could easily coalesce around and continue business as usual. Melese indeed had the potential and the historic opportunity to unify the country and put a system in place that could have survived his demise. But that was not meant to be. Sooner or later history will render its verdict on his legacy, but Melese was shackled by engrained personal hatred for the history of Ethiopia and strong prejudice against those outside of his ethnicity to emerge as a visionary unifying leader for all Ethiopians. His dogged championship of parochial ethnic/tribal dogma in a multiethnic and multi-religious society and intolerance to descent impeded what he could have accomplished by way of charting a democratic course for Ethiopia and attaining that rare coveted place for himself in the country’s history.
Melese used his charm, wit, and intellectual prows to ingratiate himself to the West as a pragmatic and visionary leader with a penchant for crushing descent. He further solidified his indispensability to the West by presenting himself as a staunch ally in the fight against terrorism, promoting continental peace through regional interventions, and by producing a measure of economic success. Melese was extraordinary at glossing over the party’s misdeeds at home and trumpeting its perceived successes abroad. He infatuated quite a few Western leaders and thinkers alike by lucidly expounding the theories of economic development, the impacts of global warming, and the need for food security. He marshaled his cadres and sacrificed quality to achieve some of the benchmarks for the Millennium Development Goals in health, education, and poverty alleviation. The West loved it, leading to their often heard refrain – that although Melese was an autocrat he made inroads in the fight against poverty in a difficult neighborhood. And more importantly they saw no viable alternative to him either within the party or outside.
Melese had such an uncanny ability to read the minds of his supporters and foes alike. He was almost certain where the priorities of the West were when it comes to choosing between vital interests and human rights. How else would you explain his committing of reprehensible atrocities at home and immediately thereafter appearing on the world stage and lecturing the world about the virtues of good governance, democratic principles, and development? For example, following elections-related unrest in 2005, Melese declared a state of emergency and took command of security forces that killed around 200 and arrested tens of thousands of people, and shortly thereafter, appeared at a G-20 submit in Gleneagles, Scotland and basked in the glow light of the forum without flinching an eye or displaying any remorse.
Melese routinely denied food aid to non-supporters and was invited as a worthy contemporary to a world summit on food security. He arrested or exiled independent Ethiopian journalist and received largely glowing reviews in the international media about how he was changing the country for the better. His Western patrons knew of his crimes, but sadly chose not only to look the other way but showered him with accolades, diplomatic and financial support. Firmly in control at home and perceived as an indispensable ally abroad, Melese became the critical conduit for Western largess flowing to the coffers of the TPLF/EPRDF. In Melese’s time, Western aide skyrocketed from a few hundred million U.S. dollars to over $4 billion a year.
At the same time, Melese artfully cultivated ties with emerging power China and managed to secure significant loans and infrastructure support for projects at home. Melese firmly controlled a large and disciplined armed and security forces, giving him almost total control at home and allowing him to play influential role in the region. Despite well-documented repressions at home, the flow of aid, economic assistance, and political and diplomatic support continued unabated for over two decades, making his government the powerhouse of the Horn of Africa. Given Melese’s relative youth (only 57 years old) and lack of any threat to his grip on power, many supporters at home and abroad concluded and banked on his staying at the helm for the foreseeable future. No wonder Melese was emboldened and tightened the leash even further, shattering completely the door for a negotiated reform. But the assumption that Melese would be around for a long time is now in serious jeopardy and many are in no doubt scrambling to maintain their influence and/or privileged status by somehow maintaining the status quo.
Granted Melese lately talked about retiring from politics in 2015 but no one took that seriously. Most suspected he were likely to try what Valdimir Putin did in Russia – putting a trusted and malleable underling in power and then resurfacing at the helm reinvigorated after a term or two. That is why his permanent exit should be seen as an omen and a watershed point in Ethiopia’s quest for democratization.
As said before, the problem for the TPLF/EPRDF is that there is no viable successor of Melese’s conniving caliber and intrigue to manage the ship at a time when domestic politics is boiling up and outside challenges remain as critical as ever. Without such a figure, the party is unlikely to keep the lid on the festering domestic discontent while at the same time maintaining the flow of aid, economic development assistance, and foreign investment so critical to maintaining the system in place. Given this reality, the pragmatists within the party could be persuaded to vote for desperately needed reforms. Most importantly the pressure for such reforms should come from the opposition as well as from the public. But equally the pressure should also come from the party’s rank and file. Simply parroting the official line in complete denial of the negative consequences of a corrupt one-party system is untenable and in the long-term a recipe for the disintegration of the party as we know it today. In the eye of the Ethiopian public, voting for reform could be the single most important accomplishment progressives within the party could achieve at this critical point in Ethiopia’s history. Given the complex reality and the stakes at hand, it is imperative for Ethiopians to conduct a sober assessment of the current situation as well as the interests of the various groups vying for influence and develop a viable practical course for the future.
The view from the Inside
The domestic situation is rife with tensions, including rising inflation, daily violations of human rights, rising youth unemployment/underemployment, rampant corruption and nepotism, lingering resentment against a minority system, religious interference, and the winds of the Arab Spring and the palpable awakening they have engendered within the public (the ongoing Muslims’ quest to assert their religious freedom is perhaps the most visible sign). Melese’s possible sudden departure and the political uncertainty it has created is likely to dampen business activities and foreign investment. There are low-level insurgencies in the Ogden, Oromia, and Amhara regions. On top of these, Ethiopia is always a single missed rainy season away from the next natural disaster. These are not good signs of a rather stable country. One hopes a responsible leadership would work to use the historic opportunity at hand to introduce needed reforms and to defuse and/or tackle these tensions/challenges.
The opposition is not free from the blame. It is fragmented and disorganized, lacks a coherent alternative vision, and needs to restore its shattered credibility with the Ethiopian people. It should first put its house in order and must be flexible to work with the TPLF/EPRDF to create a better Ethiopia for all. It should acknowledge the good work that has been accomplished by the TPLF/EPRDF, especially in the economic front and desist from witch-hunting their opponents in the ruling party. Of course, those that have abused power and committed gross human rights violations and amassed fortunes through corrupt practices should face charges at the appropriate time.
Melese reportedly is half-Eritrean and rightly or wrongly is perceived as an Eritrean stooge. He has championed and fought for Eritrea’s separation. He has authored a book justifying the Eritrean cause and glorifying its struggle for independence. He (his party) has provided critical material support for Eritrea’s secession. He has glowed in intoxicating public celebration when Eritrea finally seceded. He is accused of policies favoring Eritrean nationals after separation. Add to these the unresolved border conflict with Eritrea, relations with that country post-Melese is going to be tricky. Understandably, many Eritreans and their sympathizers within the TPLF/EPRDF are nervous about what could follow next.
Relations with Sudan and South Sudan are going to be tricky as well. The TPLF/EPRDF, during its guerilla days, enjoyed Sudan’s hospitality and support. Sudan allowed TPLF/EPRDF safe heaven as well as critical supply lines to defeat the Mengistu regime. Mengistu returned the favor by supporting South Sudan against the North. Melese has paid back Sudan handsomely by ceding fertile sovereign Ethiopian territory to the latter and by refusing to execute an International Criminal Court arrest warrant against Omar Al Bashir for his alleged crimes against humanity. Melese no doubt did not also want to help set the precedent by arresting Al Bashir as himself may have faced similar charges on account of atrocities he reportedly committed in the Gambela, Ogaden, Oromia, and Addis Ababa. Sudan and South Sudan will no doubt be watching closely as Ethiopia has also helped broker peace between them and has a committed peacekeeping force separating the two foes on the ground.
Egypt would also be worried due to its interest in the waters of the Nile and the threat of an emerging power in the region. However, it is consumed with its own internal strife to pause a serious threat at this point. Kenya in the south would also be watching as any instability in Ethiopia could have negative repercussions in terms of security in its border region and the flow refugees. The unstable situation in Somalia and the serious extremist threat emanating from there has to also be looked at very carefully and kept in check no matter what form of government emerges in Ethiopia after Melese.
The way Forward
No doubt, Ethiopia is slowly moving into the grips of a crisis and it is up to the incumbent TPLF/EPRDF and the opposition to break that grip by starting the difficult but arduous journey of reconciliation and healing that Ethiopia so desperately needs. This would require the will and determination to transcend narrow ethnic, religious and/or regional differences by leaders and the courage to forge a brighter future for all. Ethiopians need to reform the one-party system instituted by Melese, which is inimical for a diverse country such as Ethiopia, and replace it with a genuine multiparty system. The West also needs to make a paradigm shift and support efforts toward genuine reform. In the long term, the West’s best interest is advanced by helping build democratic institutions and by fostering lasting friendship with the people of Ethiopia. The most important role the West could help at this juncture is by applying a concerted and meaningful pressure on the TPLF/EPRDF to open up the closed political space and to suspend the assault on the opposition, the press, civil society, and the rule of law. Given the ethnic venom and hatred that has purposefully and irresponsibly been spewed for the last 21 years (recall Meles’s Interahamwe speech after he lost the elections in 2005), especial care should be given not to fan inter-ethnic or religious animosity among the people. Ethnic or religious demagogues should have no place in today’s Ethiopia.
Once again, given the quagmire the country finds itself in and significant risks ahead, the best solution is for the TPLF/EPRDF and the opposition to find a common ground in building a shared peaceful, equitable and fair future for all Ethiopians. The incumbent TPLF/EPRDF party, in the interest of the country and its own future, should come out and inform the Ethiopian people on the true health status of Prime Minster Melese Zenawi and end the wild speculations; release all political prisoners and journalists; stop interference in religious affairs; suspend the stifling societies and charities laws; and cease inappropriately applying the anti-terrorism law to suppress press freedom and political descent. Taking such steps requires confidence and has risks but the alternative is too grim to contemplate. Only open, honest, and forward looking deliberations would make redemption possible for all.
Will the TPLF/EPRDF and the opposition rise to the occasion and answer the call of the people for freedom, justice and equality this time around? Only time will tell, but let us all do our part by nudging, supporting, and pushing them to do the right thing at this historic moment in our history!!!
God Bless Ethiopia!
PS: As I concluded this writing this morning, I heard a news report announcing the death of Abune Paulos, the patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. He was a core supporter of Melese and the ruling party. The demise of the patriarch is likely going to create another headache for the TPLF/EPRDF and further complicate matters. The timing is particularly noteworthy and one wonders if there is indeed a divine intervention at work in Ethiopia these days.