The Paradox of Ethiopians: The Apotheosis of Meles Zenawi and the End of Ethiopia By Tecola W. Hagos
No less than a Tsunami of events did hit Ethiopia these last two weeks—two of its prominent leaders died under mysterious circumstances suddenly. I have been glued to my television set (ETV) watching the unfolding news on the death of Patriarch Paulos of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and later the death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. I was moved a lot more than I thought I would be watching on ETV (Ethiopian government owned channel) the outpouring of sympathy and grief by hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians, young and old, men and women, Christians and Muslims allover Ethiopia especially soon after the official announcement of the death of Meles Zenawi. The display of grief in Addis Ababa especially following the coterie accompanying the body of Meles Zenawi from Bole Airport was most disturbing.
Early on, even though there were subtle give-away evidences of manipulations of forcing out Ethiopian mourners that at times seem to be hysterical, the outpouring of grief by multitude of Ethiopians seems to be real not something contrived or forced. At the start of mourning a week ago, at least on the surface, it looked quite dissimilar to what we watched on television some eight months ago where entire population of mourners would weep and wail on queue given by officials as was the case on the death of Kim Jong-Il of North Korea (Dec 17, 2011). Now, all that is changed and the expression of sorrow seems to be forced and meant for public display; in fact, it has become ridicules that the ETV for twenty four hours every single day for the last one week reports only of the mourning and wailing of people. There are reports of physical attacks by EPRDF functionaries against those individuals for not expressing their sorrow.
The expression of sorrow by simple often poor people that is displayed through the ETV should not be seen as some kind of proof of the “goodness” of Meles Zenawi, but rather guardedly that of the People of Ethiopia themselves. On the other hand, Ethiopians must be consummate actors to stage such touching performance of sorrow. I hope such expression of sorrow is not wasted, for up to now no one had seen Meles Zenawi dead or alive since June 19, 2012. I do not know what is in that casket either. The Government officials and Party leaders are habitual liars that I do not believe anything they say. I feel pity for the person of Meles Zenawi in that he died at such young age under such mysterious circumstances, but that does not diminish my disagreement with several of his policies affecting the short term and long term security and territorial integrity of Ethiopia, as well as its economy.
One may not be able to see accurately Meles Zenawi for what he truly is unless one dissects him into parts: his personal life, his political deeds, and his economics policies and activities. Already Bereket Simon has stated on ETV that the simple outpouring of grief of Ethiopians is a political endorsement of the past activities and “vision” of Meles Zenawi, which is in its most significant aspect anti historic Ethiopia. Here is one despicable example of the power struggle underway that is shamelessly using the truly naïve sorrow of a hysterical society, ever abused and repeatedly violated and held hostage suffering from a “Stockholm syndrome.” What is the state of affairs in Ethiopia at this moment? What political forces are at play consolidating power? Is there any legitimacy to the past activities of Meles Zenawi? Such are some of the issues that need be examined and reexamined again and again.
The type of laxity and willingness of most Ethiopians to live with anything thrown their way is most disturbing and unnerving to me. I have stated form years back, that Ethiopians have an ever diminishing core of set of beliefs that was eroded over millenniums to a point where there is very little left. The ultimate proof is what we are witnessing as an on going expression of grief for a political dictatorial leader who treated them/us like trash for the last twenty one years, a leader who was so afraid of his own people that he lived within the densest security bubble the likes of which even the United States Government with all its wealth and power does not maintain around its President.
II. Adulation or Hysteria or Political Manipulation?
Like all leaders, Meles Zenawi was a complex personality. He was not a linear person but dimensional. He did display a Janus personality presenting one face to the international community and a totally different face to Ethiopians. Just as a reminder to very many individuals who see Meles Zenawi in black and white, I would say that Meles Zenawi comes in all kinds of shades, and that we must not see him in such starkly contrasting views of either/or.
A. Meles Zenawi as an Individual
From all I have heard and from the little I have seen, Meles Zenawi as a husband and a father was above reproach. In fact, he was a loving and responsible parent. I have absolutely great respect and accolade to write about his personal family life. Unlike many of his colleagues, he respected his wife and children by being faithful to his marriage. Many of the leaders of TPLF suffered from sexually transmitted diseases including AIDS, but not Meles Zenawi. If we take into account how young he was when he joined the political organization that ended up becoming the TPLF, we can appreciate his devotion and sacrifice for a cause. After all he did not abandon or give-up his organization even when its continued existence was doubtful, weathering it all for over seventeen years under harsh circumstances and often in combat zone. This is one endearing fact that defies simple explanation.
In contradistinction to his commitment to a cause, he was not a heroic or chivalrous personality; he could be mean and petty as evidenced several times over and over. He not only devastated honorable opposition leaders and those he suspected of challenging him for his power, but also humiliated them beyond their “offences.” Meles Zenawi not only extracted through false pretenses admissions of criminality, for example, from the members of the opposition such as Hailu Shawel, Birtukan Mideksa, Birhanu Nega et cetera. but also have them sign documents admitting to some crimes they have not committed after having them convicted first in a kangaroo court with outrageously long prison terms. Meles by using “notable” individuals, such as Haile Gebre Selassie (a great athlete but a naïve politician), Prof Ephraim Isaac (የእርጎ፡ ዝምብ) an insufferable chronic meddler in other people’s business, as intermediaries and thereby sought legitimacy for his persecution of legitimate opposition leaders. Meles Zenawi never respected an independent judicial system nor law and order; he simply used a legal system and judicial process as façade to carry out his sordid political goals.
What is also tragic is the fact that Meles Zenawi surrounded himself with technocrats from the bloody Mengistu’s bureaucracy, such as Fasil Nahum, Tekeda Alemu et cetera, individuals that were dead-weight sycophants who flatter him and parroted his ideas. Their crowning achievement was the reduction of the prison terms and/or release from prison of former high officials of Mengistu Hailemariam, their former bosses, who had committed mass murder and participated in the Red Terror et cetera. The achievement of such technocrats is laughable, one clear example, is the poorly drafted Constitution of 1995. Some of their memos to their respective bosses that I had read was dismal, lacking in original ideas, or clear suggestions but coached with equivocation and at best echoing back what Meles wants to hear—Meles’s own ideas.
There is no doubt in my mind that Meles Zenawi earned his leadership position through his monumental effort; however, that effort was never honorable. Most importantly he had followers to carry him through the turmoil of the acquisition of power. Whether one likes Meles Zenawi or not, the fact remains that he had that intangible leadership quality that created and retained followers. Without people who believed in him, he would not have led the TPLF and later the EPRDF for over thirty five years. But he can be ruthless and cold-blooded antagonist too, who could turn against even those who were close friends (freedom fighters), such as Tamrat Lyne, Seeye Abraha and several others whom he humiliated and imprisoned for decades.
I find the accolade heaped on Meles Zenawi about his intellectual capacity, especially by foreign leaders, such as Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, et cetera, as condescending and racist. I do not hear Western leaders talking about each other in those terms: “Bill Clinton is very intelligent,” or “Tony Blair has high intellect.” See what I mean? Meles Zenawi has high capacity to assimilate facts and to draw conclusions based on his tailored understanding of such reality that is limited by his biases and hate. There are serious gaps in his intellectual development that rendered him myopic—to see things in quite predictable simplistic manner. He uses a system of recursive dialectical method to reduce all those who argue with him on certain points, but it is well known that system of argument is an inferior method of dialogue because one achieves a “winning” discourse by tailoring premises to reach a desired conclusion. It is not a method for dealing with complex issues and honest search for truth, and also in making atypical conclusions and decisions. In other words, intuitive knowledge that truly signifies intellectual maturity is lacking in most of his political and economic policy decisions.
B. Meles Zenawi and his Political Misdeeds
The political policies and activities of Meles Zenawi in general are areas that I have the most disagreement with Meles Zenawi. I have selected hereunder some of the activities and policies that are of great concern to me and should be to all of us:
1.He has harmed Ethiopia to such an extent that its future existence is questionable. The most harmful political action was his compromising the territorial integrity of Ethiopia by allowing the land locking of Ethiopia. His ridicules campaign to convince us that losing our coastal territory is to be treated like a business transaction rather than as a national security issue, and that we can buy port services from the surrounding countries is one fact that we should never forget or forgive. That was the worst betrayal of trust by any Ethiopian political leader.
2.He signed off tens of thousands of square kilometers of historic-Ethiopian territory to the Sudan.
3.He promoted the secessionist agenda of dividing Ethiopia by ethnic groups at the cost of maintaining the unity and territorial integrity of Ethiopia.
4.His policy on ethnicity and the fragmentation of Ethiopia on the basis of ethnic identity is a system that uses the basest common denominator of human groups. It is a primitive and ultimately destructive system that will harm everyone involved. He introduced the Fascist period division by ethnic groups establishing Kilil Governments that are the precursors of future fragmentations and creation of new states by destroying historic-Ethiopia.
5.He allowed mass removal often violently as a form of ethnic-cleansing of settled Ethiopians from different parts of Ethiopia.
6.He allowed the proliferation of international organizations to be housed in Addis Ababa creating a social and cultural dissonance that harmed Ethiopians.
7.He manipulated elections, totally dismantling all opposition political organizations. He had imprisoned detained tens of thousands of Ethiopians for political reasons. Thousands have died also due to police actions.
8.He has promulgated a draconian terrorism law that he used to destroy any form of legitimate dissent or criticism of his political activities.
9.He had drastically curtailed freedom of speech and assembly and the freedom of the press. He has been routinely identified by international human rights organizations as the worst leader in suppressing freedom of the press and for jailing journalists, reporters, and publishers. As we speak, even at a time where there is accolade about the work of Meles Zenawi, an Ethiopian court using such law had sent to jail a reporter/editor of a popular weekly for writing an article critical of the political activities of the ruling party.
10.He had implemented a policy of allowing young Ethiopian females to travel to Arab nations to work as domestics and did not protect such Ethiopians from horrendous abuse, and torture in the hands of their employers. Some Ethiopians have committed suicide due to harsh treatments by individuals they work for.
C. Meles Zenawi and his economic policies
In terms of economic activities, Meles Zenawi had done few outstanding projects, such as building highways, schools and universities even if lacking proper financing for books and materials. One project in particular, the textile industries, I think was outstanding. It reflects a good understanding of the process of industrialization. However, he had carried out some devastating economic policies whose long term impact would lead to national disintegration.
1.The selling/leasing from fifty to almost hundred years millions of acres of fertile land to foreign governments and corporations. The selling/leasing of land to foreigners is particularly devastating to the economy of the country considering the fact that Ethiopians do not own their own land, and huge numbers of Ethiopians are poor and unemployed and need some kind of settlement to start leading a normal life.
2.Selling gold mining concessions under dubious circumstances and with minimal share (as a matter of fact the lowest in the trade) of the profit to Ethiopia. It is curious that Shiek Mohammad Al’amoudi is to be seen nowhere during this period of mourning of the person who made it possible for Al’amoudi to get the gold mine concessions where he was able to loot billions of dollars worth of gold on a miniscule initial investment.
3.Building of dams that is usually presented as the crown jewel of Meles Zenawi’s great achievement is no more than an elaborate scheme aimed to serve foreign governments for hard currency, which money in turn would be looted by the officials and the EPRDF. One must notice the fact that all dams including the monumental dam on Abaye (Blue Nile) are being built near international border regions, and none are built in central Ethiopian regions where they would have been most effective not only as a source of energy but also for irrigation. For Meles since the welfare of Ethiopians is not the real reason for building such huge electric power generating dams, right now the building of dams at border areas has no real value to answer the immediate needs of millions of Ethiopians who will never use the electric power generated from those huge dams for decades. Several small to medium sized dams for far less expense/cost would have had transformative effect on the lives of millions of Ethiopians in far shorter period of time than what could be derived from huge dams.
4.The proliferation of TPLF/EFFORT owned corporations creating a stranglehold on the retail, distribution, and manufacturing businesses. The result of such unhealthy concentration economic power in the hands of TPLF leaders, who also play the roles of Ethiopian Government officials too, resulted in the creation of monopolies and underhanded dealings and corrupt business practices.
5.The devaluation of the Ethiopian birr without adequate safeguards contributed to the inflationary economy and adverse growth in employment in agriculture and industrial out put. Poor monetary policy has resulted in the current devaluation of the birr and the scramble for hard currency.
6.Meles Zenawi’s focus on export market has left the local economy in shambles. And because of such distorted approach on earning foreign currency at the cost of the life-interest of the Ethiopian population, scarcity of food and lack of global improvement of the economy is at its most crucial phase since the time of Emperor Haile Selassie. The soaring food price and the spiral devaluation of the Ethiopian currency is a direct result of such misguided economic policy.
Meles Zenawi’s most serious problem was that he surrounded himself with yes-men technocrats who had questionable history with Mengistu Hailemariam’s Government, which undermined any honest dialogue and critical opinions to shape policies of the Ethiopian government under EPRDF. Moreover, Meles Zenawi’s serious deficiency in formal training dealing with economic and administrative skills did contribute to the many problems now facing the nation. For instance, his idea of “developmental state” is passé in the sense that it has been overused, but Meles thought of it as something original. Nevertheless he did not even adhere to the main features of a developmental state. To wit:
In the literature, the “developmental state” has two components: one ideological, one structural. It is this ideology-structure nexus that distinguishes developmental states from other forms of states. In terms of ideology, such a state is essentially one whose ideological underpinning is “developmentalist” in that it conceives its “mission” as that of ensuring economic development, usually interpreted to mean high rates of accumulation and industrialization. Such a state “establishes as its principle of legitimacy its ability to promote sustained development, understanding by development the steady high rates of economic growth and structural change in the productive system, both domestically and in its relationship to the international economy” (Castells, 1992: 55).
Meles Zenawi’s alleged “developmental state” policy never showed any of the above processes that is described to be constitutive of a developmental state by experts in the field as quoted above/below. Meles simply says things, but goes about doing what is simply a power monopoly scheme for his personal interest that has nothing to do with the economic and/or political development of Ethiopia.
At this ideational level, the élite must be able to establish an “ideological hegemony”, so that its developmental project becomes, in a Gramcian sense, a “hegemonic” project to which key actors in the nation adhere voluntarily. The state-structure side of the definition of the developmental state emphasizes capacity to implement economic policies sagaciously and effectively. Such a capacity is determined by various others institutional, technical, administrative and political. Undergirding all these is the autonomy of the state from social forces so that it can use these capacities to devise long-term economic policies unencumbered by claims of myopic private interests. It is usually assumed that such a state should, in some sense, be “strong” and enjoy “relative autonomy” from key social actors. The quest for a “strong state” in the development process was a strong feature of the “modernization” literature. Such a state was contrasted to what Myrdal (1968) referred to as the “soft state” that had neither the administrative capacity nor the political wherewithal to push through its developmental project. And, finally, the state must have some social anchoring that prevents it from using its autonomy in a predatory manner and enables it to gain adhesion of key social actors.
Thandika Mkandawire,” Thinking About Developmental States in Africa,” 16 October 1998, International Conference Hall, The United Nations University Headquarters, Tokyo, Japan. archive.unu.edu/hq/academic/Pg_area4/Mkandawire.html.
The legacy of Meles is not going to bring about stability with economic growth or political development. It will not be of much use to wish that there will be such legacy. We need to look into our immediate reality with eyes wide open. It will not help us to keep wailing and lamenting for reconciliation and forgiveness. In all probability the United States is pushing behind the scene some form of fake normalization process glossing over serious contradictions and pestering discontent in the Ethiopian population. The Ethiopian people have been victims of an erratic egomaniac leaders that neither knew nor respected what it means to be a citizen of a nation—a nation like Ethiopia with rich history and diversity of ethnic groups, and religion. As they say the Devil is in the detail. It will not help glossing over serious contradictions and wrong policies that had caused tremendous harm far more deeply than one can imagine for the last twenty years. The staged massive expression of grief on the death of Meles Zenawi is not an endorsement on anything done by Meles Zenawi and his Government for the last twenty years.
It will not surprise me at all if the group members in charge of the Ethiopian Government at this time are approaching individuals in the Diaspora as they had done in 1990 and 1991 in order to consolidate their power without real change of political or economic programs and policies. And the United States Government may be playing the role of facilitator as it did at that time in 1991. We must understand that the national security interest of the United States Government is exclusive to the United States; thus we Ethiopians must look at any of the suggestions coming from outside powers only in our exclusive Ethiopian national interest. I shall deal with such issues and the state of affairs in Ethiopia in Part Two of this Article.
Tecola W. Hagos
August 28, 2012
Copyright © Phineaus St. Claire, 2012
The Apotheosis of Meles Zenawi and the End of Ethiopia