Meles’s Death: Paradoxes and Opportunities By Messay Kebede

September 4th, 2012 Print Print Email Email

Beyond the pathetic and at times ridiculous theatrics of Ethiopians ordered not only to mourn but also to show visible signs of a boundless grief over the death of Meles Zenawi, henceforth advertised as a great and beloved Ethiopian leader, I hear a murmur that increasingly sounds like a condescending laughter. Who is laughing? Perhaps history is laughing at the extraordinary reversal of Meles and the TPLF. When the guerrilla troops of the TPLF marched on Addis Ababa in 1991 and their leaders seized power, they promised freedom and democracy for all the peoples of Ethiopia. After 20 years of total rule, what we observe is people mourning a leader in the North Korean style, that is, the reality of a government that feels entitled to order its people even how to feel.

This is a new landmark: already whatever Ethiopians used to have belongs to the government, including their house, their land, and the schools to which they send their children, just as they are told to which ethnic bantustan they belong and which party they should follow under pain of being demoted to second or even third rate citizens. I would hardly be surprised if the government soon orders Ethiopians who to marry and which religion to adopt. The totalitarian strangle is tightening every day to the point of utter suffocation of what makes their humanity, namely, their ability to govern themselves.

The recent drama of a prolonged and effusive official mourning is deliberately staged to achieve two interrelated results. On the one hand, by demanding that Ethiopians show an outpouring grief over the death of Meles, his successors and followers want to further humiliate them so as to erase any temptation of protest, obvious as it is that a humiliated, broken people is unable to stand up for itself. On the other hand, the submission of the people to the point of manifesting grief over the demise of their oppressor provides his successors with a semblance of legitimacy. The more Meles is glorified and his successors swear to continue his “great” work, the more they acquire the mantle of legitimacy by presenting themselves as his trusted heirs. This borrowed legitimacy is necessary to find some form of acceptance among party members, the military establishment, and the troops.

It should be noted that the strategy could backfire. Indeed, the more Meles is exalted, the less his successors appear as able people. The excessive exaltation of Meles leaves the impression that he did everything by himself, that he was the only decider, planner, and executor. His stature is now so high that his successors look like dwarfs licking his boots. This confirms what Sebhat Nega supposedly said, to wit, that “in his death, Meles took with him the TPLF as well.” Meles’s glory is obtained at the expense of the TPLF and, as repeatedly confirmed by history, the rise of a dictator always undermines his followers. Even though dictatorship was thought necessary to impose the interests of the party, the first loser is always the party in that it creates a force that it can no longer control.

The most stunning reversal is however the fuss aimed at presenting Meles as a great Ethiopian nationalist leader. Meles, who all along ridiculed Ethiopian nationalism, landlocked Ethiopia, fragmented the country into ethnic states, officially and repeatedly stigmatized Ethiopian legacy, even went to the extent of defending the secession of Tigray, is now exalted as a staunch Ethiopian nationalist. What is more, he who defined himself so pompously as a Tigrean nationalist, wanted his funeral ceremony and his burial to take place in Addis Ababa, as though he had nothing to do with Tigray. That the once vehement Tigrean nationalist suddenly found Tigray too small for him represents the apex of paradox. There is after all a winner in the 20 years of wasted rule and it is Ethiopia. The fact that Meles’s body did not even touch the soil of Tigray is his mea culpa and final tribute to Ethiopian nationhood.

Lastly, I have a free advice for Meles’s successors. Instead of trying to find the legitimacy that they lack by hiding behind the ghost of Meles, they should seriously consider the only path that provides them with their own legitimacy. The resolution to continue Meles’s policy is a deadlock and ultimately dangerous for their own survival and interests. To continue the same policy without Meles would require them to be more repressive and totalitarian than Meles ever was, the outcome of which can only be the exasperation of popular unrests. Even if we assume that the EPRDF has the ability to become more repressive, the implementation of the policy will necessitate another “strong man.” And this means back to square one, that is, back to one-man dictatorship with all its risks and restrictions on the ruling party itself. Notably, the rise of such a dictator, assuming it is possible, would come at the cost of the unity of the EPRDF and even of the TPLF.

The only viable path is to correct Meles’s mistake by opening up the political space to opposition forces and by lifting all the restrictions on freedom of speech and organization as well as by liberating all political prisoners. To do so would confer a new legitimacy on Meles’s successors while at the same time removing the possibility of another round of dictatorial rule and reaffirming the unity of the EPRDF and of the various parties that compose it. In other words, both the EPRDF and the TPLF need the participation of opposition forces to regain an internally working democratic condition and preserve their unity.

As things stand now, I see no better way to move in a different direction than to confirm Haile Mariam Desalegn as the new prime minister. More than his status as deputy prime minister, what militates in favor of his confirmation is that he represents the southern peoples and, as such, can intercede between the big competing forces within the EPRDF. This gives him the strategic position to preserve the unity of the party and opens up a space for the participation of the opposition. Let there be no misunderstanding: I am not saying that Haile Mariam is the right person. Some such conclusion would be utterly premature and unfounded on any reliable proof. Rather, I am suggesting that he should be given the benefit of the doubt, given his strategic position. At any rate, we will soon know whether he can take advantage of his position and initiate a new direction.

  1. Dawi
    | #1

    [[..The most stunning reversal …. Meles as a great Ethiopian nationalist leader. Meles, who ..reidiculed Ethiopian nationalism, landlocked Ethiopia, fragmented… ethnic states… stigmatized Ethiopian legacy….defending the secession of Tigray.. is now exalted as a staunch Ethiopian nationalist…]]

    You are correct; it is exactly a reversal!

    The reversal is done by no other but him self. The least we can all do is respect that.

    As he took the easier path to power in the beginning, he paid the high price for the draw backs it brought to his legacy as you mentioned above however, the man worked hard until his death bed and ended up by in large, deserving today’s celebrated state Ethiopians and other people around the world are giving him.

    One who Listens the latest interviews of his confidents/friends Prof. Indreas Eshete, Dr. Susan Rice, Dr. Eleni to name a few would have a glimpse of who the man was.

    I don’t think any one is celebrating his draw backs. No one celebrates our past leaders short comings (short comings they’ve many) so what is new here?

    What I think is going to be his greatest legacy is the playing of the historical role of a Dictator and finally putting forward the blue print for a Developmental state of Ethiopia/Africa in general. He declared Ethiopian transformation/renaissance with the millennium Dam to be built by Ethiopians own hands on the great Nile River.

    That is a great achievement.

    [[…That the once vehement Tigrean nationalist suddenly found Tigray too small for him represents the apex of paradox….]]

    I can’t believe this coming from the good Prof. But, those who are disappointed Meles moved on to a bigger vision than they can fathom, can’t help but say such none sense

  2. Ensermu
    | #2

    Prof. Messay – as much as I appreciate the analysis of the contemporarey Ethiopian politics, I disagree with the recommendations and here is why….

    Hailemariam Desalegne is handpicked by the late tyrant not based on his credentials or meritocracy but out of convenience & ethnicity. First of all, from the little I learnt about Hailemariam, his resume is one of an opportunist and loyal cadre – and not of a principled leader or proven technocrat. In addition, his ethnicity is also considered as less of a threat to the Tigrian hegemoney compared to an Oromo or Amhara.

    The West, especially the United States, failed to invest in Ethiopia’s social, economic and political institutions. They wasted two-decades empowering one dictator and turned blind eyes to civil society’s foul cry. They looked the other way as Zenawi’s regime dismantled domestic opposition and free press but continued to report his regime’s gross human rights violations. Zenawi’s failure to establish a rule of law, an independent judiciary and democratic institutions has put the country on uncertainty course and a possible upheaval, which many now say seems likely.

    Although I understand Prof. Messay’s recommendation, I presumably like millions of Ethiopians do not agree with the prescription. Instead, I suggest to look beyond TPLF and the cosmetics of Hailemariam Desalegne.

    Ethiopians must make a decisive move to end the Woyane rule and erase the unending Tigre circus at the expense of Ethiopia and Ethiopians.

  3. kaleb
    | #3

    If I were you Mesay, I would never have the courage to say “Ethiopians” in your junk. These people are so great, they know how to show their voices and unite when it comes to a national issue. Bante aaf, these people can not be catagorized at all. Or, is that a defence mechanism?

  4. YHD
    | #4

    After centuries of stagnation, thanks to the hard work and determination of the late PM Meles and his EPRD, Ethiopia has finally awakened. It is more beneficial to our impoverished country if we involve in different ways in the struggle to transform our country and alleviate the suffering of our people than arguing and continuously writing self-righteous political comments about political and ideological differences. Our people are suffering from lack of basic necessities due to lack of resources and information. I do not see the wisdom of being consumed in such wasteful arguments when we have millions of things on our to-do list that are long overdue and still need no one’s but our attention and support to be completed. I do not see the benefit of wasting our valuable time and meager resources engaging in senseless arguments on less priority and mostly irreconcilable issues. In a country hunted by multiple contradictory ideologies and conflicting demands, achieving concession could be a farfetched & wild expectation. The simple fact is that there is no silver-bullet solution to completely satisfy everyone’s demand in Ethiopia. My view is that achieving rapid socioeconomic progress and creating a level playground for all Ethiopians should be our priority as 99% of our major problems are associated with the backwardness and impoverishment of our people and country. The incumbent government under the late Melas has worked relentlessly to transform Ethiopia in many areas and obviously the hard work is visible and holding fruits despite of the many obstacles the country is still facing. As a matter of fact, it deserves credit and appreciation. On the other hand, some individuals and opposition groups in the diaspora are busy fomenting confusion and hate in collaboration with the openly sworn enemies of Ethiopia: Groups such as ONLF, OLF, and the Eritrean Gov to distract and destroy Ethiopian’s encouraging progress in fighting backwardness and poverty. Still there is a lot to be desired and done in improving good governance and democratic rights. We all need to learn to be tolerant, open and respectful to others viewpoints and opinions.

  5. Zerayakob Yared
    | #5

    ኣመልን ኣይገድፍ,በለፈለፉ ይጠፉ!

    ሕሊናን, ፍትወት ዓዲን የለሹ, አዶታት ዓድዋ ምስ ደቀን, ደቂ ተምቤን ን’30 ዓመታት ሙሉእ ብዘናኸሰሉ ወስላታ መልሓሱ, አብ ብዓል አሜሪካታትን ቻይናታት’ውን ኽጥቀመሉ ብምፍታኑ ናብ ዝኸዶ ከይዱ:: ብስድነት ዝትዓወረ ዓቕሙ ዘይፈልጥ! ዝተረፍኩም ብህይወት ዘለኹም, ሕሊና ግዝኡ, ስድነት ይአክል, ዓድኹም ፍተዉ:: ማሌሊት እየ ማለት ጥራሕ ከይኮነስ, አነ ዓደይ ዝፈቱ ትግራዋይ-ኢትዮጵያዊ እየ ንምባል ድፈሩ! እንተድአዘይኮነ ግን ብዝኾነ ዓይነት መልክዑ ድማ ዝገጥም ክገጥመኩም እዩ:: ኣብ ዕለተ ቐብሪ ኹሉ ከይተፈ ዋሾ:: ኣብ ማእኸል ውስልትናን ፖለቲካዊ ዲፕሎማሲን ዘሎ ፍልልይ ምፍላጥ, ንሓደ ፖሊቲከኛ እየ ብሃላይ, ናይ መጀመርታ ተግባሩ ይኸውን:: ኣብ ማእኸል ናይ ዓለም ሓያላት ሃገራትን ሓይልታትን ዲፕሎማሳዊ ዝኾነ ኽእለት ምስትፃወት ጥራህ ኢኻ ተቐባልነት ዝነብረካ:: ተራ ኣወናባዲ እንተኾንካ ግን, “ኸመይ ገርካ ምውጋዱ ይሓይሽ” ዝብል ዕጫ ጥራሕ እዩ ዝውጥንጠነልካ! ተራ ኣወናባዲ እንተድኣኾይንካ ድማ ኣምላኽ’ውን ኣይሕግዘካን:: እዙይታት ነገራት ኹሉ ብስነ ስርዓቱ ንምውሃድ, መጀመርታ መንነትካ ፅቡቕ ገይርካ ምፍላጥ ተቐዳሚ ተግባር ኾይኑ ይርከብ:: ናይ ፍልጠት መጀመርታ: ባዕልኻ ንዓርስኻ ምፍላጥ እዩ:: አብዙይ እንርከበሉ ዘሎና ሃገራት: Erkenne dich selbst! – Werde, der du bist! ይብልዎ!!

    ዝሓየሸ እዋናት የምፅኣልና! ከም ብሓዱሽ’ውን ትምህርቲ ንምቕሳም ዓቕሊ ይሃበና! ወዮድኣ ባዕላቶም ኣብ ስራሕ ኣየውዓልዎን እንበር ፊውዳላውያን እኻ ከይተረፉ’ዶ “ትምህርት እድሜን አይወስንም” ኢሎም ኣይነበሩን! ህዝባዊ ወያነ ሓርነት ትግራይ, ከም ብሓድሽ ንሓርነት ህዝብኹም ፈተነ ግበሩ:: ብልፈፋ ንሓርነት, ብተግባር ግና ንጁባኻ ምሙላእ ሕማቕ ልምዲ ይኣክል!
    ብድሓን ሕደሩ, ክሳብ ፅባሕ!

  6. ለምለም
    | #6

    Well said Dr. Messay Kebede, I hope they are reading and listening. Here is my piece:

    እንምራ ለሚሉ፤ የፍቅር ምክር!
    ስሙ ተመከሩ፤
    ደሰታም ሆነ ሐዘን ይፈራረቃሉ
    እንምራ በማለት የምትቋምጡ ሁሉ
    አዳምጡ፤ ስሙ፤ ተመከሩ።
    ሁሉን አሰተካካይ
    ቅን ፈራጅ
    አድልዖም የማያውቅ
    እግዚአብሔር ፈጣሬ አለና
    በዙፋን በሰማይ
    እስኪ ተመከሩ
    ኢትይጵያን ለመግዛት
    አቅድ ያላችሁ ሁሉ
    አዳምጡ፤ ስሙ፤
    ዛሬም ተመከሩ፤
    ከራሳችሁ ይልቅ
    ከጎሣችሁ ይልቅ
    ሁሉን በኩልነት
    ፍትህንም በመስጠት
    ለማጤን ሞክሩ፤
    ከሞት አታመልጡም
    የትም ብትዞሩ ።
    በምኞታችሁም ፍርሃተ እግዚአብሔርን
    እስኪ ተመርኮዙ፤
    እዩ ተመልከቱ የድሃ ሕዝብ እንባ
    ብዙ ነው መዘዙ።
    እንምራ በማለት የምትቃኙ ሁሉ
    ስሙ ተመከሩ፤
    ደሰታም ሆነ ሐዘን ይፈራረቃሉ።
    እንምራ በማለት የምትቃኙ ሁሉ
    አዳምጡ እባካችሁ፤ ስሙ፤ ተመከሩ
    ከእንግዲህ ኢትይጵያን
    በማሳ እንዳትቀብሩ።
    እንምራ በማለት
    የምትቃኙ ሁሉ
    ስሙ ተመከሩ፤
    ፍርሃተ እግዚአብሔርን
    ደግሞም ተመርኮዙ፤
    ግፍ እንዳትፈጽሙም
    እጅግ ተጠንቀቁ
    የድሃ ሕዝብ እንባ
    ብዙ ነው መዘዙ።
    © ለምለም ጸጋው፤ ንሐሤ 14, 2004 (August 22, 2012) In Memory for those who were killed in last 21 Years because they spoke against Tyranny. Lemlem Tsegaw

  7. Anonymous
    | #7

    Benefit of the doubt!! Its some thing everyone needs to consider. If you ask me about the good thing ever done by Meles, then that is when he decided to bring Desaleng as his deputy. It is not because Desalegn is capable of political leadership, its rather because he represents a people and organization that calls itslef Ethiopian ‘Debub Ethiopia’. In Desalegn, Ethiopia may got a chance to revive and maintain the spirit of Ethiopianism. That no one wuld be taken as criminal because he/she is true Ethiopian. Long live Ethiopa and free all political prisoners.

  8. lucky
    | #8


    Dear DawiT, landlocked Ethiopia, fragmented… ethnic states , it is correct to say : federations of nations and languages,equality among the nationalities,this is the new Ethiopia.The old centralised system is over.

  9. ጉረኞች
    | #9

    You are advocating for dictators who thrive in power by killing innocent people. I can’t believe any human being be so blinded by “success” of dictators, if you call it a success. I guess you have no friends or relatives victimized by dictators. For those who have been victimized, dictators are rightly criminal that should face trial and pay their due, in spite of any success you claim they help achieve.
    In another thread, I saw what you enumerated as economic failures in South Africa and success in China. The fact is, in spite of all South Africa’s failures and China’s success, the majority of the people/immigrants choose to live in South Africa not in China. What do you think the reason is, economic success or choice of freedom? I’ve repeatedly asked you and one of our friends here, you cannot wish something for others when you yourself do not want to do. You chose to ignore the question, where do you want to live?

  10. Dawi
    | #10

    ጉረኞች :

    My interest is what model takes us out poverty the fastest and I will choose to live there, if that is what you are asking.

    Aristotle said: “Only a wealthy society in which relatively few citizens lived in real poverty could a situation exist in which the mass of the population could intelligently participate in politics and could develop the self-restraint necessary to avoid succumbing to the appeals of irresponsible demagogues”.

    Given that our social instability require a centralization of decisions, and given that special crisis as natural disasters require rapid decision making and the diminishing of liberties, there are surely cases in which democracy is not viable. Under these conditions economical development is promoted by dictatorships as in the Asian Tigers.

    The historic experience shows that richer, more educated and more equal countries are more likely to be democratic.

  11. Michel
    | #11

    “…The fact that Meles’s body did not even touch the soil of Tigray is his mea culpa and final tribute to Ethiopian nationhood…”

    A couple of (serious) questions to the good Doctor: Where exactly is ‘Tigray’ located? Would Addis Abeba “soil” be more of an ‘Ethiopian’ “soil” than say the “soil” in Mekelle (or anywhere else in ‘Tigray’? Trouble with our “intellectuals” is that by making statements such as the one quoted above, they do not realize they are clearly manifesting that they are just the other side of the coin…

  12. ጉረኞች
    | #12

    You do not need a model, you have seen the result what 21 years of absolute dictatorship produced with the passing of the devil Meles. Collective ignorance, poverty prone society, starvation, cult worshipers, a total of national disgrace. Just like the TPLF dictatorship produced, the vast majority of countries under dictators have similar result like Ethiopia.

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