Beyond Derailment and Canonization: Assessing Meles’s Rule By Messay Kebede
Scholars loyal to the Woyanne regime, often for the sake of ethnic solidarity, but with some scruples left for the objectivity of scholarly studies engage in a risky project when they undertake the assessment of Meles’s rule of Ethiopia. While their main intention is to bring out and defend what they consider to be undeniable achievements, their scholarly bent prevents them from simply overlooking or painting in rosy terms his obvious shortcomings and failures. So they adopt an approach that presents the good and the bad sides of Meles with the hope that the positive aspect will significantly outweigh the negative one. Unfortunately for them, even their modicum objectivity ends up by sneaking drawbacks so toxic that the general picture becomes that of a colossal fiasco.
A case in point is Medhane Tadesse’s paper titled “Meles Zenawi and the Ethiopian State,” recently posted, to my surprise, on Aiga website. The paper is a commendable attempt at an objective assessment of Meles’s accomplishments. Medhane first explains the rise of Meles through the defeat of all his opponents, which rise he attributes to his personal qualities, such as quick intelligence, communication skills, impressive erudition, and remarkable aptitudes in political maneuvering. In view of these qualities, his rivals, who often had impressive military records, could do little to stop his rise to absolute power, which became effective in 2001 when he defeated an influential splinter group within the TPLF.
Medhane does not hesitate to say that Meles’s victory was a “serious blow to democratic centralism and collective leadership” and that the consolidation of his absolute power was done at the expense of the TPLF as a ruling party. He rightly argues that Meles marginalized the TPLF by centralizing all power, notably by uniting state power and party leadership in his person, thereby creating a power base independent of the TPLF. Clearly, the assessment is moving decisively toward a critical appraisal of Meles’s rule, and so is in line with the view of the splinter group ascribing the numerous problems that Ethiopia faces today to the missteps of a dictatorial deviation.
With great pain, Medhane manages to find the positive side in the alleged economic success of Meles’s policy. Even so, his assessment falls short of being affirmative: he does speak of the theory of developmental state as a promising orientation, but nowhere indicates that it produced notable results. Instead, his skepticism transpires when he writes: Meles “attempted to reorient Ethiopia’s political economy by carrying out far-reaching reforms, and in particular introducing the fundamentals, for what it’s worth, of an Ethiopian version of a developmental state.” Not only do we not feel any enthusiasm for the “far-reaching reforms,” but also the whole economic orientation of the country is greeted with a marked skeptical tone.
By contrast, Medhane underlines the democratic shortcomings of Meles’s regime and its “wholesale offensive against any form of independent centers of power such as free media, free organization, free business, persecution of critical journalists and enactment of repressive laws.” Thus, if on top of stifling democratic changes in the county, Meles did not score any appreciable gains in the economic field, what is left to say except that his 20 years rule was a total failure? Hence my puzzlement as to the reason why the pro-Meles Aiga website posted the article. Is it because Aiga people did not understand the content of the article? Or is it the beginning of a critical look at Meles’s alleged achievements, especially now that it becomes clear that he left the TPLF in disarray?
But no sooner did I hope for such an evolution than I noticed that the article was removed from the website. Instead, a new paper of 20 pages criticizing the analysis of Medhane was posted, as though Aiga was correcting its mistake and forcefully reaffirming its pro-Meles stand. Written by Habtamu Alebachew and titled “Tadese Madhane and his ‘Post-Meles Reform Agenda’: Quest for Logic and Relevance,” the paper reasserts the customary position of Meles’s supporters. The paper rambles through 20 pages about political reforms and the developmental state with the clear purpose of metamorphosing preconceived ideological positions into serious theoretical insights. It denounces contradictions in Medhane’s article and is completely devoid of any critical appraisal of Meles.
It is really not necessary to go into Habtamu’s arguments because they provide nothing more than a smoke screen destined to confuse readers by tired rhetoric and laudatory exaggerations. To give you an idea, we find such laughable statements as “in clearest terms, Meles Zenawi is both a regime breaker and a regime founder as much prominent as Moa and Lenin were.” Habtamu qualifies the post-2010 government of Meles as “a dynamic and functioning regime or the developmental state in action probably as exactly intended and designed.” He defines the government as a “success story” and entirely dismisses its so-called democratic shortcomings.
Unsurprisingly, in light of the undeniable success of Meles, Habtamu concludes that any talk of reform must assume one direction, which is that it must be “a reform proposal within an undergoing and unfinished reform project.” In other words, reform must deepen and perfect Meles’s project; it cannot be an advocacy of a different path or a return to a previous model of economic and political development. Here the author cannot refrain from sharing his major worry about possible reversals when he writes: “I have every reason to get alarmed about the possible abortion of this reform.”
When one contrasts the two assessments, despite obvious differences, one finds an underlying common belief. Indeed, Medhane’s criticisms presuppose the belief that Meles had a genuine desire to develop Ethiopia but failed. To validate this assumption, Medhane portrays Meles as a leader fascinated by the economic development of East Asian countries and suggests that “the main objective” of his conversion to the ideology of the developmental state “was to secure regional prominence as a stabilizing force, raise the status of the country, and increase its relevance which will in turn would attract international finances.” Thus, to make sense of Medhane’s paper, we have to keep in mind the underlying assumption, to wit, that Meles had the good intention of developing Ethiopia and that his good intention was derailed by a mistaken ideological belief in the phenomenal potential of the developmental state.
For Habtamu, the so-called derailment is actually a prerequisite for the realization of the developmental state so that what is required is not to change course but to relentless pursue the same path until all the fruits materialize, one of which being the progressive democratization of the country. Simply put, Meles had to suspend democratization in order to create the condition of democracy, especially in view of the fact that reactionary forces almost gained political prominence in the 2005 election.
Clearly, the two approaches agree on the good intention of Meles: the one maintains that it was derailed, the other claims that it was unfinished, but both agree in saying that Meles wanted the economic and democratic blossoming of Ethiopia. The fact that they share a basic principle (good intention) and yet end up in conflicting analyses questions nothing less than the feasibility of the basic agreement. Their divergent evaluations indicate that their point of departure is untenable and hence invite a different thesis. Since the truthfulness of the different thesis solely lies in its ability to explain the conflicting interpretations, it distinguishes itself by its coherence, which is the mark of a sound theoretical approach.
Medhane denounces the gap between theory and practice, that is, between the good intention and the actual outcomes. Habtamu retorts by saying that there is no gap; there is simply a misunderstanding of the theory, notably of its requirements. The truth is that, every time that there is a conflict between practice and theory, we should suspect the presence of what Karl Marx diagnosed as false consciousness. Far from theory guiding practice, the reverse works for false conscience in that practice guides theory but in such a way that the gap between the two is legitimized, excused, or masked.
Thus, Medhane posits good intention and interprets the gap of practice as derailment. But what if said derailment is in reality the realization of an intention that was not originally blameless? This means that Meles opted for the developmental state because it enabled him to justify a dictatorial rule, which is then the original intention. Accordingly, Meles was consistent all along: he wanted dictatorship, which he however masked by the discourse on developmental state. In justifying dictatorship as necessary to bring about development, the discourse effected a transmutation, for what serves a good cause can no longer be characterized as evil.
This is exactly how Habtamu argues: he metamorphoses the shortcomings of Meles into prerequisites for the implementation of a good cause. Consequently, there are no shortcomings or deviations since they are necessary steps in the actualization of the project. Above all, there is no dictatorship because it is the progressive actualization of a benevolent cause. The road ahead, it follows, must be the continuation of an unfinished project, and not its criticism in the name of immature concern.
Clearly, only the replacement of the good intention by a malicious one can correct the contradiction between the two approaches. The substitution explains the option for the developmental state and portrays the shortcoming, not as postponed future benefits, but as inherent outcomes of a dictatorial goal. Meles neither missed nor paced an alleged initial good intention: he implemented what he originally wanted, namely, absolute power and control.
In this regard, Meles did not see the 2005 electoral defeat of his party as “a pointless disruption,” as Medhane claims. Nor did he perceive it as a setback caused by “internal failures” and an occasion to deepen “aggressively . . . the reform,” as Habtamu puts it. Rather, he reached the realization that his dictatorial project could not go hand in hand with democratic opening, however small the opening may be. The point is that Meles’s dictatorial project, essentially driven by his narcissistic personality, craved for popular approval, obvious as it is that his hunger for personal grandeur needed popular confirmation through regular democratic elections.
The rise and popularity of Kinijit made him realize that the quest for a democratic approval was no longer achievable. The 2005 election result was therefore an awakening from his illusion about his popularity and underestimation of the opposition. Predictably, profoundly humiliated by the electoral success of the opposition, he reacted violently and since then opted for an attenuated version of the North Korean type of dictatorship in which he would obtain the popularity that he wants by silencing the opposition and subjecting the people to brainwashing and personality cult.
I thus agree with Medhane when he says that the reversal of democratic opening in 2005 was a strategy to “change the national mood and turn the opposition into a fringe movement and the margins of society.” Where I differ is when Medhane assumes that he planned to obtain the change by developing the country economically so that ordinary people will support him as they see improvements in their conditions of life. To say so goes against the general consensus describing Meles as well-read and smart. I do not deny that he had such qualities, but I also raise the question of knowing how a well-read and smart person launches a developmental state while perfectly knowing that he has none of the necessary political conditions, not to mention the fact that he surrounded himself by corrupt and incompetent people (on this issue, see my article Meles Zenawi’s Political Dilemma and the Developmental State: Dead-Ends and Exit,
Again, what Meles liked in the developmental state is not the economic prospects but the dictatorial aspect, that is, the centralization of all power in the name of economic development. Otherwise, he would have tried to create the necessary preconditions which, as indicated in the above cited article, include a turn toward a genuine nationalist policy and the championing of leadership competence and integrity in all decision-making apparatuses. The truth is that Meles’s grandiosity could not be content with a petty dictatorship; it needed the appearance of serving a noble cause. Since the decline of the socialist ideology and the prevalence of liberalism, what else is left of forms of dictatorial rule with some usable prestige but the developmental state?
This is so true that his successors, aware of the hollowness of Mele’s legacy, cannot see any other way of protecting their status and interests than by glorifying to the point of ridicule his person and “achievements” and vowing to continue his policy in the hope of acquiring some legitimacy. This is exactly the message of Habtamu’s article: let us not undermine by critical appraisal the form of dictatorship guaranteeing the protection of our positions and interests. The only way forward for us is to canonize Meles and to present ourselves as the disciples eager to continue the crusade for the developmental state.
To sum up, the only consistent evaluation of Meles’s rule is the one centered on his fundamental goal of absolute power. Nothing of what Meles has done is intelligible unless we relate it to absolute power as his driving ethos. Any other working thesis lands nowhere but in the contradictory idea of derailment or the abuse of mystification. It is high time to call a spade a spade, especially for those who are beginning to wake up from the illusions of ethnonationalist discourses.