WOULD MELES ZENAWI TRULY DEPART, AS HE HAS PROMISED, OR WOULD HE BECOME THE GREY EMINENCE OF ETHIOPIAN POLITICS? – By Genet Mersha
Surely, since the last few months, in what has already become his studied line, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has repeatedly spoken of his desire to resign, if his party agrees with his request. (more…)
Surely, since the last few months, in what has already become his studied line, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has repeatedly spoken of his desire to resign, if his party agrees with his request. However, due to the existential lack of trust between citizens and government, his declaration has been viewed with all sorts of doubts and distrust, if not indifference. In addition, constant variations in his explanations have opened up his motive to severe questioning. Such reactions, nonetheless, should not surprise the prime minister or anyone for that matter. After all, among other things, it is strange experience to Ethiopians—especially when a powerful person known for his love of power walks away from it without loosing it.
Then came 15 April with its touch of seriousness; the prime minister declared, “When I leave my current position one way or another (?), I will leave lock, stock, and barrel; no ifs, no buts” (underlined by author). Therefore, the two provisos, (a) seeking approval of his party to quit, and (b) his wish to remain leader of the EPRDF (14 February), now seem drowned deep in the not so easy consultations/negotiations within the executive committee of the TPLF/EPRDF. With respect to “lock, stock, and barrel”, the Oxford English Dictionary (seventh edition) testifies it means simply “the whole thing, completely.” Similarly, the Penguin English dictionary puts it as “wholly or completely.”
Moreover, one likely indication of Ato Meles’s readiness to leave his official activities could also be the draft bill(s) now before parliament, whose expedited approval has been insisted upon on delivery. One of them contains a generous and interminable (bequeathable) package of retirement benefits and privileges that covers the entire family of the prime minister, three cars commensurate with his protocol, protocol service, driver(s), fuel and running costs paid by the state, villa with four or five bedrooms and cook(s).
In addition, he would be provided a fully stocked ultra modern office with secretaries, assistants and round the clock security (for personal, family and property) at the expense of taxpayers. It would also be the responsibility of the state to provide health care coverage for the entire family, both at home and abroad. These privileges and benefits apply to the president, the deputy prime minister, the president/vice president of the supreme court (The Reporter).
Much of the above is copied from the US practice in the Former Presidents Act (FPA) (Ref: Former Presidents: Federal Pension and Retirement Benefits, 98-249 GOV). Nevertheless, one cannot help feeling deep inside that it is too exorbitant for Ethiopia, a country so dependent on foreign largesse up to sixty percent of its national budget and over seventy percent of its population living below the poverty line. For that matter, the benefits side of the Ethiopian draft bill is padded with excess pork.
Even then, I dare say so be it holding my nose between my first and second fingers, if that is the burden citizens have to bear to temper the arrogance of power and to persuade their leaders to choose to behave themselves and be held accountable when they are in power as when they retire. I strongly disagree, nonetheless, with ex-president Dr. Negaso Gidada, who a few days back argued that retiring leaders should be free to involve in political activities (The Reporter). I have no doubt his intentions are honourable. For that matter, he is active in politics to change the system both from within and outside, without even being beneficiary of such huge benefits or privileges, though he was the country’s first ex-president under TPLF/EPRDF.
This writer prefers imposition of strict conditions of exclusion from political activities on the beneficiaries of such privileges and benefits, at least, for a period of five years until the country learns to live and let live with this new and costly experiment. Society must be prepared to endeavour to prevent by any means undue interference and influence peddling by privileged retirees. There is no doubt, if such interference is to be tolerated, they would hamper national policy choices and government operations, when deemed not beneficial to their personal or partisan objectives. Furthermore, the importance of including clear terms and conditions in which these privileges and benefits could be withdrawn cannot be emphasized sufficiently. This is should not deter the retirees from availing themselves when those in power seek their counsels.
Much given to snubbing the rule of law while in office, Ato Meles & Co. should have ample possibilities to persist in that after retirement. After all, the talk so far has been about the prime minister leaving the premiership. Nothing is official as far as leadership of the EPRDF is concerned that he has sought—but unlikely. He remains chairperson of the TPLF, the core of Ethiopia’s leadership, unless there is a deal to preclude that as well. TPLF, though losing heart now, is still a very powerful organization to be reckoned with. Directly and indirectly, it controls the direction of Ethiopia’s politics, the army and the security, the bureaucracy, the government-owned bank (CBE & NBE) and the media. Not even professional associations and religious institutions have been spared of its outstretched control.
In addition, the TPLF is also in direct control of the economy both at policy levels, institutionally through government machineries and operationally through the Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray (EFFORT), its multi-billion dollar business empire, strategically placed throughout the veins and arteries of the Ethiopian economy. Recall in this connection, a few months back the prime minister, in his capacity as chair of the TPLF, has appointed his wife as the second in command of EFFORT. Some see corruption as its motive; others consider it a political move aiming at family control of TPLF as a politico-economic-military-security organization.
Whereas early on there have been some conjectures in some media what Ato Meles might do after leaving office, reactions to date have barely elicited tears of joy or of sadness. Nonetheless, as mentioned above, opinion amongst most Ethiopians has been sceptical, sharply divided on some aspects of his decision. Lately, the dropping of his two conditions around the decision have persuaded some to believe in the possibility that he is determined to go. Others insist that he would not. The latter are convinced that he might reappear under a different guise and would continue to exercise power.
Foreign observers seem unimpressed by the prime minister’s decision. Some of them allude the decision to Barack Obama’s frostiness towards such regimes, as his inaugural speech made it clear. Recall that he had pointedly warned those “…who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent…” He has notified them that they are on the wrong side of history. This has become Washington’s new guiding principle. It was officially reiterated in some form recently by the incoming Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Ambassador Jonnie Carson. On the other hand, some foreign observers prefer to remain cautious seeing Meles’s declaration through the lens of broken promises of Africa’s strongmen.
In fact, over sips of château latour at an occasion, one took off a mental journey to the seventeenth century France and a visit to Cardinal-Duc de Richelieu’s cabinet, considered the first prime minister in the world and powerful man of the church, to draw a possible parallel between the then France and the direction of Ethiopia’s politics today. De Richelieu, then known as the king’s ‘chief minister,’ had befriended a Capuchin monk by the name of Father Joseph, whom he took as close friend and confident. Closeness to the heart of power transformed Father Joseph into a very powerful and influential figure, no less than the prime minister was. Secretly, even without de Richelieu’s knowledge, Father Joseph he had a grand dream of organizing a second crusade in Europe to destroy Turkey.
In the seventeenth century France, as catholic country, official attire had both a code and symbol of level of power. Therefore, because of the grey colour of his robe, Father Joseph was nicknamed the Grey Eminence (L’éminence grise), a term, which ever since has been used to portray a person who exercises power without holding office. Although de Richelieu was the ultimate source of power for Father Joseph, in the eyes of outsiders the only difference between the two was mere formality and colours of their robes. Richelieu’s was red, thus, distinction necessitating his being nicknamed the Red Eminence (L’éminence rouge).
If ever the transition Ato Meles seems to be engineering were to be realized, it is a sad irony that the country would have to worry and engage in questioning and scrutiny of Ato Meles’s actions and motives after retirement, and of those around him, even if they keep their eyes closed and their hands in solemn places. After all, history is replete with evidences that, even after their departure, some leaders are capable of leaving behind a long dark shadow that hovers over everything—unwanted mostly in so many ways. Especially as a leader, Prime Minister Meles has been a strong personality, partly because of his formation as organizer and eventually leader of a strong liberation movement that seized government power and has all the same militarized society for nineteen long years now.
Therefore, that is the reason why this paper has posed the question whether Ato Meles would become the Grey Eminence (L’éminence grise) of Ethiopian politics i.e., a retired man with designs who would still continue to exercise the same power and influence, this time outside the premier’s office. Or, would he honour his promises and leave ‘lock, stock & barrel’, to borrow his phrase, and become a spectator to Ethiopia’s progress along a democratic path?
(To be continued…)