June 7th, 2009 Print Print Email Email



Information tested through experience, or familiarity with the subject matter or a person often influences attitude and thus somewhat determines its acceptance or rejection. Not that such information is always right, but perception in most instances mirrors reality. Ethiopians understand that leaders come and leaders go; nobody is indispensable. In the case of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s, there are stones in citizens’ shoes that for a long time have been unavoidable cause for national discomfort.

It seems to me, this problem arises not because of him as a person or his ethnic origin, especially as some of his supporters make it look like one. The concern of most Ethiopians is their country, even as his declared interest in stepping aside has put his stewardship once again under the microscope.

With a deft touch of possibly an insider’s view, Addis Fortune of 5 April prefigures that Ato Meles has been, “physically exhausted after 18 years of on the robe type of life style. …On the other hand, he wants to reform his party with all the terrific ideas that have been popping up in his mind.” While seesawing on his decision, some still find it hard to think; they fear that right at this moment, he taking comfort in the example of Mark Twain’s telegraph to an American newspaper, which had written his obituary while he was on a visit in Europe. Mark Twain’s telegraphic message was brief, it read, “story of my death is grossly exaggerated.”

If ever Ato Bereket Simon’s testimony is to be given any credibility, he also seems to corroborate this thought and Addis Fortune’s insider view. He categorically asserted recently, “Meles is moving nowhere.” It is not clear, nonetheless, whether the communications minister was speaking for himself, a view shared between the prime minister and him, or the tilt of some members of the executive committee of the EPRDF or the consensus of the whole, if at all. The quandary is that Ato Meles even after such claim by Ato Bereket, he has publicly reiterated his ‘no ifs, no but’. Are all of them right at the same time, or is there a coordination problem? There is nothing new about this; he has been one of history’s most illusive characters, as is its brightest.

In his own words

In brief, what now stands between citizens and Ato Meles’s decision is distrust. Recall, for instance, he has said many things over the years that suited his momentary needs. When his contradictions clash with reality, he is quick to employ outright dismissal or edit his own words, or dive into sophistry. On 19 January 2005, for instance, he told the BBC that at no time would he be ready to go anywhere by his personal decision—“those decisions are not made by me or any incumbent leader in any country.” A member of the audience asked him why he should not leave office after fifteen years in power then. This was in BBC’s ‘You Asked Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.’ His response was evasion with elegance. He said,

Well the beauty of the democratic system is that these decisions are not made by me or any incumbent leader in any country. Those decisions are made by the people. Whenever the people want to hire a new prime minister, they do so, that’s why we have elections. Whether I like it or not, that’s a secondary issue.

A person from a democratic country would find it difficult to understand anyone quibbling with these words. Nonetheless, the 2005 election came almost four months after and the rest is history! The faulty premise in that interview is both the generalization and the amnesia buried in, “Those decisions are made by the people [citizens].” We know however, in democracies elected officials are held accountable; even for them the above does not hold true at all times and circumstances.

Presidents, prime ministers, cabinet ministers, etc bow out in times of self-doubt, fears, ill health or when degraded by failures assuming/forced to assume their responsibilities, without waiting for the election calendar. One case in recent memory is Lady Margaret Thatcher whose party showed her the exit when it saw her as liability. Gordon Brown is next in line in that country, now fighting for his political life. Those in crime league find themselves in ex-President Nixon’s shoes and thrown out with ignominy kicking and screaming. In our case, the central question should be how free are Ethiopians to make the decision that is in their hearts? Alternatively, could it be that Ato Meles has given up and is now struggling to implant in people’s mind his own sense of indispensability, as the last trick in his hat?

Anecdote from history

Without being oblivious of the huge gap in the analogy and Ato Meles, his ‘firm desire to go’, some people say, brings to mind the anomalous side of President Charles De Gaulle, France’s liberator, its first post-war president, a great war hero and one of the giants of history in the post-war world. President De Gaulle resigned from the presidency just a year after the end of the World War II. France stubbornly refused to give in on certain matters to the dictates of a president who saw himself as father of the nation and who wanted to treat it as such.

Twelve years later in 1958, following the collapse of the Fourth Republic, ex-President Charles De Gaulle engineered his way out of retirement by using the influence of the military, as France was still at war in the colonies. When France found itself in a political impasse, all political parties agreed to his recall to save the country from its political disaster. De Gaulle was a complex personality. The sad irony is that he was France’s foremost modernizer as was its detractor in a way. Many politicians remembered from his earlier stint as president he despised political parties, indirectly parliament of the day too, as an inept institution that ‘operates on the slippery edge of shifting political alliances’ of the former.

After his return, nevertheless, he saw history in the eye and redeemed himself in some ways. To address the country’ political problems, thus, he sought internal consensus to grant independence to the colonies in North Africa, including Algeria in 1962, his foremost headache and unyielding enemy. Most shiny achievement of de Gaulle was the leadership he provided to the drafting of a new constitution that created the Fifth Republic, incorporating most of the ideas he had opposed in the past. This represented a dramatic turn around, and laid down the pillars of modern France on which the country has built the basis of its progress and power.

In contrast, in spite of his desire to modernize Ethiopia, Ato Meles’s efforts have been bedevilled mainly because of his inflexibility, inappropriate polices and his mortal hostility to dissent and accommodation. It is clear to historians that the problems of de Gaulle were his inability to tolerate and respond genuinely and politically to internal criticisms. Among other things, the charge that his government was heavy-handed, affecting the lives of individual citizens and businesses grew louder in those days. His response often was to use words to discredit them. To ridicule his critics, once he asked the question, “Who honestly believes that, at age 67, I would start a career as a dictator?” The familiarity is unmistakable, though not of ages, but TPLF claims that, as a liberation front, it had fought for freedom and democracy!

Unfortunately, bolstered by his records as war hero, as moral authority as liberator of France and the thirty years of economic progress he had sparked, de Gaulle succumbed to his ego and became oblivious to the weariness that had set in sections of French society. That primal instinct is familiar in Ethiopia too, revelling in the extra thousands of kilometres of roads built and schools standing, while the human spirit is crumbling! Consequently, when de Gaulle least expected it, the undercurrent of fury exploded in May 1968 when students led society-wide revolt under the banner “Yes to reforms! No to shenanigans!”

Ironically, President De Gaulle wanted to use force against the demonstrators; but he found his hands tied, when he was strongly advised not to do so, among others, with Mitterrand opposing him openly. Thus, having run out of any other means, his option was to seek compromise with his opponents and accept part of their reform proposals. Time was out for him however. The protestors rejected his wish to meet them halfway, seeing them as too little and too late.

Failure to seize his moment in history while he was in power, especially on vitally needed reforms forced President de Gaulle’s resignation. In 1969, thus, he went into the twilight of his life much earlier than he had anticipated. Though he had left the scene for good, France always honoured his achievements and gave him the respect he deserved. They affectionately called him “le Grand Charles”. That is the reward of visionary leadership and single-minded statesmanship—the lack of which is now at the heart or Ethiopia’s problems. It is this and its combination with lack of trust that is now challenging Ato Meles’s and his government place in history, for which in recent days his well paid agents are trying to clear the ground.

Meles and his thinking in writing

Again and again, when we turn to Ato Meles, all that we see is an unyielding pursuit of power. For instance, in 2006, he created a new framework into which he dovetailed his ambitions about the permanence of power in his hands. This design is clearly laid out in his writing African Development: Dead Ends and New Beginnings. In that paper, he dwelt at length on the imperative necessity for the leadership of a developmental state to remain in power long enough (he mentions fifty years of Japan under one party as an example and that of Sweden under the social democratic party mostly) under the questionable justification to give root to development policies and efforts. In brief, his thesis is the surreal theme of once in power always in power. His cadres harangue this every now and then to get converts.

There is no doubt that TPLF cadres are very good students. Consistent with that, their prevailing attitude is that to see power as their reward for throwing out the Dergue, not as much as their invocation of some achievements under the TPLF/EPRDF in the economic field. Their exaggeration has no comparison. It comes especially whenever and wherever they are overwhelmed by a sense of inadequacy or reality staring at them. Fortunately, the internet has liberated important information in real time on the TPLF/EPRDF political activities, and the corruption of its agents. Sometimes, there appear worthy information on the essence of Ethiopian politics. Some are of course pathetic, guttery, offensive and even chauvinistic in disguise. The agents of the ruling party themselves question the very equality of Ethiopia’s different ethnic groups that the regime claims is the centrepiece of its creed.

Such are claims, for instance, that it is now Tigray’s turn to rule Ethiopia. There is nothing wrong with that, except two things. First, the inherent assumption in their thinking implies that the country should remain booty for corrupt and incompetent cadres whose sole qualification is the ethnic card and the obscene use of power. Nor does the TPLF see beyond party loyalty. This has diminished in the country belief in the importance of safeguarding and promoting its vital interests, the values of education, competence and skills and concern for human dignity, irrespective of ethnic origin. Secondly, such an assumption sounds like sticklers’ persistence whose obsession is their own need to discredit the notion of power sharing, which is an anathema to the TPLF.

In some cases, some of TPLF students enter history through the wrong door and invoke the name of Emperor Yohannes IVth, and ask without thinking that his dynasty be restored. It is unlikely any Ethiopian should have a problem with that, especially these days. Atse Yohannes was a patriotic Ethiopian monarch, who had sacrificed his life in defence of his country’s honour, unity and territorial integrity. Several years ago, the graduates of the Albanian school of Marxism started their long journey by looking upon him with disdain as feudal and an ignorant peasant on a throne.

History is laughing at them now. Atse Yohannes ran the country with the vision and tradition of his time and the sense of honour only distinct and honourable men such as him possess. Things seem to begin to change now within the TPLF. Those same former students of Enver Hoxjha, who do not even govern with modern ideas and principles of our time, are now invoking the monarch’s name. Evidently, their daft attempt is to justify their dream of ethnic hegemony and barefaced authoritarianism.

It is not clear to this writer that, in seeking restoration of Emperor Yohannes IVth’s line, if those revisionists are returning to the days of the TPLF before its immersion under Ato Meles’s guidance in Albania’s ‘Hoxjhaism’. Here is an excerpt what the TPLF curricula taught its cadres in its green days,

But after the death of Yohannes IV it [power] fell to Shoan hegemony under Menilik II. Thereafter its [Tigray] autonomy and independence was lost and fell under the centralized rule of Shoa. Parts of its [Tigray’s] territory were torn away from it, to disrupt the unity of its people, to starve them and to speed up the Amhara acculturation of its people (TPLF Manifesto, February 1976, pp. V-VI, quoted in Alemseged Abbay’s Identity Jilted: Re-imagining Identity? (1998).

Consistent with the above, as a part of its project to restore Tigray’s ‘territory torn away from it’, the first act of the TPLF after it seized Addis Ababa was to redraw the map of Ethiopian regions. Gondar, Wollo and Afar lost pieces of lands as a result. TPLF’s political expediency has punished Gondar twice. The latest was a little over two years ago, when Ato Meles ceded Ethiopia’s fertile agricultural lands to the Sudan, a country that has promised the TPLF everything in support of all its present and future projects.

Perception is as much powerful as reality

Not that Ato Meles has blue blood or imperial ambitions, but there has been subliminal fear that he would hardly refrain from his consistent endeavours to ensure ethnic hegemony over the rest of Ethiopia. All along, this perception has followed him everywhere one way or the other. In a sense, the prime minister is as much a victim of deeply rooted TPLF’s narrower ambitions, not unfounded though, but a bi-product of the passé orientation of the Front itself that has either resisted change or failed to convince others otherwise.

With respect to the prime minister’s interest in parting, he has made it abundantly clear, “[It is] Time [for him] to start thinking about doing new things”, as he told TIME magazine of 6 September 2007. Again, the problem is the irreconcilability of both wanting to quit his job and at the same time wishing to retain TPLF/EPRDF chairs and the post of commander-in-chief of the armed forces. That not only conflicts with his words of wanting to be “doing new things”, but also is a sign of not wanting to leave after all. If he stays, what is on the pipeline may be constitutional amendments, mostly article 74 (1), to enable Ato Meles retain the post of commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

At the risk of inviting the harsh judgement of the impetuous and boneheads, this article sees virtue in patience at this crossroads to see if Ato Meles is real this time around. If anything, one needs to remember that political catapult is not the only means for history to reveal itself. Incremental change and its domino effects equally bring about societal transformations, with new forces populating the political scene. That would give the push for the emergence of countervailing forces to state power that has gone wild. One should not foreclose the door on presumption of the possible. The benefit of this perspective is that it would help avoid difficulty of coming to terms with the impossible. The time now requires preparedness to envision appropriate solutions that would enable citizens to confront the unacceptable.

A break from tradition, an unlikely analogy

In fact, again without creating a parallel with substance of the analogy and the characters, clearly in a way, if Ato Meles’s interest in quitting alone or with the other old guards is a serious decision, it represents a sea change from the point of view of his personal relations with power and the realities of our own history. In that sense, not that this recognition would change the contents of our present reality that much in the immediate, but it should make him the first Ethiopian leader, not to go far in time in the last 155 years, for ‘volunteering’ (used advisedly) to leave office. That is to say to remain in one piece, or without fleeing the country. Recall the less happy side of Ethiopian history that almost all Ethiopian kings, say from Emperor Tewodros II down to Emperor Yohannes IV, to Iyasu V (Lij Iyasu), to Empress Zewditu, had lost their throne and their lives fighting regional lords, foreign powers or were disabled by court intrigues.

Not even Emperor Menilik’s end represents a peaceful transition, although he died in office of natural causes. Up until 1913, his death was kept state secret because of succession problems. The ascendancy of Lij Iyasu, as Menilik’s successor, initially was controversial; eventually fatal intrigues undid the young monarch’s short reign of three years in 1916. Following his dethronement, his aunt Empress Zewditu replaced him. Lij Iyasu escaped to the Afar desert and the Ogaden until his capture in 1920/21. At the time, his enemies in the royal camp and the church accused him of conversion to Islam, a grave sin before the God of the time and a serious crime of treason to the Christian kingdom.

Today, the Ethiopian government would have cut that out and would have simply dealt with him under charges of terrorism. At least there was a semblance of measured response then; even the Empress pleaded without much success to keep him under her control in the palace. Instead, her courtiers prevailed and chose to send Iyasu to the custody of his cousin Ras Kassa Haile Darge. In turn, he instructed Dej. Gugsa’s to be responsible for him keeping him under house arrest. Iyasu spent a secluded life until his death in 1936 in Fitche. His aunt, Empress Zewditu’s death is contested amongst historians. Some say she died of natural causes; others allege she was poisoned.

In our own time, in a little over thirty-five years, Ethiopians have witnessed the change of two governments, both of them by violent means. The first one was the ‘creeping coup’ by the army that eventually dethroned Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974. In 1991, Ato Meles, at the head of the TPLF and Ato Isaiyas Afeworki of EPLF on his side, chased out Col. Mengistu Hailemariam and seized power. Together the two declared an era of peace, freedom and democracy for the greater part of the Horn of Africa. More than Ethiopians, foreign powers were overjoyed and opened up their hearts and pockets on Meles’s pledges of democracy and respect for fundamental human rights. Nonetheless, reality is impassive; it has a different story to tell, even then as now.

Failure to transform power into influence

Transitioning itself into governmental powers has remained the worst serious problem of the liberation movement that the TPLF is and has been. This is because it has fatally failed to transform power into influence. Consequently, it chose to prevail by the use of fear, prison and the illegal murder and disappearances of citizens, the evident manifestation of its own fears. Thus, for those that have been in power in Ethiopia during the last nineteen years, it has been a period of muddling through untidy and endless processes of power consolidation.

Because of that, at the head of the TPLF/EPRDF Ato Meles has remained no different from a permanent groper—an excessively power hungry person at the wheels of the state machinery. As it actions over the years have demonstrated, the TPLF has been in a state of wrapped up mind, siege mentality, one syndrome of permanent sense of insecurity—despite the enormous powers it wields.

In its gossip column of 31 May, Addis Fortune writes about the elements of this syndrome within the ruling party, which Ato Meles’s latest theatrics has given expression. The magazine has picked up from close proximity to the highest wrung of power. Here are some aspects of it,

…there are lone voices within the leaderships of the senior partners in the coalition [TPLF/EPRDF], who argue that it is time for a change in leadership, including several of the senior ones. Not only do they believe the change is symbolic; they see no possibility of an apparent heir to the throne so long as Meles remains in control, claims gossip. This camp is primarily championed by few in the ANDM, and they are joined by politicians within the TPLF central committee, whose identity gossip is yet to establish. Gossip claims that these are politicians concerned by the indispensable position Meles is getting, and the personality cult that is growing, which they may feel is contrary to their party’s tradition.

On the wrong track

TPLF leader’s path to unpopularity began especially in 1993. This was when Ato Meles and Ato Isayias, the conjoined twins of the Tigrai and Eritrea liberation, who luckily have been separated surgically since 1998, ended up unleashing the era of state violence and deceit on Ethiopians and Eritreans. For starters, over the reservation of Ethiopian nationalists within the TPLF (perhaps not openly and strongly), Ato Meles prevailed and championed the handing of the port of Assab on a silver platter to Ato Isayias Afeworki. In essence, the TPLF has conspired with the EPLF to preside over a landlocked country, according to their joint design, to render Ethiopia weak and dependent on Eritrea.

Today, Ethiopia’s strangulation is not only one of the elements taunting its stability, but also part of its continuing political and economic difficulties. With Assab gone, today Ethiopia is a place where capital does not enjoy adequate remuneration, nor contribute adequately to the country’s development. Ask businesses, the cost of production of exportable goods is much higher on average. Ask management/owner and labour, staff incomes and wages remain depressed more than anywhere else is. Comparatively, profit margins remain compressed, thus making Ethiopia one of the least attractive destinations for investment. Consequently, managing the country’s international trade and commerce through the Port of Djibouti has become excessively costly, for that matter without efficient services. The fact is that self-inflicted wound has made Ethiopia, a beggar without a choice, thanks to Ato Meles’s poor judgement and hurtful vision for Ethiopia.

Ever since, aware that Ethiopia is choking, there has been a persistent search for some sort of outlet to the sea, including via Port Sudan, Mombassa and Puntland. Part of the latest project is to address that problem through the construction of very modern highways interlinking Tigray with Port Sudan and Djibouti. The project is well underway, according to Ato Tsegaye Berhe, chief administrator of Tigray. He briefed Ato Seyoum Mesfin, deputy chair of the TPLF, who presided at Mekelle over the May 28 victory anniversary of the Front’s late in May.

Therefore, there are many angles citizens see the role of Ato Meles in Ethiopian politics. There are factors compelling them to evaluate the implications of his decision now and in the future. Nonetheless, the question that needs answering is whether Ato Meles’s resignation would represent or set in process a peaceful transfer of power in Ethiopia today. If it is a transfer of power, the question is from whom, to whom and by whose decision. If such a situation is ushered in, say for example, by the outcome of the 2010 election, there is then some sense of legitimacy. It would herald the birth of genuine change, an exercise in real democracy, attributable to the voice of the people. If ever that happens, it would be a welcome development and one that Ethiopians have longed so much and for so long, irrespective of who wins or loses.

Requirements for genuine transfer of power

Certainly, genuine transfer of power cannot happen in a vacuum. It presupposes that the forthcoming election in 2010 be carried out in an atmosphere free from fear, intimidation, and harassment, no matter what. Political prisoners must be released before hand. It would also assume that all the other essential preconditions, such as independence of the courts, neutrality of law enforcement and members of the election commission are fulfilled. The media must be set free from the ruling party bondage once and for all. Finally, credible local and international observers must affirm the processes and outcome of the election. The agreement of the antagonistic parties’ on the election result must be secured.

Obviously, this would not be in the interest of Ato Meles or his would be successor(s), not today, not tomorrow. Therefore, if the prime minister resigns today, or the day after the forthcoming election, in the manner Ato Meles has engineered, it would simply be a mere change of personalities, not genuine change or transfer of power.

Whichever direction his life journey may take Ato Meles, he needs to think hard as to what legacy he is leaving behind. This writer is no fan of witch-hunting in politics. She laments, nevertheless, whereas Ethiopia is one of the oldest countries in the world, political greed, pettiness, begrudging and state intolerance have made it impossible for its leaders, the perpetrators of its misfortunes, from retiring in peace and dignity.
Today, other than ex-President Dr. Negaso Gidada, Ethiopians have not seen their retired presidents and prime ministers counselling their successors, gracing our cities and towns by walking freely the streets and living among the people as fathers of the nation. Having found that such a realm does not yet exist in the country, Dr. Negaso has dared not only to do his part to bring about change in Ethiopia, but also has jumped into the fray exposing all the time those things unbecoming in leadership he had seen while upstairs and has despised. Ato Meles has become a disappointment to so many near and far, who had hoped through him something better for Ethiopia. Unfortunately, most see that he is headed to become another addition in that long list of the not to be.

Still the questions are too many, but no clear answers. Is it likely that his decision is inspired by a sudden awareness of his need to find a place in Ethiopian history?

Part III of this article would discuss the three likely factors that may have possibly forced Ato Meles to declare his interest in stepping aside, which is out in the public realm, but it seems he wishes he could take it back. (To be continued…)

  1. Dawit Koricho
    | #1

    The ethno-fascist Meles Zenawi is anti-Ethiopia and does not have any Ethiopian agenda at all. He has shaped and formed the TPLF as his own personal tool to use it in all the ways to keep power. It makes no difference whether Meles Zenawi is exercising his poweer directly or indirectly through one of his handpicked servants. What Ethiopians should do is to expell him and his ethnic followers from Ethiopia since they have done enough damage to the country. It is becoming difficult to live in harmony with the followers and supporters of ethno-fascism is resignation is not of interst to Ethiopians. The best way forward is to liberate Ethiopia from ethno-fascism and bring all the ethno-fascists and their thugs to justice.

  2. JIGSA
    | #2

    all ethiopian opposition has every right to call for an election not tomorrow today.the call for new election is over due.the one ethnic RULE MUST COME TO AN far as the ethiopian people concerned there is no legal autorithy in ethiopia. the TPLF MAFIA GROUP OF MELESSE ZENAWI ARE SUCKING THE ETHIOPIANS BLOOD SINCE 1991.THEY LOOTED PEOPLES PROPERTY MONEY EVERYTHING.LET ME SAY THIS AGAIN THE OPPOSITION HAS FULL RIGHT TO CALL FOR AN ELLECTION WETHER THE TPLF TUGS AND THEIR LEADER MELESSE ZENAWI LIKES IT OR NOT.the ethiopian people struggle for democracy wll prevail

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