By Fekade Shewakena
According to speculations and rumors Ato Meles Zenawi’s conditions range from he is resting to he is dead and anywhere in between. Thanks to the opacity of the officials in charge of the country, it is like they are telling us to take our pick. The inconclusive and contradictory official statements have only added fuel to the rumor mills. The kind of secrecy they practice makes you wonder whether these people ruling over us are really out of the woods of the feudal era yet. Strangely, these same officials have the audacity of accusing the rest of us of rumor mongering after setting us up to do just that. Had there been no African heads of states meeting on July 15, 2012 in Addis Ababa and that the Senegalese President, who happened to chair the meeting, did not do us a favor by announcing that Meles Zenawi’s absence at the meeting was due to health reasons, entire Ethiopia would have drowned in a wilder sea of rumors. The officials in charge don’t seem to see that, whether we like him or not, Ato Meles Zenawi is an employee of over 80 million Ethiopians who have every right to know where he is and what has befallen him when he fails to show up at work. For heaven’s sakes this is 21st century, not Menilik’s time!
Although I am one of Meles’s serial critics, who has criticized his actions on many occasions and, I might add, one of his earliest victims, I sincerely feel sorry for him at this time and wish him recovery. I don’t have ill wish for him as a person. In all sincerity, I don’t want him to die or even suffer in illness. If anything, I want him to live long enough to have private time to reflect on the bad and good he did to the country, particularly the harm and pain he inflicted on countless number of Ethiopians and see if he has anything to regret and feel sorry about. In my view, so much of the blood and tears shed because of the decisions he made was avoidable. Early on as the TPLF/EPRDF took power, I was their supporter and was happy that a person of Meles’s caliber was at the helm. I remember arguing in their favor and being ridiculed as naïve. I did not even blame them for the separation of Eritrea which I still believe is a collective failure of all of us as Ethiopians. I was proven naïve and wrong shortly after. I saw the savage beating and shooting and killing of peaceful demonstrating university students, some of them my own, on my own eyes on January 4, 1993. After watching the savagery, I went to my office and passed a sad and depressing day. Even then and there after, I never hated Meles as a person, I only despised him.
I am not sold on the he is dead speculation. But whatever the outcome of Meles’s health, we can presume at this stage that his tenure as the country’s supreme leader is ending. Even if he survives his illness, it is unlikely that he will go back to his position and lead the country and nurse his health at the same time.
Like all authoritarian leaders Meles has made a big shoe for himself that cannot be easily filled by those around him. This will make any smooth transition difficult. But difficult transition times often come with both challenges and opportunities to build a better future. The leaders and supporters of the TPLF/EPRDF may all want to bury their heads in the sand and deny it, but Ethiopia is on a perilous and unsustainable trajectory. The trajectory has sharply bended down particularly since the 2005 election. Ethiopia, a diverse country in all respects, has become a one party state. The Regime has gotten more control freak and all civil societies who wanted to work independently are decimated or controlled. The so called revolutionary democracy pursued by Meles and his party is turning out more of a social engineering scheme. The mass recruitment of people for party membership, often outside of the will of the individuals and with discriminatory privileges, speaks not to the strength of the party but to the kind of control-freakishness. Our people keep on suffering abject poverty in spite of a flood of record foreign aid that the country has ever seen in its history. Yes there is aggregate economic growth but the number of the destitute poor is also increasing. Ethiopia’s inflation, one of the highest in the world, is grinding down lives. Corruption is becoming an institution. The hopelessness is so much that our young people risk death to make unimaginably dangerous journeys fleeing the country in search of better opportunities. Many consider the gamble with their lives better than the hopeless future they see in their country. God knows how many are lost in capsized boats on the Red Sea and the Mediterranean and in locked containers of traffickers and those slaughtered by organ harvesters as they cross the wilderness. Our young sisters in the Middle East live and work in degrading slavery where their government never attends their conditions. There are no weeks that go by without hearing some tragic story of an Ethiopian maid in the Middle East. An Ethiopian airline crew once told me that on every flight he took from Jeddah to Addis Ababa, he has seen at least more than one mentally disturbed Ethiopian coming back home. And the part that boils my blood is that we bear all of this as if we don’t have a beautiful country that can feed more than itself.
The draconian laws promulgated to stifle civil society and all forms of dissent can look working for now but will eventually drag the country to further conflicts and poverty. Open eyes can see it. All observers of Ethiopia, including Ethiopia’s donors and organizations of international credibility have noticed this dangerous situation in Ethiopia. Only fools keep condemning Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International and think they have responded to accusations of human rights abuse successfully and believe everything is ok. These are organizations who built unshakable credibility through hard and credible work in all countries around the world over time. Dictators have a unique ability to believe their delusions as the truth. I hope the people currently in charge of the country are not blinded by the groupthink they developed under Meles and open their eyes and see it. The zero sum game politics they have gotten used to playing is at a stage that cannot continue anymore. Ethiopia is a country that cannot be turned into China or North Korea. It is unique in many respects to fit into a model.
If the manner in which the current officials are handling the questions raised by the Moslem community and the closing of a newspaper of 30,000 copies (Fiteh) in a country of 80 million people are the tell tale of what is going to come, Ethiopia is going to have a serious problem on her hands. The government has made a culture of shredding its constitution and accusing others of not abiding by it. The current officials should realize that criminalizing all dissent and suppressing all questions coming from the people may take them only some short distance over a very limited time. The unwarranted label of extremism and terrorism put on people who have legitimate and clearly articulated questions, the use of force at places of worship and the incarceration of the Moslem community leaders is bound to be counterproductive. The crackdown can end up radicalizing this breathtakingly peaceful protest. It may even produce coattails throughout various sectors of the disaffected population. None of what the Moslem community is asking and doing over the last eight months does qualify as violence, extreme or any attempt to subvert the “constitutional order” as the government claims. Such accusations have now become an overused, one-size-fits-all, response to anyone peacefully dissenting for any reason – journalists, members and leaders of the opposition, etc. The Moslem community demanded to elect their own leaders in their own mosques and they protested government intervention in their affairs quoting the very constitution the government accuses them of defying. These demands do not require the use of force and a barrage of propaganda that accuses them of extremism and terrorism. We all remember what happened in Somalia over a short period of time. The Islamic Courts Union that we and the West referred to as extremist and helped chase out from power look like saints compared to the Al Shabbab that we ended up pulling off finally. Such accusations like these Ethiopian Muslims want to establish an Islamic State are off the charts and we all know that it is intended to alarm the unsuspecting none-Muslim population and instigate confrontation. All of us heard the leaders of the Moslem community say they would be crazy to demand such an outlandish demand in a country where more than half the population is non Moslem. The right and the courageous thing to do would have been to talk to the leaders and make them have their elections in their mosques. If they are really up to something more sinister as the government claims, then it would be easy for everyone including the general public to hold them accountable. Their question is a civil rights question. It has nothing to do with religious extremism. We have heard them. The non Moslem community is also getting it and supporting them. Any attempt to further narrow the political space in the country and continuing to shut these diverse questions by force and the language of force can sooner or later change the dynamics in the country for the worse.
The polarization in Ethiopia’s politics is at scary levels. We have become a country without statesmen. This is unlike our old tradition where shimagilles who make dispassionate judgments are heard and respected. I don’t know if we have statesmen that can straddle these differences and speak to all sides with moral authority these days. Part of the reason is our political culture and the main reason now is this so called revolutionary democracy whose central teaching states that if you are not with it you are its enemy.
The Sane thing to do now:
The authorities currently in charge of the country should do an overdue thing that Meles himself should have done years ago. Begin a transparent dialogue with all political opponents in good faith on the future of the country on agreed modalities.
The government should initiate a dialogue by starting out with releasing all political prisoners in the country – journalists, opposition politicians and community leaders etc. This should go along with decriminalizing dissent and revoking all this senseless classification of opposition groups as terrorists. There are no terrorists in Ethiopia. The only thing Ethiopians are terrorized by is poverty and their fear of government. Dissidence and demanding freedom is not terrorism.
Opposition forces also must understand that they have a lot of housekeeping to do and need to work on cleaning their fragmented house and regroup and present clear and workable choices and ready themselves to solve the country’s impasses through peaceful dialogue.
The Ethiopian Diaspora has a huge role but it should understand that its role is supportive and that what it can do from a distance does not replace what the people on the ground in Ethiopia can do. We need to support every bit of move towards democracy by anybody.
We all should stop our traditional politics of trying to build a system over the grave of the existing. Ethiopia cannot afford violence but cannot avoid it if the regime cannot come to its senses.
I want to be wrong but I see our country teetering on the precipice. Every one of us, children of that country, irrespective of our political views, has huge responsibilities to help avoid disasters. By virtue of the power it holds, the ruling party has much of the responsibility. Any decision to continue on current trends is assuring a destructive future and the regime will carry all responsibility that comes with it.
Open Ethiopia up for democracy where all of us can be heard and hold a stake. And finally all of us Ethiopian living inside and outside Ethiopia will roll our sleeves, build the dams and bridges farm our lands on our own and pour whatever resources we have to drag our country out of poverty.
(The writer can be reached at FekadeShewakena@yahoo.com)