Meles’s Death: Paradoxes and Opportunities

By Messay Kebede

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.

(The writer can be reached at [email protected])