The Game of Thrones in Ethiopia

ThronesIn the “Game of Thrones”, (the book from which the internationally popular television series of the same name is adapted), rival lords among the ruling families clash violently to take over the kingdom of the Iron Throne. The internecine warfare rages on as the kingdom faces threats from otherworldly creatures. One of the battling lords in the story observes, “The common people pray for rain, healthy children, and a summer that never ends. It is no matter to them if the high lords play their game of thrones, so long as they are left in peace. They never are.” Another lord plaintively asks, “Why is it always the innocents who suffer most, when you high lords play your game of thrones?”

Ethiopia’s own game of thrones is in full swing today behind the scenes as ordinary Ethiopians pray for rain, healthy children and peace. They ask, “Why is it always the antelopes who suffer most when hyenas and warthogs fight? For the “lords” fighting to capture the Paper Mache Throne of the Tigrean Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF), the question is which one of them will vanquish the rest and triumphantly seize the scepter of the late Kingpin Meles Zenawi who passed away in August 2012. My question is simply, “Who shall the shadowy powers that be behind the TPLF Paper Mache Throne anoint as their next Kingpin?

The first quarter of the game to capture the Paper Mache Throne of the TPLF featured the “Fall of the House of Meles”. Meles last appeared publicly at the G20 Summit in Mexico on June 19, 2012. He looked very sick and extremely frail. He disappeared after that Summit and was never seen alive in public. Ethiopian Satellite Television (ESAT) was the first to report that he had passed way despite vigorous denials by the regime. Perplexed, I wrote a commentary entitled, “Has Meles Gone AWOL?”.

The circus to cover-up Meles’ official absence immediately kicked into high gear under the media stage management of  “communication minister” Bereket Simon (a crocodilian character reminiscent of Saddam Hussien’s cartoonish minion “Chemical (or Comical) Ali” who spun fantastic lies about the defeat of American forces in press conferences long after American troops had parked their tanks and Humvees in downtown Bagdad). From the beginning, Simon stonewalled, sandbagged and obfuscated all information on Meles’ health and whereabouts. He gave press conferences offering cryptic and manifestly dubious explanations about Meles receiving medical care for some undisclosed minor health problem at some undisclosed location. Simon even claimed that Meles was on vacation due to exhaustion occasioned by long years of public service. Then- “deputy prime minister” Hailemariam Desalegn echoed Simon’s cryptic assurances, “There is no serious illness at all. It’s minor only. As any human being, he has to get medication and he’ll be coming back soon.” Meles never came back.

On July 18, an Agence France Press report citing “several diplomatic sources” reported that Meles “is in a critical state” at a hospital in Belgium and that “his life is in danger” and “might not survive”.  On August 1,  Bereket Simon said, “the prime minister’s health is in very good condition. The medical treatment and rest have improved his health. He is in a much better health condition than before.” He added, “The status quo is maintained – there is no change and there will be no change in the near future.” An official announcement issued on August 21 declared Meles had passed away. To this day, the cause of Meles’ death remains a closely guarded state secret.

In the second quarter of the game of thrones, Hailemariam Desalegn, the man who proclaimed that Meles “will be back soon” was anointed “Prime Minster” on September 15. Hailemariam is a protégé of Meles and served as his  step-and-fetch-it guy. His appointment was shrouded in secrecy and mystery fueling speculations that the shadowy kingmakers of the Paper Mache Throne (the blokes running the state within the state) were in some turmoil over his selection. Some postulated key TPLF kingmakers had agreed to appoint a patsy, a chump they can easily manipulate during a transitional period following Meles’ passing. With TPLF cadres in total “control” of the military, the police and security forces, the bureaucracy and their parasitical elites with a chokehold on the economy, Hailemariam was just the right puppet prime minister. He would willingly serve as throne-warmer until the 2015  “election” and buy the TPLF power brokers and kingmakers more time to ready one of their own for their Paper Mache Throne. His appointment would also please the international donors and loaners who wanted to see a quick and smooth transition so that they can continue with business as usual.

Hailemariam’s selection posed no real problems or risks in the short or long terms. He has little or no independent political base of his own. In the highly unlikely event he should challenge the kingmakers or show signs of independence after his appointment, he could easily be replaced by another puppet. If push comes to shove, Hailemariam knew the Sword of Damocles hanged over his head by a single strand of hair. He was all too familiar with the fate of his predecessor “prime minister” Tamrat Layne who languished in jail for 12 years for alleged “corruption”.

The hard core witless TPLF cadres saw Hailemariam’s appointment as bad precedent, a direct threat to their monopoly on power and an affront to the “sacrifices” they have made in the bush fighting the previous regime. Meles’ Svengelain wife desperately wanted her husband’s job. The subliminal message in her funeral eulogy of her husband was not lost to the careful observer. She said she “will stand on the side of the Ethiopian people and make her contributions to ensure Meles’ aims, vision, plans and strategies are implemented in reality.” She sought to project the image of a former guerilla fighter with an iron will. That was not to be. She was upstaged, outmaneuvered and sidelined by a cabal of sly, cunning and serpentine palace intriguists.

Puppeteering Hailemariam was a tricky but smart move by the powers behind the Paper Mache Throne. They immunized themselves from any serious criticism by choosing a man who comes from a “minority” ethnic group.  Neither the “Amharas” nor the  “Oromos” (I use quotation marks on the ethnic nomenclatures because I believe in the oneness of the humanity of the Ethiopian people; I don’t believe in the social construct of ethnicity) could complain about his appointment for fear of being branded ethnic chauvinists or worse. It was a masterful sleight of hand.

My personal assessment and conclusion on the basis of the anecdotal evidence was that the kingmakers of the Paper Mache Throne had a much simpler reason for choosing Hailemariam. With all due respect, Hailemariam was not the brightest bulb on the TPLF Christmas tree at the time of his appointment. But he was Meles’ loyal gopher and yes-man. I have previously described him as a “ceremonial” or “marionette” prime minster. Perhaps phrases borrowed from Meles’ wife (quoted in Ermias Legeses’ Amharic book YeMeles Tirufat [“Meles’ Legacy”] describing one of her opponents), would be more descriptive: Hailemariam is “a man without an idea. He lies down when he is told to lie down. He stands up when he is told. He is a conduit [echo chamber]”. Indeed over the past two years, he has proven to be a flunkey for the TPLF powers behind the Paper Mache Throne. He has amplified and reverberated what he is told by his TPLF bosses. He seems to be perfectly happy as a kid in a candy store playing his role as a public relations (PR) jockey for the TPLF powers that be. He also seems totally  oblivious of the fact that he was given the job to put a human face on a monstrous regime. In his public speeches and interviews, he comes off as a bewildered and befuddled petty bureaucrat. He has proven to be a Bush-esque character given to gaffes, malapropisms and non sequitur reasoning.

I must also confess that in a flash of ironic humor, it did occur to me that the TPLF kingmakers could have chosen Hailemariam for his professional qualifications as a sanitary engineer. What better expert could they find to cleanup  all of the mess, garbage and junk Meles left behind than a sanitation engineer trained in the science of removal and disposal of human and other solid waste? (Likewise, as a sanitary engineer-cum-prime-minister, I wish Hailemariam would have done something to create effective storm water drainage, sewerage and flood control systems in the urban areas and provide a reliable supply of safe potable water in the countryside.)

When Hailemariam was appointed “prime minister”, I gave him the benefit of the doubt and expressed hope (go ahead call me naïve, I don’t mind) that he could at least do a few things differently:

I trust Hailemariam will be wise enough to refrain from and avoid the inflammatory rhetoric of Meles as he begins his new office and show humility and not display the belligerence, arrogance and hubris of his predecessor. I hope he will do more to reach out to his opposition and try to work with them, and not trap himself in a bubble surrounded by sycophants. I trust he will be more conciliatory than confrontational; more understanding of the opposition and their frustrations and less condemnatory of those who may disagree with him. I hope he will have the wisdom to understand the inebriating power of power and the absolutely corrupting nature of absolute power and learn to use power wisely by tempering it with justice and compassion. I hope he will listen more and lecture less; under promise and over deliver and show respect for institutions, his opposition and his compatriots. On a personal level, I hope he will be able to share my unshakeable belief in the sanctity of human rights and commitment to upholding the rule of law. But I also have a special wish for him: He has a long walk to make and he can get to his destination if he walks and strives to help his compatriots walk in Mandela’s shoes than anyone else’s.

All of the above proved to be the pipe dreams of a utopian Ethiopian. Once Hailemariam became “prime minister”, it was difficult to determine whether he is  Hailemariam or Meles-incarnate. He was manifestly a Meles-wannabe. Listening to him was like listening to a reincarnated Meles. In his public statements, speeches and interviews, he seemed like he was channeling Meles at a seance. He mimicked Meles’ mannerisms. Like Meles, he assumed airs of  intellectual pretentiousness and pedantry. His body language emoted Meles’ hollow arrogance. His zombie-like mantra became “I will follow the work and uphold the legacy our great visionary leader… I will stay the course… Renaissance… blah, blah…” He walked like Meles, swaggered like Meles and quacked like Meles. Is Hailemariam Meles?

In his first year in office, Hailemariam sounded like a broken record robotically droning on about following Meles’ “vision” and footsteps and spearheading Meles’ “Renaissance” without any demonstrable understanding and appreciation of Meles’ professed aspirations. Hailemariam was clueless (or willfully ignorant) of Meles’ professed desires for his legacy. As I explained in my September 2012 commentary, “Ethiopia: Time for Radical Improvements”, Meles openly declared his “hope that [his] legacy” would be not only “sustained and accelerated development that would pull Ethiopia out of the massive deep poverty” but also “radical improvements in terms of good governance and democracy.” If Hailemariam genuinely understood and sought to honor and pay homage to his political mentor, teacher and master and implement and sustain his vision and legacy, instead of just paying lip service to Meles’ memory, he would have made the task of radically improving good governance and democracy job one. These improvements would have necessarily started with the immediate release of all political prisoners, repeal of anti-terrorism, civil society and other oppressive laws and a declaration of allegiance and practice of the rule of law. Hailemariam chose (was told to) to talk of Meles as if he were a dead pontiff with miraculous powers.

During his two year tenure as “prime minister”, Hailemariam has shown an embarrassing lack of familiarity with the principle and operation of the rule of law. There is arguably no more compelling anecdotal evidence which shows Hailemariam’s depth of sheer ignorance of the rule of law than his shockingly uninformed and self-congratulatory observations on the light rail being built in Virginia. In a very recent videotaped interview, this is what Hailemariam said (forward clip to 25:00 min; English translation below) :

Yesterday, I met the Governor of Virginia. When I visited here seven years ago, they had started their light rail. Their light rail had been delayed by 7 years. I asked him why it was delayed. What the Governor told me was that there were insurance issues, property issues, this issue and that issue. That is why it took a long time. [The Governor said they] are thinking of phase two. We have already completed 47 kilometers [in our light rail in Addis Ababa]. We are finishing it in 3 years. Here in Virginia, the big country, it has taken them 7 years. This is the level [of advancement] our country has reached.

It was stunning to listen to these words. How true Goethe’s epigram, “There is nothing more frightening than to see ignorance in action.” Hailemariam revels in the fact that he was able to outdo the bungling  “big country of Virginia” by completing his light rail in three years. The poor Virginians were limping along to complete far fewer miles in seven years. He was so proud to teach the Yankees  a thing or two about building light rail! (Time will tell how long the “tofu” rail line being built by the Chinese will last. I am willing to put may last dollar on the first hard rain!)

Of course, Hailemariam is clueless that in America all land is not owned exclusively by government or a gang of bush thugs masquerading as government. He has no idea that the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution limits the powers of government in taking private property for public use and that it must pay just compensation and demonstrate a public purpose for the taking. What Hailemariam ignorantly dismisses as “insurance and property issues” in Virginia are actually complex eminent domain issues involving multitudinous private parties and complicated statutory and constitutional litigation. There were challenges to the “quick take” (without judicial review) authority of the state and federal governments in building the rail line. There were knotty constitutional issues involving state and federal powers in rail line construction and the role and authority of municipalities in rail line related construction activities. There were protracted challenges to condemnation proceedings, fairness of the just compensation offered and other critical procedural due process issues.

The “issues” Hailemariam dismisses as “this issue or that issue” have deep roots in Nineteenth Century land acquisition politics and the way in which railroads acquired fee simple ownership or perpetual easements in the land under the tracks carrying their trains. Hailemariam seems to think that the federal and state governments in the U.S. could simply grab land by the stroke of the pen or bureaucratic fiat and hand it over to their cronies, family members, cadres and political supporters. It is alleged Hailemariam received higher education in America, but his dismal lack of elementary knowledge on the American political and constitutional process is nothing less than shocking. But it is never too late to learn: Property rights are so highly respected in America that they are boldly secured against the encroachment of the federal government in the Fifth Amendment and the state and local governments in the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Lately, Hailemariam has become manifestly delusional. He recently told  The Africa Report, “Everyone is now talking about the Ethiopian renaissance”. It is true that everyone is talking about Ethiopia – the descent of that country into the dark abyss of press censorship, crimes against humanity, stolen (or soon to be stolen ) “elections”, corruption and human rights violations.  Hailemariam still repeats ad nauseum the same fabrication he proclaimed in his eulogy at Meles’ funeral. “Our great leader Meles Zenawi has been the chief architect of our country’s renaissance, which has been assured by double-digit growth over the last eight years.” The claim of double-digit growth is simply not true as everyone who has read my commentary “The Voodoo Economics of Meles Zenawi” knows.  (Perhaps Hailemariam does not like to read “long” commentaries.)

In the third quarter of the game of thrones, Hailemariam has become the “Prime Minster of Dystopia”.  “If we remain committed to the ideals of justice, liberation and above all the sanctity of human dignity, we can ultimately prevail over evil, no matter how stacked the odds are against us,” pontificated Hailemariam at Nelson Mandela’s state funeral in Qunu in the Eastern Cape. Under Hailemariam’s “prime ministership” of the TPLF Paper Mache Throne, things have gone downhill. Under his watch, evil has prevailed in Ethiopia as thousands have been arbitrarily arrested and jailed. Just in the past few weeks,  young men and women barely in their 20s have been arrested and jailed for “terrorism” merely for blogging on Facebook and speaking their minds on other social media.  This month, six popular independent publications including Afro Times, Addis Guday, Enku, Fact, Jano, and Lomi were shuttered and dozens of journalists jailed or exiled as a consequence. Dozens of Ethiopia’s best and brightest journalists have been languishing in subhuman prisons throughout the country.  Hailemariam has recently graduated to become a Mafia Don of sorts contracting international kidnappings and abductions. He “authorized” the abduction of Andaragatchew Tsgie, General Secretary of Ginbot 7 Movement for Justice, Freedom and Democracy, an Ethiopian opposition group, in Yemen.  In 2014, Ethiopia is ranked as the second poorest country (for the fourth successive year) on the planet by the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHDI) Multidimensional Poverty Index (formerly annual U.N.D.P. Human Poverty Index). Yet Hailemariam polyannishly does a song and dance to the tune of, “Everyone is now talking about the Ethiopian renaissance”.

End game for the TPLF Paper Mache Throne

In the final quarter of the game of thrones, the question is: Who will be the Kingpin of the Paper Mache Throne following the 2015 “election”? I have shared my general views on the question in my commentary “Of Elections and Diapers in Ethiopia in 2015”. The word “election” is a misnomer and a misrepresentation of the reality. Election charade or games of election musical chairs are more accurately descriptive phrases. The outcome of the election game in 2015 is a foregone conclusion. The only unanswered question is whether the margin of victory will exceed the 99.6 percent of the 2010 election. Meles will roll in his grave if his party should “win” the 2015 “election” by less than 99.6 percent.

In the end game, Hailemariam is a goner! Toast! They used him; they’re going to lose him. But the powers behind the Paper Mache Throne have a humongous problem. Where will they find a Meles equivalent? In their game of thrones, there was only one Meles Zenawi—the brain, the brawn and the brand. Without their demi-god, they are lost.  They now find themselves in the proverbial land of the blind where the one-eyed man is no longer king. They are all in the dark now and they cannot find their way out.

The powers behind the TPLF Paper Mache Throne need a man like Meles to stay in power. Meles was a unique figure in the TPLF cosmogony. He was clever enough to anticipate and thwart the moves of his bungling opponents while keeping the contending forces in balance through threats, bribes, persecutions and prosecutions. He knew how to handle them all. He had dirt on all of them. He knew what made each one tick. He knew all of them could be bought and sold on the cheap. He was always five steps ahead of them as they stepped back 10 steps to count and wallow in their stolen loot. In the End Game, the powers that be behind the Paper Mache Throne in the post-Meles season are facing the classic thieves’ dilemma: Thieves and robbers do not fight when they steal and rob but when they sit down to distribute the stolen loot. Which thief will be the next Kingpin of the Paper Mache Throne?!

When they appointed Tedros Adhanom, the malaria researcher, to become “foreign minister”, they were clearly sending the signal that they are grooming him for the prime minister’s job in 2015. Only in Ethiopia would a man with no experience or training in high stakes world diplomacy be appointed “foreign minister”. (Nepotism, cronyism and neopatrimonialism are the modus operandi of the ruling regime there.) They wanted him to get some visibility and international “experience” until 2015 while allowing him to cultivate good will to forestall internal opposition and gain broader acceptance. Are we waiting to witness the “transfer of power” from a sanitary engineer to a malaria researcher on the Paper Mache Throne2015 election?

Adhanom simply does not have what it takes to be a “foreign minister” or “prime minster”. His response to the  abuse and deportation of Ethiopian domestic workers and refugees in Saudi Arabia last November was not only pathetic and incredible but also reprehensible and demonstrative of the man’s ineptitude in the job. As I expressed my outrage in my commentary,  “From the Ethiopian Fire Into the  Saudi Arabian Frying Pan”, Adhanom said what happened to Ethiopian domestic workers in Saudi Arabia came to him “as a complete surprise” and “we never expected that this would happen”. As “foreign minister”, Adhanom did nothing to anticipate and plan for reasonably foreseeable events affecting those workers, including the need for potential mass evacuation and mitigation of violence by the Saudi police and mobs.  He had at least six months advanced notice to prepare following immigration policy changes by the Saudi regime. Adhanom bungled through that human disaster. (Little has been done to rehabilitate or resettle the tens of thousands who were repatriated from Saudi modern slavery.) What blew my top off was Adhanom’s nauseating statement: “Ethiopia would like to express its respect for the decision of the Saudi Authorities and the policy of deporting illegal migrants.”  He actually said that!!!

I personally do not think it will make a difference who they eventually put on the Paper Mache Throne. I don’t think replacing Tweedle Dee Hailemariam with Tweedle Dum Adhanom or Tweedle Dee Anybody Else will make much of a difference. As President Obama liked to say, “ You can put lipstick on a pig, but at the end of the day it is still a pig.” You can put a thug in a designer suit, give him a fancy title, hand him a fancy briefcase and put him on the throne. At the end of the day, you still have a thug on a throne. You can paint the face of a thugogracy with election makeup and lipstick to make it look like a democracy, but at the end of the day a thugogracy is still a thugogracy! The 2015 “election” will not produce good governance, respect for human rights or observance of the rule of law in Ethiopia.

On a separate point, I believe the contenders and pretenders to the TPLF Paper Mache Throne are undergoing a real existential crisis in the form Jean Paul Sartre metaphorically represented in his play “No Exit”. They have made life hell for the people of Ethiopia and now they must stand perpetual sentry in the hell they created for others. The fact of the matter is that they know deep in their hearts their political power and ill-gotten wealth is meaningless because they are totally and completely rejected by the vast, vast majority of the Ethiopian people. They know they are held in utter contempt by the people. One need only listen to audio clips of statements by two top regime officials posted online recently expressing  deep dismay over the fact that they have been betrayed by the very individuals they recruited and promoted to high positions and others they helped amass great fortunes; move sound bar on clip to 1:09:00.). They know they can trust no one including themselves. They know the vast majority of the cadres they recruited and trained for over two decades will be the first ones to sell them down the river for a dime when the opportunity presents itself. Ermias Legese’s book, “YeMeles Trufat”, is Exhibit A. That book is a stinging and devastating  indictment of the corruption, incompetence and pettiness among the contenders and pretenders to the Paper Mache Throne. (Ermias Legese, until recently, was a “minister of state” for the ruling regime in Ethiopia; he now lives in the U.S. )  The book depicts the low-intensity warfare that has been  going on over the past decade between and among TPLF power brokers and the cadres they have minted from other ethnic groups to give the impression of political pluralism. Ermias’ book suggests that the all of the top contenders and pretenders to the Paper Mache Throne are emperor-wannabes with new clothes. According to Ermias, the top leaders of the regime (with third grade education, diplomas from bogus online diploma mills and ghost written doctoral dissertations for those who “attended” credible higher educational institutions) are not qualified to run the dog catcher’s office let alone lead a complex country like Ethiopia. They are in it for the money. They should take it and run.

There was once an Iron Throne that ruled Ethiopia for a thousand years. The lords of that kingdom believed they had a birthright and a divine right to rule. That Throne in the end vanished over a few months never to return. Today the lords of the TPLF Paper Mache Throne also believe they have a birthright to rule. They hope to keep in perpetuity the mantle of ultimate power—the office of prime minster. They believe their Paper Mache Throne will last a hundred years. As they like to remind us every chance they get, they established their Paper Mache Throne through the barrel of the gun. They sure ain’t gonna let nobody disestablish it through a paper ballot!

“Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” Martin Luther King, Jr.


Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.

Previous commentaries by the author are available at:

Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at: