– Meles insists to go, but the “people” beg him to stay
By Jawar Mohammed – July 23, 2009 (Stanford University) In recent months, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi repeatedly stressed his preparedness to step down after two decades of absolute dictatorship. Although it seems that the man has had enough misadventure and might be ready to replace himself with a loyal puppet, the vast majority of the public has been pretty sceptical. What is quite interesting to me, however, is the discussion this announcement has generated amongst Meles’ supporters who are apparently divided between those who want him to leave and those who asks him to remain in office. The former group suggests that the man, whom they believe is a hero for doing so much for the “country” and his ethnic party, better leave sooner rather than later while he still enjoys considerable support from his party’s ( TPLF’s) power base and some international recognition. They fear that remaining in power any longer might further erode his local, national and international stature and help consolidate the opposition, which might force him to step down as a disgraced looser.
The later group, his ardent supporters, however, believe that he is the best and only person in the whole country, if not the world over, who can lead the party and the country during this hard times. They argue that he has done so many great things that he should be allowed to continue riding roughshod over the poor people. This group might have gained a boost by the Meles’ indication that he could be persuaded to stay by suggesting the decision is “up to his party,” as if the party had power to decide on the fate of the man who has absolute control over any members, firing, hiring and purging at his whim. For that very reason, it won’t be surprised if such hardcore supporters of Ato Meles “persuade” him to stay in power indefinitely. Meles actually thought about this matter long before it became an issue. He deliberately struck out term limit from the constitution.
It is, after all, a tradition for African dictators to change their mind to remain in power, even by changing the rule of the game, because “the people” beg them not abandon them. But to me what is more interesting is the very opposition who are struggling to replace Meles, themselves use the same excuse to remain at top echelon of the party forever. A simple observation shows us that many of the Ethiopian opposition parties have been led for decades by their “founding fathers.” They were able to remain at the helm of their party often by using similar tactics as that of a ruler they fight to replace. In this article I aim to show some of the excuses, tactics and methods employed by incumbent rulers and opposition leaders alike. Furthermore, I intend to point out how the persistence of a leader to remain in power undermines his own objectives and prevents the emergence of new generation of leadership.
They are willing to leave, but the people want them to stay
Meles has repeatedly stressed that he is willing to step down but he needs his party’s permission. In plain language, what this means is that the party can force him to stay as chairman even if he dislikes it. Since the party claims that it is in power because the Ethiopian people has voted for it, then the “people” must have wanted Meles to stay in power as well. Therefore, if the people want him to stay in power indefinitely, then he shall be allowed to remain up there forever! This shady way of clinging in to power is not really exclusive to the ruling party but also concerns all and minor political organizations that aspire to grab political power.
In a recent interview with VOA Amharic, Hailu Shawul, former chairman of CUD and leader of AEUP, said that he remains at the helm of his party because the members begged him not to abandon them at this critical time. Similarly Merera Gudina, Beyene Petros and Lidetu Ayalew have been the chairmen of their perspective parties since they formed them that their perspective parties have become synonymous with the name of these individuals. In fact, one will be hard pressed to name any other member of those organizations besides the chairmen and a few loyal friends. it must be the case that these invisible members of those parties love such leaders so much that they keep re-electing them indefinitely.
In constantly speaking about their willingness to step down but suggesting that they have to accept the verdict of their party, such leaders present themselves as genuine democrats. But one must ask why their perspective parties keep begging the same leaders to remain in power. It is the tradition in Ethiopian political parties that individuals who have any slight dissent from the chairman are systematically purged and those who show absolute loyalty are promoted. Eventually the leader surrounds himself with “yes-men” whose role and interest in the party is dependent on the leader remaining in power. It is these members who monopolize such parties and wage constant campaign of keeping the same leader. This loyal army of supporters prevent any potential leader from emerging. Whenever someone shows some sort aspiration for power, he will be targeted as power monger and eliminated from the party. Because of this, even in cases where there might be a potential person who is more qualified than the chairman, he chooses to remain silent because he or she knows full well that the chairman’s public statement about stepping down is not genuine, and if he sticks his neck out to replace him, he would be targeted or vilified. For instance, when Meles says he want to leave, potential successors suspect that he might not really mean it, and therefore it is a risky business to start campaigning to replace him. If one dares to take action, he knows quite well that after the party “forces” Meles to stay, he, that ambitious person, will be labelled power monger and even could be demoted or demonized, if not eliminated from the scene.
Lets take the case of Arkebe Equbai, the former mayor of Finfinne, whose amazing reform won unbelievable support and admiration from a constituent that adamantly opposed to TPLF’s rule. It was rumoured that some Tigrean elites wanted him to replace Meles, but as his popularity increased, Meles and his loyal cadres waged defamation campaign against Arkebe. Once the dust of the 2005 election has settled down, he was pushed out and thrown into some obscure ministerial portfolio, but undeniably he has also been holding very lucrative positions at Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray where he is been encouraged to dirty up himself in corruption, a famous tactic used by Meles to control his potential rivals . The same consequence await those within the opposition who dare to dream of leading their party.
The Irreplaceable Leaders
One of the strongest point used by PM Meles’ supporters goes like this. He has given his entire life to the party and the people, he defeated Derge, liberated the Tigrean people, established democracy, scored unimaginable economic growth. All the argument is about him, the absolute ruler who takes all the credit. Furthermore, he is a “genius” who is making his country proud at the international stage, thus, this man is irreplaceable. “Didn’t you see him at the G20, did you see him shaking hands with Obama…?” they throw all kinds of moronic questions. Even if he is tired and wants to retire, it is too risky to let him go because, at this dangerous time, when the enemies of the TPLF are shouting from every direction, when the global economic meltdown threatens to erode his accomplishments, there is just nobody else qualified enough to replace him. They argue that there is no one who can match Meles’ intellect, though it never saved him from being an ordinary tyrant, within the party that claims to have over 6 million members or even amongst the over 80 million people of the country. I cannot deny that there is notable economic progress under Meles Zenaw’s rule. There has been significant ( quantity wise) expansion in education, healthcare and basic infrastructure. My own backward village has benefited from a new high school and a paved road that connected the district to the outside world for first time. But not only does Meles’s shameful human rights record and unparallel corruption dwarf such positives accomplishments, but even if he brought heaven to earth, he does not deserve to remain in power indefinitely. Even if we assume that TPLF will not allow a non-Tigrean to replace Meles, it is an insult to the “golden” people of Tigray, a phrase he insinuated to win their support, to tell them that they are incapable of producing a leader who can replace him.
In the opposition camp, diehard supporters of “vanguard” parties present the same argument in favor of keeping the incumbent leader in power. Recently, I was talking to a dear friend of mine who is one of the most committed members of OLF I have ever known. We agreed that power struggle was the cause of recent splits within the OLF. Then, I asked why doesn’t the chairman step down rather than risk a split, she said there is absolutely nobody else who is qualified enough to replace him. I did some investigation afterwards. The current chairman was elected a decade ago as a transition leader after conflict between two factions forced the former chairman to resign. The plan was for the chairman to convene the general assembly within a short period of time and facilitate a new election. But excuses were fabricated and the election was postponed for years which further increased the tension between factions leading to the public split of the two factions in 2001. When the assembly was finally convined in 2004, all dissenters had already been purged out of the party, the transitional chairman who used the prolonged “transition” to consolidate his own faction (through the support of uncle Isaias Afeworki) emerged as a sole contestant. The drama gets even interesting because the chairman even refused to contest election, but the “party” begged him to take it. The second election was supposed to take place in 2008 but a new excuse was made up– there is no money to pay for such large assembly. This again led to a new split bringing the organization to a level of non-existence today. Well then my friend might be right, because after all OLF have lost at least 90% of its members and after pushing out all his potential competitors, Dawud Ibsa is left only with handful of his blind supporters, who either are too weak to challenge his authority or who worship him. Therefore, I may have to agree that the OLF chairman is irreplaceable within his circle, but it is an insult to an organization that claim to be the “vanguard” of the egalitarian Oromo people to argue that there is nobody who can and want to replace Dawud Ibsa.
This by no means is unique to OLF. Almost all outmoded Ethiopia political parties and their leaders play such tricks. Purging opponents before an upcoming election and using excuses to postpone election is quite common. And all of them pretend to be eager to step down while at the side they organize their hardcore supporters who will lobby and blackmail the “party” to insist on keeping its incumbent leader. As the party continues to beg the incumbent to stay on, any potential leaders are either pushed out or demoralized that at the end they create their own break away faction.
Here is another instance; when Hailu Shawel was chairman of the All Ethiopian Unity Party, Lidetu was leading the youth wing. Hailu Shawul who was leading AEUP party in quasi-feudal-old-fashioned-hierarchy came under pressure from the restless and articulate Lidetu. The young man became more popular than the chairman, thus Hailu’s inner circle began to attack him. This, coupled with Lidetu’s uncompromising obstinate push to replace the old man resulted in purging the youth out. Lidetu established his own EDP-Medhin where he remain as uncontested chairman ever since and so is Hailu Shawel. Each of their perspective parties have gone through several “factionalization” and today both parties are weaker than ever before. It was this bad blood between the Hailu and Lidetu that was the primary cause of Kinjit’s collapse. We cannot be sure, but I would think that if Hailu was willing to facilitate true election than kick out his dissenters, not only could AEUP be stronger, but they could have become a strong building block in the loose Kinijit coalition.
Without them the sky will fall down: The personality cult problem
After systematically eliminating any potential threat to their power and demoralizing rising leaders, Ethiopian political leaders, through their loyal army of cadres, develop a myth about the danger the party or the country would face without the incumbent. In a sense, a personality cult around the leader is created whereby the leading person not the cause becomes the rallying point. Thus such hardcore supporters of incumbents fear that if the leader, who is the epicenter of their collectiveness, is to be removed, the entire world around them would collapse.
When Haile Sillassie’s power was threatened by coups and street protests, I heard that his supporters where saying that if he is to be removed, God will curse the country and hell will break loose. Hell did break loose but in my view the peasants were happy with the fire as it allowed them land ownership. Mengistu’s supporters told the world that there will be no Ethiopia after him. The country will be disintegrated into pieces, there will be civil war and unimaginable lose of human life. Well, that time came and passed but Ethiopia, with all its baggage, is still here catering for another cycle of tyranny. Today, Meles and his supporters tell us that he is the superglue that is keeping the country together. If he is to be pushed out, the country will shatter like glass. I cannot predict the future, but if I have to bet, I would say that the said disaster will not happen. In fact in all three cases, the term-less leaders caused more harm than any countable benefits. Hailesilassie’s despotic and backward rule prevented the much needed reform and led to the emergence of a radicalized opposition, Mengistu’s ruthlessness forced many to pick up arms, Meles’s ethnoracist disctatorship has so far resulted in increasing tension between the Tigrean and the sidelined majority who has been reduced to second-class citizens.
We have no guarantee
I have no doubt that many of the current leaders of the Ethiopian opposition movement have been paying significant price towards change and reform in their country. Many of them have sacrificed their career, family life and their personal safety. Even the current ruler had spent 17 years of his life fighting against the former dictator to bring democracy and justice to his people. However, it makes no sense to pay so much sacrifice in the name of democracy if they are not democrat themselves that truly believe in tyranny. Today, as several opposition groups accuse Meles for dictatorship, they must be pressured to assess their own role as chairmen of their group, because the way they lead their parties is a very good indicative of how they would rule the country if and when they replace Meles. As the saying goes, when opposition leaders point a figure at the incumbent, the must know that the remaining four fingers pointing at them. Leadership about exemplifying what you preach, a true leader is one who produces many more better qualified, articulate and competent successors. In my view, those who silence dissenting views, purge potential rivals and demoralize rising leaders would not refrain from using their state backed power from eliminating their opponents. Opposition leaders who make up excuses and trick to remain at the helm of their party are very likely to replicate such tradition once they capture state power.
We, the citizens who are asked to pay the price in order to remove the current dictator have no guarantee that the new one will be any different. The quest of our people is true democracy, the freedom from the state that infringes up on their fundamental rights that it was supposed to protect. They are not interested in choosing between a short, tall, Amhara, Oromo or Tigrean dictator. The primary concern of democratic activists should not be who occupies the palace. So far none of the leaders of the Ethiopian opposition have distinguished themselves from that of the incumbent and therefore we have no guarantee that they will be any different than Meles. As we continue to protest against Meles Zenawi’s unconstrained absolute tyranny, we must also challenge the unprincipled, unaccountable and Sultanstic opposition leaders who run parties like their private businesses. Opposition parties ought to be where civic culture is developed, the foundation of democratic institution is built and future leaders are nurtured.
The writer, Jawar Mohammed can be reached at: email@example.com