Winston Churchill once said, “those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it.” When Lemma’s team visited Bahirdar and proclaimed the supremacy of Ethiopia, many thought these young leaders have learned from history and are beating the tumor that killed Meles. Did they?
Where did it go wrong for Meles?
Let us give Meles the benefit of the doubt and assume that he cared for Ethiopia as a country while he was a young and vibrant medical student and had a great vision for its renaissance. But he was just a student and must have needed a miracle to rise to the top of the Ethiopian ruling elite. If he needed a steppingstone to make it to the top of the ruling elite to make a difference, he would have to consider a few options he had at the time. Joining the royal family or the military elite was unthinkable for obvious reasons. Joining the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP) was not easy since the party was already packed with the best political elites of the time. Then, he would have to settle with an ethnic based and narrow-minded group called Tigray Liberation Struggle. Although winning the top leadership was not hard given the size of TPLF when he joined it, the way to the crown Jewel in Addis needed hard work and turned out to be long and bloody.
For an ordinary person, turning a small group of rebels into a formidable military and political entity was not an easy task. But Meles was not an ordinary person. He took the challenge. He turned his rebel base into a laboratory and his fighters into a lab rat. He experimented first with Albanian communism and then with the Chinese Mao version. These foreign dogmas, however, remained foreign to the group and none of them became obsessions to ordinary TPLF fighters except a few of his disciples surrounding him. Unfortunately, one dogma that stuck in the minds of all, from top to bottom, was the idea that Tigray is the mount Sinai of Ethiopia and Tigrayans are the golden people. This follows that the Shewan Amhara political elite violated the sacred Tigrayan supremacy and oppressed the Tigrayan people for a long time. As a spiritual father of TPLF, he instilled Amhara and Ethiopia as the arch enemy of Tigray in the minds of its members and hammered it until it became part of their nature. For the ordinary TPLF fighters, except Meles and his few disciples, liberating Tigray from this evil empire called Ethiopia became an eternal struggle to the death.
When eventually TPLF liberated Tigray in the late 1980s, the fighters thought that was the end of the road and many of them put down their arms and went home. For Meles, it was just the beginning of the next phase of his scheme. But he would have to change his tactics and his new tact would have to build on his previous one. The next scheme would have to explain why these fighters must die to liberate a people they were told is an arch enemy of Tigray. But devising a deceptive scheme was not hard for Meles at this time because Meles had elevated himself to a shroud political and military tactician. Nothing or nobody dared to stand on his way. All went well and he won the crown Jewel in Addis.
Having a vision is one thing, converting it into reality is always a different animal. As a rebel leader, Meles was able to forge great generals, engineers, and intelligence officers out of people who never attended formal education or dropped out from primary school. After EPRDF controlled the whole country, the skills Meles needed out of his fighters was administrative and civil service. His generals could do very little in these areas and he would have to rely on bureaucrats and advisors from the previous administration. In the meantime, he opened fast track training programs and institutions such as the civil service college to convert his rebel fighters to bureaucrats and civil administrators. But this task remained elusive for most of his fighters and civil administration remained alien even to some of the most brilliant generals such as Hayelom. Many of them resorted to drinking and night life to cope with the stress and depression associated with their complex bureaucratic duties. This in turn led to corruption and family disorganization. At some point, there was an alarming uptick in the number of suicides among TPLF fighters.
The biggest obstacle to Meles’ dream was nothing but his own making. The majority of TPLF members wanted to see the supremacy of Tigray and push for special treatment for the Tigrayan people and the Tigray region. Meles Preached this for a long time and there is no escape from it. He had no choice but to deliver as promised. For the first ten years, everything was heading to Tigray and every resource and the majority of the country’s budget was assigned to Tigray and Tigrayans. This imbalanced government centered action raised ire and fury in the rest of the country and among the diasporas. Meles responded with anger to some opposition leaders who confronted him in the parliament during budget allocations. For Meles, all these challenges seemed minor inconveniences for his vision of asserting Ethiopia’s renaissance. But the ethnic based dogma he invented to his end kept him on his heels until it finally put a tumor in his head and killed him.
Yet, Meles was not without great accomplishments. Stopping Gadhafi from hijacking the African Union, Putting Ethiopia on the list of the fastest growing countries, and initiating the biggest dam on the Blue Nile are some of his shining moments. Unfortunately, history will not remember Meles as the hero who dared to stop the Blue Nile, rather the shroud politician who intoxicated the country with his narrow-minded ethnic nationalism.
Did Abiy Learn anything from Meles?
If you honestly ask me what killed Meles, I will tell you, the TPLF tumor, not the tumor in his head. After two years of Abiy’s Ethiopia, I am not sure if Abiy learned from the mistakes of Meles and broke from the TPLF syndrome at all. Rather he is caught in a vicious cycle of ethnic nationalism.
For many of us who watched what went down in Bahirdar in 2017 would think these new breed of Oromo and Amhara leaders called ‘Team Lemma’ seemed capable of stopping the ethnic nationalism infection eating up Ethiopia and reverse the fate of the country. One of the things that amazed many Ethiopians was how ‘Team Lemma’ beaten TPLF at its own game. When Abiy rose to the occasion and announced sweeping changes, he seemed and sounded like a miracle messenger sent to save Ethiopia and its people.
Surprisingly, it took only a few months for the core of ‘Team Lemma’ to crack and the promised changes disappear into the abyss. Now, many of us start to question how Abiy and his team rose to the highest strata of the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization’s (OPDO) leadership? Did Abiy use the same tactic and promise like Meles? There are some indications Abiy and his team copied Meles’ scheme and promised the Oromo youth and OPDO members that the fruits of the sweeping changes will be for the supremacy of Oromia and only for the renaissance of the Oromo people. During his interview with the VOA, Obo Lemma Megersa said that he is against the idea of forming the prosperity party because OPDO has not yet delivered what was promised to the Oromo people.
What did they promise?
According to the current president of Oromia, Obo Shimeles Abdissa, Prosperity Party is made for Oromia and Oromia alone. Every inch of the party’s existence is to benefit Oromia and to assert the supremacy of the Oromo People; to make Oromiffa the national language at the expense of the de facto national language, Amharic; changing the demographic composition of the capital city. For Obo Shimeles, every move the party made so far is to camouflage this hidden objective of the party.
The Ethiopian people have seen and experienced something identical for the last few decades. The only difference is that it was not from Oromia. Sadly, the person who crafted this scheme paid dearly with his own life and the people of Tigray who were supposed to benefit are paying a higher price now. Still, our learned leaders are not learning from the past. Once there was a writing on the wall of an aircraft workshop that reads, ‘please learn from the mistakes of others because you might not live to learn from your own.’ Though it was too late, Meles had realized his mistakes and tried to reverse some of his decisions during his last ten years; the flag day he instituted is one example. Fortunately, for Abiy and his team, they still have time to learn from history and correct the error of their ways.
May God instill some wisdom in them!