Last week, The Economist Magazine rhetorically inquired, “What if Mr. Meles goes for good?” Shouldn’t the question be, “Is it not good for Ethiopia if Mr. Meles goes for good?”
Those who know where Mr. Meles has gone are not talking; and those who are talking don’t know where he has gone. But everyone knows dictator Meles Zenawi has completely vanished from public view. He was last seen at the G20 meeting in Mexico on June 19. He looked gaunt and debilitated. On July 18, an Agence France Press report citing “several diplomatic sources” reported that Zenawi is a goner “in a critical state” at a hospital in Belgium and he “might not survive”. Ethiopian Satellite Television (ESAT), citing an anonymous source at the International Crisis Group (ICG), reported that Zenawi is dead and gone. ICG issued an opaque denial stating that it had “no direct knowledge” of Zenawi’s “health” or death. In a staged interview with party-controlled media on August 1, Zenawi’s spinmesiter and “communication minister”, Bereket Simon, declared “the prime minister’s health is in very good condition.” Last week, Simon said Zenawi will be back before the Ethiopian New Year which is usually celebrated on September 11. In my last commentary, I argued that Zenawi should be declared AWOL and formally removed because he has been gone absent from office without constitutional leave.
It is ironic that absolute silence should be the ultimate fate of the man The Economist described as “‘the voice of Africa’”. For over two decades, the garrulous and bombastic Zenawi used words like a surgical knife to filet, slice, dice and shred his opponents and critics. He tongue-lashed his parliamentarians like a bully at a children’s reformatory school. But the “voice of Africa” has now become voiceless himself just like the 90 million Ethiopians he had rendered voiceless. Pitiful party hacks have become his mouthpieces. They say he will be back in a jiffy. Why doesn’t Zenawi show his face if he is in “very good condition”? How come there is no photo or video of him in “very good condition”? If he cannot be seen, can’t he release a 30-second audio tape sayin’ he awright? Out of sight, out of mind?
The evidence that “Mr. Meles is gone for good” is compelling and unrefuted. Other than empty assurances by Zenawi’s spinmeisters, substantial evidence is lacking to prove Zenawi is alive or sentient. Rene Lefort in a recent article noted, “The widespread conviction shared by most diplomats and experts is that, whether Meles is dead or alive, he is no longer in charge and never will be again, so the candidacy for his succession is open.” For all practical purposes, Mr. Meles is gone or he is just as good as gone!
But so “What if Mr. Meles goes for good?” Or comes back? Or stays? Or whatever? Tin pot dictators come and go in Africa and the Middle East like the plague. Over the past year and half, people have been asking, “What if Gadhafi, Ben Ali, Mubarak, Ali Saleh, Gbagbo… are gone for good?” Well, they are all gone for good and life has gotten better every day they have been gone. What if Bashar al-Assad, Robert Mugabe… are gone for good? What happened after Charles Taylor, Mobutu Sese Seko, Jean-Bedel Bokassa, Idi Amin, Mengistu Haile Mariam … were gone?”
“What if Mr. Meles is Gone for Good?”
For some time now, I have been wrestling with the question, “What if African dictator X is gone?” In January 2011, in a commentary entitled, “After the Fall of African Dictatorships”, I noted that I did not know what happens the day African dictators are gone, but was reasonably sure what happens the day after they are gone: “The fact is that the morning after the fall of Africa’s dictators, the people will be stuck with a ransacked economy, emptied national banks, empty store shelves, torture chambers full of political prisoners and dithering and power-hungry opposition leaders jockeying for position in the middle of political chaos.” This past April I cautioned, “The chaos that occurs on the transitional bridge from dictatorship to democracy [in Ethiopia] creates the ideal conditions for the hijacking of political power, theft of democracy and the reinstitution of dictatorship in the name of democracy.”
Over the past two decades, Zenawi accumulated power by fermenting a toxic brew of ethnic politics, corruption and repression. He transformed an oligarchic authoritarian system (so-called collective leadership) into a ruthless neopatrimonial personal dictatorship (those directly hooked into Zenawi’s power grid) by continuously and systematically purging those he suspected of disloyalty and opposition. He cunningly wiped out many of his comrades-in-arms who did the heavy lifting and bush fighting to bring him to power. He surrounded himself with new allies, friends, business partners and party members who made it possible for him to survive and prevail without much internal or external challenge. At the time of his disappearance, Zenawi had become invincible, the Il Duce Supremo (“The Supreme Leader”).
But like all dictators, Zenawi never thought he would be “gone”. He likely believed he would rule with an iron fist for one-half century like Fidel Castro or at least 30 plus years like Mugabe. If he had to go, he likely believed he would go on his own time, terms and in grand style. From time to time, he titillated the public by hinting he might step down (in 2015 if his party lets him), but he fully expected to be the grand puppet master behind the throne pulling the strings for decades to come. If the hubristic Zenawi ever thought he would be gone from office, it was likely that he believed the cause would a mass uprising. Little did he understand one of the fundamental laws of dictatorships: When dictators go, they go pretty damn quick. Ben Ali of Tunisia was gone in days. Hosni Mubarak in weeks. Gadhafi in months. A whole slew of African dictators over the past six years were gone in a flash from a variety of illnesses.
Zenawi never considered grooming a successor and risk being upstaged. No dictator worth his salt would groom his replacement and unloose his rivals and opponents. Designating a successor is the most dangerous thing any dictator could do because doing so could stir the pot and agitate the beehive. But it is the very absence of an heir apparent or a successor that has plunged Zenawi’s ruling party is in a jam now. The shadowy power brokers are in deep political turmoil today as they try to choose Zenawi’s replacement. But regarless of whether Zenawi goes or stays, his neopatrimonial system is crumbling and doomed. As a result, his friends, cronies, party leaders and members, supporters, bureaucrats and generals are in a state of panic and high anxiety.
Zenawi (does not) returns? Those who know where Zenawi has gone are not talking; and those who are talking don’t know. Seeye Abraha, former defense minister and co-founder of the liberation front that brought Zenawi to power recently implied Zenawi is gone for good when he noted that Zenawi “will be leaving very big boots that cannot be filled by anyone else.” Seeye is right. In a 2009 weekly commentary, I describe Zenawi as “a dictator with a thousand faces”. No one in the ruling party has Zenawi’s combination of Machiavellian cunning and craftiness, defiant willpower, stony cold-bloodedness or bottomless capacity for intrigue and chicanery. As the old saying goes, one has to give the devil his due. No one in Zenawi’s party can match his intelligence, intellectual agility, shrewdness or plain street smarts. Zenawi stayed in power for 21 years by outwitting, outfoxing, outsmarting, outmaneuvering, outpoliticking, outtricking, outfinessing and outplaying not only every one of his opponents but also rivals in his own party. But he had his own contradictions. He had sharp intellect but lacked insight; he had ideas but lacked vision; he was smart but not judicious; he was shrewd but not perceptive; he was single-minded in his goals but pursued them obtusely. He was driven but lacked conscience or compassion. He pursued politics with depraved indifference. He was a man of many vices and few virtues. He suffered the character flaws of those malignant and vengeful Shakespearean characters “consumed with venomous malice”, addicted to “unmitigated villainy” and deaf-mute to every appeal of humanity.
The fact remains that it really does not matter if Zenawi is gone for good (or for bad), comes back temporarily or whatever. Zenawi has been “gone” for good since May 18 at the G8 Food Security Conference in Washington D.C. That day, with his head bowed and his spirit totally crushed, the last ounce of fight left in Zenawi left him. If he should return, he will be merely a shell of the former Zenawi. The old cocky, self-absorbed and snarly Zenawi is gone forever. The recycled Zenawi, if there is one, will be a defeated, defanged, declawed, debeaked and decrowned version of the old Zenawi. That is just a fact. Zenawi’s handlers may fool themselves into believing that “absence makes the heart grow fonder”; but in Zenawi’s case, absence has made him irrelevant. Any fantasies about his return to power with his former glory is ludicrous, pointless, senseless and mindless. The odds are Zenawi ain’t never coming back! He is gone for good!
The “status quo” continues. Spinmeister Simon in his last press statement said, “The status quo is maintained – there is no change and there will be no change in the near future.” Simon talks much but says nothing. It was not clear what he meant by “status quo” but the current situation is murky: There is an AWOL “prime minster”. The “deputy prime minister” is invisible. There is a shadowy group of power brokers scheming behind the scenes to find Zenaiw’s replacement. The power and leadership vacuum is manifest. There is total confusion and cynicism in the country about who is minding the store. The only silver lining in the dark cloud shrouding Zenawi’s disappearance is the public euphoria that the two decade-old one-man, one-party dictatorship nightmare could have ended with Zenwai gone. As the charade of “collective leadership” is played out in Zenawi’s circle of power, the “status quo” continues.
In February 2010, Eskinder Nega (my friend and personal hero), the ultimate symbol of press freedom in Ethiopia, using as a backdrop the May 2010 “election” in which Zenawi’s party won by 99.6 percent, crystal-balled the inevitable implosion of the ruling “EPDRF” party and sketched out the qualifications of the motley crew of droll characters standing in line as Zenawi’s heirs-apparent to the throne (I strongly recommend Eskinder’s article [Click here] to anyone interested in grasping the current palace intrigue in Ethiopia; last month Zenawi jailed Eskinder, winner of the prestigious PEN America Freedom to Write Award for 2012, and arguably the most outstanding journalist of his generation, for 18 years):
Scratch beyond the surface and the EPRDF is really not the monolithic dinosaur as it is most commonly stereotyped. If what defines an organization is the unique amalgam of its history, quality of leadership, cohesion, grass root presence, vision, and perhaps even its luck, then the EPRDF, fast approaching its twentieth year, has evolved in to a coalition of four distinct phenomenon: the increasing confusion of the dominant TPLF; the acute cynicism of the ANDM; the desperate nihilism of the OPDO and the inevitable irrelevance of the incongruent SEPM…
A nasty, but so far bloodless, backstage interplay of these dynamics in what is now a battle to succeed Meles Zenawi has inaudibly developed in to a real threat to the cohesion of the EPRDF, arguably more dangerous than the electoral threat posed by its opponents. We now know that disaster was only averted this year with the extension of Meles’ term in office—-something he had always counted on, according to diplomats—-but this has yet to result in the much anticipated—-or rather, hoped for—ceasefire between two bickering claimants to the throne—OPDO and ANDM….
By contrast, the EPRDF is clearly a hierarchal organization with a singular power at the top in Meles Zenawi and subsequent levels of delegated power beneath him. Though collective leadership is formally acknowledged, it has no relevance in practice…
But the question remains if the prestige and power of EPRDF’s chairperson will endure after Meles. Both the OPDO and the ANDM are betting on it, but none of the EPRDF’s four constituent members have been able to come up with a political heavyweight remotely capable of ensuring a seamless transition…
Bereket Simon, whose support is generally deemed critical to the eventual successor, was instrumental in marshaling pressure for Meles’ term extension, but his considerable influence is expected to wane once Meles eventually leaves the limelight. His health notwithstanding, Bereket is still, along with Meles, EPRDF’s dynamo, his clear genius for intrigue a cause of much resentment both inside and outside the EPRDF…
The enigma of this drama is the role of Sebhat Nega, the king maker two of decades ago whose backing was vital for Meles’ accession to the helm of the TPLF. The side he chose at the climax of the fallout between Meles and Seye Abraha et al was no less crucial for the final outcome. Sebaht has chosen to leave TPLF’s politburo but remains a member of the CC. But both count for much less since the departure of Seye Abraha et al, his continued influence has more to do with his access and the propensity of Meles to listen to him. Most pundits are puzzled about his stance on the succession issue, but almost all agree that the side he chooses will be considerably emboldened..
An apparatchik or party hack is installed as “prime minister”. It is likely that the palace intriguists could broker a deal and install a relatively benign party hack who could serve, defend and protect their interests. The names of the party apparatchiks that have been leaked as part of a trial balloon are pitiful. They all lack political experience, professional competence, charisma and leadership qualities and are unlikely to appeal to members in their own party let alone have national appeal. Regardless, if a replacement for Zenawi is chosen from the ranks of the inner closed circle of the ruling party, that person will be selected for his unquestioning loyalty to the shadowy power brokers, and not for his competence or leadership qualities. But such dilemma is a common and inherent problem in all dictatorships. The pattern of leadership recruitment in dictatorships overemphasizes loyalty over competence which makes transition and succession difficult and chaotic.
An emergency is contrived and martial law declared. As the internal structure of the ruling party inevitably fractures, it will likely create ideal conditions for mass resistance and uprisings. The evidence so far shows that the regime is aggressively using its police and paramilitary forces to crush citizens demanding an end to state interference in religious affairs. As the regime faces more organized and defiant and potentially violent opposition, it will use the military to deal with such threats. The power brokers could just as easily trigger a war with a neighboring country to consolidate power. But use of the military could ultimately prove to be a double-edged sword. Dependence on a multiethnic, multi-religious army could backfire. The very military that enables a dictatorial regime to suppress its opposition could easily turn against the dictatorship itself.
The current “deputy prime minister” is elected as “prime minster” (PM). As I have demonstrated in a previous commentary, under Article 75 of the Ethiopian Constitution, the deputy prime minister is a political puppet of the PM. The DPM cannot constitutionally succeed the PM temporarily or permanently. The best bet for the power brokers is to orchestrate the “election” of the current “DPM” as “PM” because it sonly through him that they have any hope of maintaining their chokehold on power. The current DPM simply does not have a sufficient support base in the party structure, bureaucracy, military, civic society, economic structure, etc. to be able to act independently. He is the only viable lifeline the scheming power brokers and palace intriguists have to power.
Begin a national dialogue for power sharing and transition to democracy. In one of my commentaries in April, I predicted the foreseeable end of dictatorship and the beginning of a democratic transition in Ethiopia (tough I did not expect Zenawi to be “gone” so quickly) and called for an immediate national dialogue on specific issues:
We need to plan for the inevitable, inescapable and unstoppable transition of Ethiopia from dictatorship to democracy. Dictatorship will end in Ethiopia. It is only a matter of when. Democracy will also rise in Ethiopia. It is a matter of how and what type. The point is that it necessary to begin a purposeful dialogue and plan ahead about theprerequisites for an effective and smooth transition to democratic governance now, not when the dictatorship falls. I believe dialogue needs to begin now on at least four major issue areas: 1) how to engage and increase the capacity of key stakeholders in identifying potential triggers of violence during political transitions and preventing them; 2) identifying and devising strategies and opportunities for reducing ethnic, religious and communal tension and conflict in anticipation of a transition; 3) enhancing the role of civil society institutions in facilitating public engagement and interaction during the transitional period, and 4) anticipating critical constitutional issues that could significantly impair the transitional process.
Ultimately, the question should be not be, “What if Mr. Meles goes for good?” but rather, “Is it not good — just great — for Ethiopia if Mr. Meles is gone for good?” But the best question is, “How can we make Ethiopia better after Mr. Meles is gone for good?”