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May 28 and the Message to Meles Zenawi

May 29, 2011

By Eskinder Nega

Yes. The impossible has happened and come tomorrow 7300 days — twenty years — will come to pass since the astonishing accession of EPRDF to the helm of a nation it had never intended to lead. And a million-plus pro-EPRDF rally is being hastily organized in Addis for the big day, Saturday, May 28th 2011. Here is the EPRDF leadership at its best, cunning, manipulative and callous. It may very well manage a respectable rally — but probably short of its hoped million — despite its profound unpopularity. Hostile the public may be but it is still largely unorganized.

Nevertheless, with no end to the protests in the Arab world, the future looks decidedly bleak for authoritarianism. It could be said categorically that the best days for despotism lie in the past rather than the future. There is nothing the EPRDF could do to prevent the inevitable. It can not defeat history.

But it wasn’t like this all the time.

The most extraordinary facet of the EPRDF twenty years ago was the odd absence of the charismatic strongman at its helm. Strongmen had always appeared indispensable to successful insurgencies, but, intriguingly, the EPRDF had defied the convention with charming ease. At its core lay the bona fide collective leadership of the TPLF, one of the four constituent members of the EPRDF. Meles Zenawi, the nominal head, was really no more important than any other in the powerful TPLF politburo. It stood in sharp contrast to the Derg, which had for long — but not always — been singularly dominated by Mengistu.

Barely in his early twenties when he was one of the founding members of the TPLF, Meles spent his formative years in the mountains of Tigray as a less than impressive fighter during the crucial early years of the insurgency. But he compensated with his extensive readings and formidable debating prowess. If the TPLF was to have a future it needed more than mere spirited fighters. The nerds (in its innocuous sense) had to be given the floor, too. And Meles seemed like the logical and safest choice.

What his comrades did not anticipate was how power was to change him subsequently. Not only did he thrive in his new position but he was also intellectually and spiritually revitalized. He was soon no more content to serve the party. A diligent student of modern history, he was both culturally and temperamentally predisposed to the notion of a party that yields to the will of its visionary leader.

He was quick to recognize that real power lies in the state and not in the party. Not so his peers. They concentrated on the party, particularly the TPLF. When it was time for a showdown he took them down almost with his hands down. The party was no match to the state. And thus the EPRDF finally had its first strongman, almost ten years after the party’s rise to power in 1991. EPRDF’s exceptionalism was decisively cut short.

This is the genesis of EPRDF’s propensity to total conformity, both inside and outside the party, which culminated in the infamous election results of 2010. Ethiopia has thus become progressively less democratic in the second half of EPRDF’s two-decade reign.

Meles Zenawi, as opposed to the entirety that is the EPRDF, is the chief naysayer to democracy in Ethiopia. There are of course others but they are more hoopla than substance. It took only the departure of Ben Ali to realize democracy in Tunisia. It will most probably take no more in Ethiopia.

But there is more at stake for Ethiopia in how the leader leaves power. Ethiopia can not afford the kind of protracted instability Yemen had to go through over the past several months. Ethiopia desperately needs a peaceful transition to democracy. Meles knows this. It’s his most potent card to fight change.

Meles’ great disadvantage is most probably akin to those of Ben Ali and Hosni Mubabrak. Both took their underlings for granted, assuming that patriotism had no place in their thinking. It was a fateful misjudgment for them. Only rarely in history, as in Nazi Germany, does collective common sense collapse entirely. There is more, not less, patriotism in Ethiopia, both inside and outside the EPRDF, than either Tunisia or Egypt. The voices in support of peaceful change will sooner or later be heard from the midst of his support network.

But as things stand now, the only real legacies of the EPRDF are poised to be the secession of Eritrea and a stint in power for Meles Zenawi.

Is this what fifty thousand fighters (mostly teenagers) of the EPRDF died for fighting the Derg?

The answer: a big emphatic NO!

And so, in deference to the tens of thousands of young Ethiopians who died to make May 28th 1991 possible, I repeat this message from the people to PM Meles Zenawi, which I first conveyed in an open letter a few months ago:

Sir, you have wasted the two decades with which you were blessed to affect change. In place of pragmatism dogma has prevailed; in place of transparency secrecy has taken root; in place of democracy oppression has intensified; and in place of merit patronage has been rewarded.

Sir, the people want — no, need — you to resign and leave office peacefully, legally and immediately.

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