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Sword of Damocles
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 30 - 08 - 2012

Meles Zenawi's iron grip and rather ignominious demises of an enigmatic infection is a study in how to contain a crisis in a nation reliant on one man's political success, contends Gamal Nukrumah
"At times one remains faithful to a cause only because its opponents do not cease to be insipid" -- Friedrich Neiettzsche
Meles Zenawi, political cognoscenti, was an adroit expert in the science of government and the art of politics and was accordingly accorded authority and status by his African and international peers and the Ethiopian public at large.
The war on terror had become Zenawi's signature phrase. He adamantly refused to reach a modus vivendi with his with his enemies. However, he reluctantly curbed his brawling instincts out of, he professed, altruistic motives. Ethiopia was divided over almost everything when Zenawi assumed power in 1991, even though he actually took office on 23 August 1995. Habitually restrained, his latently bellicose nature surfaced when a decade earlier he launched a stinging critique of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) in an oeuvre entitled The Eritrea Struggle: From Where to Where.
It would have been naïve to imagine that Zewnawi did not foresee the secession of Eritrea. Ironic since Zenawi's own mother, Alemash Gebreleul was Eritrean. Nevertheless, the haggling over Eritrean independence in 1993 did not last long. For all the bickering, the two men -- Eritrean President Isaias Afeworki and Zenawi -- had much in common. That was a worry, given that the pair fought tooth and nail over almost everything.
From an early age, Zenawi was a partisan. His father, Zenawi Asresu sent him to the historic Queen of Sheba elementary school in his hometown of Adowa, scene of the famed Battle of Adowa fought in March 1896 between Imperial Ethiopia and the invading Italians who were routed. Never was a European colonial power so humiliatingly defeated at the hands of an African army. Some 7,000 Italian troops were killed, 1,500 Italians injured and 3,000 taken as prisoners of war. Perhaps that explains why Zenawi had a tendency to view politics as trench warfare.
He was born in less humble circumstances than his predecessor Mengistu Haile Mariam, but he had to overcome adversity of a different sort. Zenawi was an ethnic Tigrayan in a country where ethnic Amhara held sway. Given such a handicap, he seemed more comfortable twisting the arms of wavering colleagues in the days of guerilla warfare and after attaining absolute power he scoured the rule book for new stratagems and couldn't care less about courting public opinion.
Zenawi did not like to grandstand on television, partly because he was a rather drab speaker. Though not particularly camera shy, he loathed being publicly and scathingly criticised abroad. The worst incident was when he was confronted with an Ethiopian Satellite Television journalist Abebe Gellaw who called Zenawi a dictator. "We need freedom more than food," yelled the Ethiopian journalist much to Zenawi's embarrassment and consternation. He came up with an ingenious face-saving formula that failed to defuse the fracas, and he bowed his head in silence, obviously physically shaken.
Sailing the seven seas is old hat. Breaking the waves was a sport the late Ethiopian leader indulged in. There have been moments when Zenawi, leader of a sprawling landlocked country, might have recognised this. Eritrea's independence took the wind out of Ethiopia's sails.
The gravity of this predicament seems to elude Ethiopian policymakers. The fundamental fact is that Zenawi started out his political career as a Tigrayan nationalist freedom fighter and ended it as an Ethiopian nationalist leader.
He was born Legesse Zenawi, but changed his first name to Meles in honour of his mentor Meles Tekle who was killed by the Communist Derg. That story retold has become something of a national legend, a nationalist narrative that now standard fare for Ethiopian schoolchildren and ruling party bigwigs alike.
He himself was methodical, but not business-minded, he left barter and business transactions to Azeb Mesfin his wife, and comrade-in-arms during the armed struggle when the both fought the Communist Derg under Menguistu Haile Mariam under the banner of the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) established in 1974. Azeb Mesfin, Zenawi's widow, headed many mega corporations and was promptly dubbed "Queen Mega".
The euphemism now lies buried beneath the rubble of reality. Zenawi's legacy is that he followed his party, the TPLF in lockstep. Change is the mantra of the moment in Ethiopia. Moreover, this mantra has metamorphosed into an existential struggle between good and evil, order and chaos, national unity and disintegration. He was much criticised for his iron grip on the country. Nevertheless, his iron-fisted rule has often made a difference between a new decent back into civil war and a slow but hopeful climb towards stability.
The intrinsic arguments for democratisation are stronger than they have ever been in Ethiopia's modern history. The question uppermost in the minds of Ethiopians is whether democratisation will lead eventually to disintegration.
Ethnicity, too, carries a great weight even though it is often exaggerated. In a freer Ethiopia, all the gaps in the official account of the country's ethnic identity predicament will have to be ironed out and debated and filled in.
Certain certitudes will not change, however, in the post-Zenawi Ethiopia. The special relationship with the West, for instance, will no doubt endure even after Zenawi's passing. The West turned a blind eye to Zenawi's alleged human rights violations at home, essentially because he was a pillar in their war on terror in the Horn of Africa. Zenawi made Ethiopia indispensable to Washington's war on terror.
From foot soldier to premier, Zenawi for his part did not give in to the hotheads in his party. All this hints at a certain degree of pragmatism. He was prone to indulge in procedural manoeuvres, and was reluctant to let the lights out.
"Judge no one happy until his life is over" was a recurrent theme in ancient Greek and Roman philosophical writing. Dionysius, the tyrant of the celebrated Greek city state in Sicily, Syracuse, was fabulously wealthy and extravagantly ostentatious in lifestyle. Dionysius had court flatterers who sole purpose in life was to fawn upon the tyrant. So when one of the court sycophants, Damocles, expressed a desire to experience the conspicuous lifestyle of Dionysius, the tyrant readily obliged.
Being feted and entertained, a sword suddenly dangled hovering over his head much to Damocles horror. And, it was explained to him that tyrants are haunted by the spectre of horrific assassination. And, hence the saying the "Sword of Damocles". I am not suggesting that Zenawi was assassinated, poisoned or otherwise bumped off.
What is curious, however, is that the cause of his death, officially an infection, is a closely guarded state secret. Why, and how? Only time will tell.
Ask Ethiopians what they think about Zenawi's legacy and the multiplicity of opinions will be matched only by the ethnic and religious diversity of the country itself. Some Ethiopians find Zenawi's human rights record odious, others admire the economic foundation he laid for the country once on of Africa's poorest. Yet his detractors point out that he detained 30,000-50,000 civilians -- including leading opposition figures, journalists and civil society pioneers. Few Ethiopians, however, respond with a blank stare to the political and economic legacy of their late leader. Ethiopia under Zenawi jumped back from the brink of disaster.
Under Zenawi, Ethiopia experienced three devastating droughts and attendant famines -- in 1999/200, in 2002/2003, and again in 2009/2010.
Unemployment and the widely perceived lack of democracy and human rights violations hace taken the sheen off the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF)'s claim to be the saviour of Ethiopia.
The EPRDF under Zenawi's leadership has weathered many storms. Yet, will the EPRDF survive Zenawi? Haile Mariam Desalegne, Zenawi's successor is an ethnic Wolayta, one of the southern Ethiopian Omotic-speaking peoples. This is a groundbreaking development and must be regarded as a positive aspect of the Zenawi legacy. This is the first time that a southern Ethiopian assumes the top office in the country. It is an unprecedented political development replete with political symbolism.
Southerners were previously politically peripheralised and it was unheard of that a southern would be Ethiopia's Prime Minister. For most Ethiopians Desalegne's premiership is a sigh of relief. The larger ethnic groups such as the Amhara and the Oromo have long competed for and monopolised political power. The Amhara in particular have been politically dominant, but it is one of Zenawi's political coup de grace that has enabled a southerner to lead the country.
This is a movement that will draw any grievance, valid or otherwise, to its cause and will not be satisfied by anything other than a fully-fledged democracy.
This play on dualism that simultaneously rejects stark, black-and-white conclusions is perhaps summed up in Zenawi's famous keynote address during the Africa Partnership Forum in Addis Ababa in 2009. "I am sure you will agree with me that we Africans have contributed virtually nothing to global warming and there is precious little that we can do to curb it," Zenawi told delegates at the special session on climate change. "But we have no intention to free ride�ê� Africa is a green field for investment because it is the least developed region in the world. By partnering with us on green development, the developed world could create a more robust market and overall environment for the mitigation efforts that it alone must shoulder," Zenawi extrapolated. His espousal of "green policy" transformed Ethiopia's hitherto underdeveloped agrarian sector.
Zenawi received international accolades for his agrarian reform policies. United States President Barack Obama remarked that Zenawi earned his own personal admiration "for his desire to lift millions of Ethiopians out of poverty".
It is hard to draw general conclusions about Ethiopia's political future without Zenawi. He was lauded "for his lifelong sontribution to Ethiopia's development, particularly his unyielding commitment to Ethiopia's poor," Obama extrapolated.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was "saddened" and expressed the hope that "Ethiopia will peacefully navigate the political transition according to its constitution".
So tight was the late Ethiopian leader's grip over his party and Ethiopia, and so abrupt was his departure, that it was never going to be easy for the country's ruling clique to rally around a single successor.
The upshot is an extremely fluid political picture in one of the most important countries on the continent. The emphasis of Zenawi's political conviction is that Ethiopians need to be inculcated with a powerful sense of nationalism.
The ruling EPRDF is an alliance of four main political parties -- the Oromo People's Democratic Organisation (OPDO); the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM); the South Ethiopian People's Democratic Front (SEPDF); and the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF).
In so far as Ethiopian officials have read the runes of Zenawi's overall approach to foreign policy, they have concluded that the basic tenets of the late leader's foreign policy must remain the same, unchanged. And, these include Ethiopian viewpoints on the exploitation of its water resources, and especially the Nile.
It is hard to draw general conclusions about Ethiopia's post-Zenawi's Nile waters policy. It is in this context that Egypt dispatched a high-powered delegation for the funerals of Meles Zenawi and Abune Paulos, the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. Prime Minister Hisham Qandil and the caretaker Coptic Pope Bakhomious headed the Egyptian delegation. While, some Egyptian water experts insisted that Zenawi's passing would hardly change the status quo as far as the sharing of the Nile waters.
Ethiopia without Zenawi will continue to be a pivotal partner of Egypt since three of the four major tributaries to the Nile, Egypt's lifeline, emanate from the Ethiopian Highlands -- the Blue Nile, Sobat and Atbara rivers.
All the more reason to put flesh on its bones. Egypt is obliged to follow more closely political developments in Ethiopia. Incidentally, Ethiopia's African neighbours do. "The Ethiopian state is very fragile," warned Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga. "I don't know if they have sufficiently prepared for succession," Odinga extrapolated.
A key question is whether a freer political climate in a post-Zenawi Ethiopia will prevail. And whether such political reforms will lead to challenges to the dominant secularist discourse in the multi-religious country. Ethiopian Muslims are now a critically important political constituency, even though Ethiopia's Muslims are divided along ethnic and linguistic lines. A sizeable number of the Oromo people, Ethiopia's most populous ethnic group, are Muslim. Even a minority of the Amhara and Tigrayans, traditionally inhabiting the Heartlands of Christian Ethiopia are Muslim. The Afar and Somalis are predominantly Muslim and so are the residents of the city-state of Harar, who speak their own Semitic language, closely aligned to Arabic and to ancient South Arabian languages.
Throughout, Zenawi understood that militant Islamic fundamentalism is not a single phenomenon and cannot be defeated by a single strategy. As peddled, for example, by ethnic Somali separatists in Ethiopia, it exploits perceived grievances and hopes of re-unification with fellow Somali compatriots in neighbouring Somalia. Yet Zenawi understood that the Somali clans in Ogaden are disunited and he recognised that he could exploit their disunity to his full advantage. Doubtless, there was scope for further tweaking of the tensions among the restless ethnic Somalis of Ethiopia.
Zenawi's attachment to the federal paradigm is good enough reason for his successors to sign up. He redrew the administrative map of Ethiopia and the nine regions of the country are now based along ethnic linguistic lines. Language and tone do signify a great deal in Ethiopia. It is for this particular reason that Zenawi laid the foundations of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.
Such a wide-ranging package has critics just about everywhere in Ethiopia and abroad. Ethnic identity is not the only challenge facing Ethiopia. Economic woes abound. Youth unemployment remains alarmingly high and is estimated to be as high as 70 per cent. Ethiopia is unique in Africa in that it has no private sector to speak of and no patent laws.
The EPRDF has provided a unifying thread for ethnic, linguistic and religious groups across the country, but in Ethiopia language has long driven policy.
In a stinging critique of Zenawi, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel once dismissed the late Ethiopian leader as an "economic illiterate". Former United States Ambassador to Ethiopia David Shinn regretted that Zenawi's political ideology is based on the dictum "it is my way or the highway". Next to this pithy reminder of Zenawi's shortcomings were much Western praise and adulation.
It wasn't always thus. Despite the rocky start, Zenawi's strategy was a slow, incremental move towards a greater political freedom.
Freedom of expression is a priority, as Bulcha Demeska, founder of the Federalist Democratic Movement, one of the largest and better organised Ethiopian opposition parties declared.
Temesgen Desalegn, no relation to the current Ethiopian Prime Minister Haile Mariam Desalegne, editor of the independent weekly newspaper Feteh, recently closed by government order now languishes in the notorious Kaliti Prison. He was found guilty of contempt of court and according to Amnesty International was framed with defamation charges for publishing columns that were "detrimental to the country's national security".
There is more to this than words, of course. Anything that jeopardises the freedom of expression will inevitably compromise the legacy of Zenawi. His last public appearance was at the G20 summit in Mexico in June. He did not look particularly unwell. And, Addid Ababa is rife with rumours about the "rare infection" and "undisclosed disease" that Zenawi succumbs to.
In a country sated by centuries of political intrigue, the powers that be in Addis Abab realised that it was more powerful to conceal the truth than to reveal it. the result was whispers of HIV/AIDS and poison -- the iconic figure was supposed to be the victim of prevarication, a peril as potent as any in Ethiopia's history.
So tight was the late Ethiopian leader's grip over his party and Ethiopia, and so abrupt was his departure, that it was never going to be easy for the country's ruling clique to rally around a single successor.
The upshot is an extremely fluid political picture in one of the most important countries on the continent. Few things give more succour to political chaos and Machiavellian machinations than a leaderless land.
Even the most cursory examination of the political agendas that motivate Ethiopia's ruling clique says otherwise.
But there is a dangerous line here that must not be crossed. Indispensable Kebele officials wield tremendous power in contemporary Ethiopia. They recommend referrals to secondary health care and schools, for instance. The Kebele officials also determine eligibility for food assistance and provide access to state-distributed resources such as seeds and fertilizers prized commodities in rural areas. The Kebele officials are bound to survive Zenawi.
Whatever the motives of the new rulers of Ethiopia -- and I suspect they are mixed -- there is much to be said for an attempt to change the status quo.
This is a testing time for Ethiopia, but the country's trying moment will inevitably come to pass.
The reality is that the gap between announcing and completing a rights issue is dangerous. As it is, it gives rise for rumours to flourish.
The future may, God forbid, become very bleak. Breakaway regions are a proability. Two rumours frequently parroted in Ethiopia and abroad. Some at least of these are susceptible to political solutions if they can be disentangled from the old authoritarian mould.
It is easy to fault the regime of the late Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. Addis Ababa's political elite reckons it has learned the "Mengistu lesson". And, there are lessons to be drawn from Zenawi's rule, too. The precise rights and responsibilities of the Ethiopian people are also unclear in practice even though on paper they are properly outlined. Zenawi's policies laid the foundations for Ethiopia's contemporary economy and political administration. Will they outlive him?
There is no answer to Ethiopia's regional concerns. Hearts and mind must be won, not just bloody confrontations. The plans have already changed somewhat from the version first mooted by Zenawi when he came to power in 1991. To an outsider the changes in the corridors of power in Addis Ababa might seem like a tiny morsel, but it is vital in moving democratisation discussions on.
This raises the final point. Zenawi was always ready to consider political accommodation, but with no room for public candour. His most vociferous opponents have not always learnt to keep the peace.


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