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The Meles Mystery

To many Ethiopians the sudden disappearance of Prime Minister Zenawi is a source of joy and excited expectation, for his die-hard supporters apprehension no doubt and concern for their leader. Is he dead they ask, or perhaps critically ill, has he run away, finally overwhelmed by guilt and shame at the way he and his ministerial cronies have treated the people of Ethiopia, since they took power from the communist Derg twenty one years ago. Or is he recovering from illness peacefully on some isolated retreat.

The Prime Minister has not been seen since his last outing at the G20 summit, in Mexico on 19th June, where he looked a wee shadow of his usual Italian suited self. Such prolonged absence is unusual for a man who revels in performing his supporting part upon the international stage of political propaganda. He has failed to appear at a series of high-profile events since June, including the opening of the African Union summit in Addis Ababa in July.

So where is the revolutionary democrat? It has been repeatedly reported that Meles has received treatment in the Saint-Luc hospital in Brussels for a stomach complaint, a suitably vague description as to mean nothing. The Washington Post (8/8/2012) affirms “Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, the rebel-turned-technocrat who has led Ethiopia since 1991, is sick.” The Guardian (8/8/2012) relays “the Egyptian state information service reporting that Meles underwent surgery in Germany.” They continue “It is a mystery what has happened to Meles and not even his own ministers know his fate,” an exiled Ethiopian source said.” According to a ‘government source’, (no name or status is given) speaking to the Guardian, Meles is on holiday, well it is the summer after all, and is recovering from an illness. There is no mention of where he is holidaying or why he has not personally issued a statement, reassured his followers, who are no doubt worried, and silenced the internal tussling within the EPRDF, that is undoubtedly taking place.

Secrecy smoke and mirrors

Ethiopians are notoriously secretive and distrustful, the great Polish journalist Rysard Kapuscinski in his classic work ‘The Emperor’, regarding the reign of the last Ethiopian Emperor, Haile Selasie and his inner circle, states “the Ethiopians are deeply distrustful and found it hard to believe in the sincerity of my intentions,” elsewhere he goes further claiming that Ethiopians are the most “secretive people on Earth.” Having lived in Addis Ababa and worked with Ethiopians for a number of years, my experience certainly bears out Kapuscinski’s comments reinforced by René Lefort, author of ‘Ethiopia. An heretical revolution?’ when he states “given the history of Ethiopia, where secrecy is a cardinal virtue”

The Sellasie years were ones shrouded in deceit and extreme secrecy, all discussions and decisions between the Emperor and his ministers took place verbally. There are no documents with Sellasie’s signature, making it possible for him to deny involvement in any policy, to adopt a number of positions on any issue and to change his mind based on political expediency at any point in time. Kapuscinski relates, “Though he ruled for half a century, not even those closest to him knew what his signature looked like.” At meetings the Monty Python sounding ‘Minister of The Pen’, recorded the Emperors orders and instructions, whose words were often muffled and ambiguous, allowing for non-commitment on issues and the creation of fear amongst his ‘court’.

Image and social status is of great importance within Ethiopian society. In 1973, whilst hundreds of thousands starved, Halie Selasie and his government denied that a famine was taking place in the northeast of Ethiopia, known as the ‘Unknown Famine’ and lied to ITV journalist David Dimbleby, who reported the situation in Wollo that Sellasie and his cronies had attempted to cover up. Food was in fact available in the Wollo region, but was transported to the capital Addis Ababa, where it could command higher prices at market, all under the direction of the Sellasie regime. The revelation to the World of the famine hastened his downfall and he was deposed in 1974 by a military junta, led by Mengistu Haile Mariam, who had him suffocated to death a year later.

Another example of the secretive/duplicitous tendency of the Ethiopian people, creating a false or misleading image was the way Emperor Menelik II death in December 1913 was kept quiet. He died and was buried without any public announcements after suffering a stroke and being unable to govern for several years. And this for and of a man regarded by many as the last true Emperor.

The Meles way

There is no freedom of the press in Ethiopia; in fact there is little or no freedom in any area of social or political life. Express dissent at governments policies and face certain imprisonment, write articles critical of Zenawi and his regime and expect to be charged with treason or some such fictitious crime and sentenced as many have been, often in absentia, to life imprisonment. The Economist (7/8/2012) reports “Dissident or investigative journalists have been jailed or driven into exile. In July a prominent online journalist, Eskinder Nega, was sentenced to 18 years in prison.”  Political opposition is all but banned under the Zenawi administration.

All media is state owned, so too the sole telecommunication company. As well as the major printing press Barhanena Selam, who recently told the weekly newspaper Feteh, who planned to publish a story quoting BBC and others discussing the where about and health of Meles, that the government had ordered that week’s edition (22/7/2012) of the paper, about 30,000 copies, to be blocked on grounds of inciting national insecurity and endangering the government and the public. Such is the degree of media control.

Accurate, uncensored information about anything is therefore impossible to find within the Ethiopian news sources, who are to nobody’s surprise towing the EPRDF party line on the missing premier – ‘Meles is on holiday, recovering from illness.’  ESAT the independent satellite television station based in Holland, have reported various accounts of Meles death (30/7/2012), misquoting it appears the Belgium based International Crisis Group, who denied giving any such information. It is it seems a maze of invisibility cloaks, secrets and deceit, a drama that would one feels not surprise Kapuscinski in the least.

The EPRDF under Meles Zenawi has been in power since 1991, he has been Prime Minister since 1995, after taking the mantle of President the previous four years. Two stolen corrupt elections in 2005 and 2010, in which European observers declared the election unfair. The regime is a dictatorship, trampling on human rights and restricting all freedoms, selling off vast tracks of prime Ethiopian farmland to international corporations for a few dollars, displacing hundreds of thousands of indigenous people in the process, who are corralled into villagization developments. Land sold is cultivated to grow staples not for the needy people of Ethiopia where some 13 million are food insecure, but for the industrial farmers home ‘market’.

Western complacency

The west believes, as it did with Egypt’s President Mubarak, that it has an ally in Prime Minister Zenawi. He allows American drones to be stationed on Ethiopian soil, and acts when ordered to by the imperial master. In 2006 Ethiopian troops invaded Somalia, at the behest of George W. Bush, who sought to subdue the activities of the Al Shabab militia (Islamist group). The deal is clear and predictable: Meles allows Ethiopia to be an outpost of the American military, in exchange for the west turning a blind eye to extensive human rights abuses in the country. As the Financial Times states “western donors and allies have been willing to overlook human rights abuses and a lack of political freedom at home.” Human rights abuses that destroy lives too many to count, but trouble not ‘western donors’, concerned only to extend their reach into all corners of the world

Around $3 billion a year is given to Ethiopia in development aid by the US, Europe, Britain and The World bank, all of which incidentally is paid to or through government agencies. The EPRDF misuse and politicize the funds, allocating donations based on political affiliation and not need, including emergency humanitarian aid.

For western donor countries the heavy hand of a tyrant, that inhibits and controls, offers stability, or so those fearful of freedom will say, as the Financial Times (9/08/2012) comments, “Strongmen in power can be useful allies. They make decisions fast and can impose their wills.” Not withstanding the impact on the people of their hasty ideologically driven decisions and shortsighted actions.

Time for change

If Zenawi is unable to continue in office, and according to Rene Lefort in Open Democracy (8/8/2012) “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.” should the constitution be respected, parliament would pick a successor. Would his passing make any difference, ushering in change in the way the EPRDF rules Ethiopia, for in the absence of any credible, well-organized, coherent opposition they are sure to continue in power. Will freedom social justice and democracy flow into the country unrestricted, gently healing the deep wounds of the past 20 years, or will another in the mould of the repressive, brutal Zenawi step forward to continue his legacy of suppression and human rights abuse. One suspects the latter would take place, sadly Ethiopia has lacked good governance for generations.

The ERDF and its leader Meles Zenawi, whilst publically espousing democratic values and signing all manner of human rights laws into their constitution and federal code – to be summarily ignored, are idealists, adhering firmly to a version of ‘Revolutionary Democracy’. At the core of which is a centralized controlling dogma, that believes in social uniformity and the abolition of independent thought. Human Rights Watch (HRW) in their report on Ethiopia ‘Development without Freedom,’ quote Meles describing his version of the ideology, “individuals will start to think alike and all persons will cease having their own independent outlook. In this order, individual thinking becomes simply part of collective thinking because the individual will not be in a position to reflect on concepts that have not been prescribed by Revolutionary Democracy.”

Time for freedom and justice

Perhaps Meles Zenawi is dead or and one feels this more likely, recuperating on holiday. Alive or not, his passing is long overdue, should a man who holds such divisive inhibiting ideals, disregards human rights laws and indeed Ethiopian domestic laws, and seems to care little for the people of Ethiopia hold political office at all. It is time for change within Ethiopia. The current regime locked as they are into a repressive narrow ideology show no signs of relaxing the controls exerted upon the people, in fact since 2009 State repression has intensified.

It is Prime Minister Meles Zenawi that leads the EPRDF government and dictates policy. Governance is highly centralized, The Economist (7/7/2012) states “power has still rested with a clutch of Mr. Meles’s comrades from his home area of Tigray in northern Ethiopia,” and according to a former American ambassador to Ethiopia, David Shinn cited in The Economist, “this hard core, including the army’s chief of staff, General Samora Younis, retains a “paranoid and secretive leadership style.” Echoes of Sellasie perhaps and further support for Kapuscinski’s view.

The people’s time

One doubts a man like Meles Zenawi would be a great lose, either to the African continent or to the people of Ethiopia. On the contrary the majority of Ethiopians would rejoice, for under his leadership they are controlled and suffer, have no voice and cry out to be heard, are entrapped and yearn to be free: free to express themselves, to gather and speak openly, free to build a just and open society. Free to be.

Graham Peebles is director of the Create Trust. He can be reached at: graham@thecreatetrust.org

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Graham Peebles is a British freelance writer and charity worker. He set up The Create Trust in 2005 and has run education projects in Sri Lanka, Ethiopia and India. 

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