Mission impossible: Repackaging Meles Zenawi

By Eskinder Nega / August 14, 2010
 "Ethiopians can never be reconciled to a dictatorship that maintains itself by brute force alone." Prof Al
“There are times when I have to flutter an eyelid several times to make sure that all this is not a dream,” says Meles Zenawi, marveling at the miracle of EPRDF’s successful insurgency that propelled him to the helm of the nation. “In milieu of the Derg’s superiority in arms and numbers, and the distressing poverty of the people we mobilized to fight it, I am amazed that we prevailed,” ponders Meles in a new book.

The first of two books about Meles Zenawi slated for release before the New Year came out in Addis on Tuesday. “ Meles Zenawi: Childhood to Maturity” is a clever 150 pages long anthology of Meles’ select interviews -- some widely publicized, others much less so -- over the past two decades. “In the fifteen years I spent as a (government) journalist, I was unable to come across a single writing that dwells exclusively on who Meles is as a person,” laments Teku Baheta, the author, in the prologue to the book. This is his attempt “to fill a small part of the void.”

The second book, at over a thousand pages, is much more extravagantly ambitious than Teku’s modest taking and is authored by a Colonel in the army, who will also attempt to tell us, as he sees it, who the real Meles is. It is scheduled to come out just before the New Year. Both books are part of a semi-official drive to repackage the public profile of Meles Zenawi, long tattered by his public tantrums. This promises to be the ultimate Mission Impossible task; particularly in light of EPRDF’s ludicrous 99.6% “win” in this year’s elections. (The Harari regional government and Ethiopian Telecommunications covered part of the printing costs of Teku’s book. No doubt many more have clamored to ease the Colonel’s “financial burden.” Will he reveal their identities in his book?)

The book starts with Meles’ rather feeble attempt to undo damage unleashed by his mother’s innocent slip of tongue.(“ He threw whatever lay in front of him when provoked,” she had told Aser, an EPRDF controlled magazine, of Meles’ younger years. How this passed the sharp eyes of party censors is one of the great mysteries of the EPRDF. Many suspect party infighting.) An unnamed journalist asks him to comment about his mother’s remark: “Very rarely do I lose my temper,” says a clearly flabbergasted Meles. Alas! All this is on page three. Not the best of starts for a revamping effort.

She reappears on page thirty-nine, again courtesy of the same interview with Aser. What she uttered in motherly innocence is already dodging his legacy: “God save him from repeating the mistakes of past leaders.” She passed away four years before the 2005 elections. Asked to comment, Meles stands powerless before the penetrating insight of her common sense: “One person alone could not live up to those words,” he replies rather meekly. And desperate, he runs to hide behind his party: “Only the party could ensure that,” he winds up.

“In a skirmish with Derg soldiers in the vicinity of Adi Daro, a bullet scratched my head,” says Meles of his extraordinary brush with death during the insurgency. In the same breath though, he underplays the significance of the event, “the wound was not deep. My life was never in danger.” Is this false modesty? Or is it the words of a brave man? Take your pick.

Four pages later, a sensational admission suddenly surfaces. “We (the EPRDF) passed multitude of wrong decisions,” he says. But a surprise is in store. “I have no regrets (about the wrong decisions.) None of them were intentional. We thought we were doing the right thing.” Obviously, the conceit of a privileged person who has never been held accountable for his decisions. A privilege, needless to say, that is absent in democracies.

In subsequent pages, Meles speaks of the downside of life at the top(as they all say, its lonely up there), of his advent in to politics, and how he really is not indispensable to the EPRDF. “There is no scientific explanation for the indispensable person,” says Meles. (Aigaforum’s old guards: How do you respond?)

Then a jerk twenty years back in time, to 1990, when Meles was visiting Washington for the first time. “Most of the time I listen to the Amharic service of the VOA,” Meles tells Paul Henze, who interviewed him at the newly purchased EPRDF office in NW Washington D.C. Fast forward to the present, and Meles tells us somewhere in the book that he has time only for satellite television. Radio is no more part of his world; no doubt simplifying his decision to jam his once favorite station. Unfortunately, the same could not be said of the rest of the nation.

The bombshell comes roughly half way in to the book, on page sixty-two to be exact. Positioned to the left at the top, five bold words dominate the page: What is democracy to Meles? He responds in three crunchy sentences, neatly summed up in five lines. “To me democracy is the people’s partaking in shaping the policies that affect their welfare,” says Meles in the first sentence, eerily echoing the sentiment of left-leaning authoritarianism. “Whether this is facilitated by 50, or 5, or even 1 party is secondary to me,” he asserts in the second sentence, denying (a change of heart after the 2005 elections) the irrevocable linkage between pluralism and democracy. “So democracy to me is essentially enabling the people to have meaningful participation in the fundamental issues that matter to them.” This apparently is a very different person to the one Paul Henze spoke with twenty years ago. His sentiments and loyalties are visibly changed. He thinks democracy is possible without pluralism. (It would be too cynical to assume that his pose was a ruse from the very beginning.)

But he himself dreads the possibility of living under a dictatorship. (That is, one he is not leading.) Here is a journalist raising the possibility with him: If you have to choose between democracy and bread (in other words, rapid economic growth), what would be your pick, he asks him. “Death is preferable to total submission. That is why we fought (the Derg.) Whatever the (intellectual) rationalization, there are some things I can not tolerate,” says a self assured Meles. Admirable!! Would it be too bold to assume that a 99.6% electoral victory by any party other than the EPRDF is one of them, sir?

And his thoughts on Mengistu, the man he replaced? “From my perspective, he is effectively in prison. He hasn’t really escaped.” Would he ever forgive Mengistu? No. But he is not blunt about it. This time he hides behind lofty words. The impassioned Meles is no where in sight.

And finally, the people he likes and loathes: “Good or bad, I have high opinion of a person who has principles. I am not comfortable with an unprincipled person, one who vacillates; even if that person is our (EPRDF) supporter. A person who knows what he likes and dislikes, and doggedly stands up for things he believes in carries weight with me. That is the kind of person I call a good person.”

Hope that the many sycophants in Addis (and the cyberworld) will buy and read the book.

The writer, prominent Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega, has been in and out of prison several times while he was editor of one of several newspapers shut down during the 2005 crackdown. After nearly five years of tug-of-war with the 'system,' Eskinder, his award-winning wife Serkalem Fassil, and other colleagues have yet to win government permission to return to their jobs in the publishing industry. Email: serk27@gmail.com