On Meles Zenawi,Lidetu Ayalew and election 2010

By Eskinder Nega / April 23, 2010
Meles Zenawi’s mother first encounter with the media was on the day of Eritrea ’s referendum in 1993, when she was confronted by a BBC journalist in Adwa as she came out of a polling station after casting her vote. She spoke in measured words, praising the process but giving no clue as to which way she had voted. Government officials reacted with panic to her interview, giving strict instructions that it should not be translated and relayed in local languages on state media. It would be many years before her second encounter with journalists. But when she finally did so, it was to be with a friendly one; and, it was said at the time, had to be approved by Meles himself. She mostly spoke in guarded words, quite obviously aware that her words could damage Meles, whom she said “has always been her favorite child.” She spoke as all parents do about their children, and in the end, the interview did go some way in revamping the tattered public image of Meles Zenawi as aloof and alienated, its intended target.

But less said was about the troubling tendency of Meles, who left Adwa for Addis when he was only in his mid-teens, to pick up and throw the nearest object within his reach when provoked even only in jest. Several decades later, Meles’ still irrepressible rage lay bare during a press conference, suddenly provoked by a question about the jamming of the VOA, as he lashed out with incomprehensible rancor about alleged incitements to genocide.

Meles Zenawi is now in his mid 50s, two decades at the helm of the nation, at the peak of his prestige and power, and only a few weeks short of presiding over a sensitive election that he insists with increased intensity is vulnerable to conspiracies against its peaceful outcome.

Few buy into his conspiracy theory, this being only the latest in a long series, but many seriously ponder if Meles will ever be able to temper his rage, and how it will affect a post election crisis that culminates in riots, as he says it might.

How likely is a post election crisis that Meles repeatedly speaks about? The answer of many pundits is: Very likely.The opposition are adamant that a fair and free election is an impossibility this year, save, in the words of Merera Gudina, “a miracle.” The EPRDF insists otherwise, vaguely blaming the opposition in general -- but Medrek in actual fact -- of a creeping incitement (akin to the creeping coup against Haile Selassie’s government in the early '70s) that would end in riots in the immediate aftermath of the elections. The essential ingredients are all there for an inevitable political crisis.

But does this really mean that it will have to eventuate in riots as Meles mysteriously implies? Not necessarily, but only if the sense of proportion of the principal actors is well balanced. And that is exactly where the danger of Meles Zenawi, with his life long predicament of controlling his emotions, lies menacingly. Even if his oft cited conspiracies are true, he poses no less danger, temperamentally prone as he is, to impelling a minor event into a full blown national crisis.

And there is also the new side of Meles in play that was absent from his early days, shaped as the years progressed by the rigors of almost forty years in the Byzantine world of Ethiopian politics. Many of those who had worked with him closely speak of the sophistry and vanity he developed after his ascendancy to power. “He gets offended when you disagree with him,” says a source who knew him intimately of his vanity. “He sees it as a personal challenge.” Even a friend becomes an adversary then, to be defeated at any cost. “If you don’t relent fast, he will conjure fantastic diversions," says the source. Bonapartism being the most famous example. “He is always convinced that he is the smartest person in the room. He expects you to be awed, not outraged, by his wild statements and assertions.”

Ideally the person sitting in Meles’ position would be self assured, acutely aware of the power of his words (which Meles is notoriously incapable of understanding), with the humility to consider other people’s opinion even if he disagrees with them, and finally, neither too quick not to slow to make decisions.

Such is a leader that will stir a nation out of a crisis. And such a man is not Meles. Be very worried about him.

In the meantime though, election season is approaching closure, now with only fifteen days remaining for active campaigning.And news of an interesting development in the North (in Lasta) is slowly trickling down to Addis. Rumors about Lidetu Ayalew’s past and present have seriously endangered his electoral prospects in Lalibela, his birth place and one of epicenters of Ethiopia ’s Orthodox Christianity.

Lidetu, who maliciously betrayed the opposition in 2005 and is now a rather unconvincing champion of a “third way”, which he says is adopted from Europe ’s anti-establishment ritual, has generally earned high marks for his oratory in this year’s election debates. But few pundits believe that this has translated into any significant support for his party in the cities, where his “credibility deficit” is deemed to be too large to be overcome even by his considerable oratorical prowess. But the countryside, where most of his constituency lies, is subject to much debate, with some pundits convinced that his performance in the debate will propel him to victory in light of the token competition he faces from the EPRDF (which wants him to win) and no significant alternative from the opposition.

But an unexpected issue has loomed that seriously jeopardizes his chances, according to locals. Many of his devoutly Orthodox Christians constituents (who constitute almost 100 percent) are incensed by rumors of his conversion to Protestantism (Pente), which is still taboo in the Amhara region as a whole. Lidetu has denied the allegation, but considerable damage has already been done by the rumors, and reversing his fortunes seems to be an uphill battle for him and his EPRDF allies.

“He could lose," said a local I met in Addis.

If he does, his numerous critics around the country will at least have one reason to celebrate.

The writer, 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 in the limbo, 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