Response to Meles Zenawi

By Eskinder Nega / May 29, 2010
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Imprinted in popular imagination is the image of Meles Zenawi quivering, focused, and clearly at one of his heights of oratory as he ranted against the Algiers Technical Arrangement in one of his most -- he has several -- press conferences. “We will not relent until Shabiya (the Eritrean government) leaves our land without any precondition. No negotiation before then. We reject the Technical Arrangement put forth by the international community to avert war.”

Later, when his party’s leadership imploded, which pitted the core senior leadership against him, his ardent allies came to his defense by citing his brilliant performance at the press conference depicted above. “It tipped the balance of public opinion in favor of the war,” they said, refuting his opponents charge that he is intuitively inclined against patriotism.

What his defenders did not say, but which he was to admit at a future date, was that he did not believe in what he had said. He was on the record (secretly) in support of the Technical Arrangement. He was in effect lying when he passionately raged against it at the press conference. Of course, his narrative is slightly different, insisting that he did it as a “disciplined solider” of his party; since his duty is to express his party’s, not his, perspective. That may very well be true, at least from the perspective of his Leninist roots. But what has lingered in the back of the public’s mind ever since has been the passion with which he spoke in favor of something he did not believe in -- the power of his pretense.

Meles is unquestionably an intelligent man. It is unfathomable for anyone to seriously ponder whether he actually believes that the credibility of Ethiopia’s electoral process hangs only on the process and not the outcome -- though admittedly that is the case in some other countries. The dynamics of Ethiopia’s history, and not merely its distant era but no less its violence-ridden recent past, is dead against the one-party-dominated democracy in ethnically and religiously homogenous Japan that Meles oft cites to rationalize the dominance of his party. Or is Meles convinced, as Francis Fukuyama was immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall, that history has ended with the triumph of the EPRDF, and historical cleavages do not matter any more? That they have -- to borrow a renowned Marxist phrase - withered away, paving the way for one party to garner 99% of parliamentary seats in multi-ethnic and multi-religious Ethiopia?

Very unlikely. Perhaps some in his party’s top leadership may think so, but not sophisticated Meles. He is far too smart, far too well read, and more notably, far too cynical. The Meles Zenawi that was citing Japan and Sweden to journalists on Wednesday in support of his party’s outrageous margin of victory is the same Meles that years ago publicly tore apart the merits of the Technical Arrangement that he cherished in secret. The only difference is that his power of speech is somewhat diminished this time. Asked by a journalist how he feels about the absence of the opposition in parliament, he replied offhandedly, unable to find words for the lengthy rhetoric that he is fond of: “I feel nothing.”

But feel he does, as was evident when he responded to another journalist who had queried about an election related issue. “We thought we would get anything between 50 and 75 % of the vote,” he said, with a tone that was less sure and firm than usual. “We neither projected nor expected to get 99%,” he added, almost thinking out aloud about his overzealous cadres, who have now pushed him beyond the pale in the international arena, where he was until Monday - the day the “election results” were announced -- a rising star.

And for the first time in two decades it seems that his relationship with one of the powerful actors in the international arena, the Americans, is poised to suffer -- though it is not clear to what extent. Meles thinks he has the edge, though. “Ours is a two-way relationship,” he said at Wednesday’s press conference, confident as ever. “Our relationship is not reliant on the interest of only one party.” But he may be overestimating how much the Americans continue to value the information they acquire about Somalia from his -- in the words of the Economist magazine -- “bare knuckled security.” Johnnie Carson, for example, the low-key Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, acknowledged that the election was “calm and peaceful”, but used uncharacteristically strong words to highlight his government’s displeasure: “We note with some degree of remorse that the elections were not up to international standards.” The State Department was even bolder: “Steps to be taken to level the playing field (for the opposition) will influence the future direction of U.S.- Ethiopian relations.” Not exactly the words of a party that is worried about the effects of a severed relationship. But Meles promised “not to grovel to get aid” on Wednesday, a message he delivered in exactly the same words to the EU, too.

“Our understanding was that EU Observers were here to report only on the raw facts of the election, which they did well,” said Meles to an Ethiopia journalist who asked about the observers’ preliminary report. “But like we feared they have transgressed their mandate, and are dabbling in politics.” And he went on to speculate about the mission’s motive. “They are trying to create room for political meddling in the future," he said conspiratorially. Nonetheless, he is confident that his relationship with the EU, which, contrary to the precedent set over the past six decades all over Africa, believes that aid is crucial in reducing poverty, as opposed to rapid economic development, will not suffer. “The EU Foreign Minister has sent us a message, and she assures us the relationship will continue,” said Meles. Which way the relationship goes, however, is also reliant on how the opposition is perceived, say diplomats. “A strong and viable opposition is a strong incentive for us to consider change,” said one of them to me.

Meles’ legendary temper, while mostly subdued on Wednesday, flared briefly, ignited by a question about Anna Gomez, EU’s chief observer in the 2005 elections. “(Berman) and Anna Gomez are fundamentally different. Anna Gomez is a liar. I have some respect for this year’s observers. I have absolutely no respect for her," he lashed out at her, his voice slightly raised. “She is now openly advocating armed struggle as the only viable means to bring change to Ethiopia. She has become a war-monger.” Needless to say, a charge that is utterly fallacious.

Little noticed, but of significance, was the question he was asked about the opposition’s alleged result in Tigary. “They got more than I expected,” he said, no doubt a bit petrified. The non-EPRDF vote, allegedly about 17,000 out of a total of 116,000 in the preliminary results, is proportionately more than the opposition’s alleged results in Oromia and Amhara. Perhaps the clearest message from the electorate -- suppressed though it is -- that EPRDF’s hegemony is resented, and menacingly, brewing just below the surface.

But the bombshell of the press conference was to come when he was asked if he foresees the day when the EPRDF becomes an opposition party in his lifetime. (He is in his mid 50s, and expects to live several decades more.) “I can’t be sure,” he said, calmly and seriously. I will spare you the absurd rhetoric that ensued. And here is where I think a citizen’s response to Meles, from me, one of tens of millions of Ethiopians who aspire to nothing more than see the day when our votes will not be stolen in our lifetime, is warranted: You will be mightily surprised in your lifetime, Sir!!! Mark my words!!!

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