Re-writing TPLF's history

By Eskinder Nega / September 4, 2010
The much anticipated book about Meles Zenawi, 'Meles Zenawi and the Voyage of the TPLF' (Meles Zenawi ena YeHewat Yetegel Guzo), hit the main thoroughfares of Addis early Monday morning, with vendors confidently displaying dozens of copies for passersby to pickup. (Up to 5% of EPRDF’s 5.6 million “members” are Addis Ababans.) It was officially launched on Saturday, at a gala event in one of the upscale hotels in Addis, presided over by no less a figure than the nation’s almost centenarian President, Lt. Girma Welde-Giorgis. An assortment of Cabinet Ministers with sober expressions, and a who’s who list of Meles’ wide-eyed “admirers” sat throughout the ceremony mesmerized by the expectation of tales that will establish their Prime Minister’s god-like status. They left disappointed, though. Most were jaded rather than inspired. The culprit: unimaginative organizers, many said.

But this is not to say excitement was totally absent. In a deed worthy of the Guinness world book of records, for example, one of Meles’ “admirers” bought 40,000 thousand copies, according to media reports. At 60 birr apiece, that comes out to a cool 240,000 birr; a fortune, needless to say, not only to most of the nation’s citizens, but also to many Westerners teetering on the verge of a double-dip recession.

And thus the question: Is Meles really worth it?

Eyasu Mengesha, the author, an ex-colonel turned businessman, who tells us in the opening pages of the book, “(the TPLF) is everything I am,” indubitably thinks so: “Meles is a great and respected leader of our country,” he informs us with evident conviction. But he is mute as to exactly how great he is in relation to the more than 300 leaders of Ethiopia’s past; perhaps, saving it for one of his two upcoming books under the same title. (He has written more than a thousand pages, but will wisely release it in three parts. This is the first book.)

For now, he tells us what has for long troubled him. “I am alarmed by the belief of some of the youth which diminishes (the historical significance of) Meles to “a post-victory pseudo-hero,” confides Eyasu. Thus the need to redeem a misjudged leader; a crusade really, to absolve a messiah in his own time.

Meles’ story lies within the history of the TPLF, begins Eyasu reasonably. So be prepared for an elaborate account of TPLF’s history. But his undeclared intention, part of a complex scheme to create Meles’ personality cult, is also clear from the first pages: a classic revisionist re-interpretation of history.

This venture to re-write TPLF’s history, while droll for its cerebral and literary pretensions (but respectable for an Ethiopian Colonel), is a serious reminder of EPRDF’s slide towards the politics of personality cult; which had its initiation in the post 2005 election repressions, and is now gaining momentum in the aftermath of the 2010 elections.

And somehow, for reasons that are utterly incomprehensible, the re-invention of Meles starts with his ethnicity. The story starts in Adwa, northern Ethiopia, 20 kilometers from Ethiopia’s spiritual epicenter, Axum, where Meles was born, “some say in 1954, others in 1955, but according to the authoritative account of his father, 1953,’ writes Eyasu. And then he goes on to tell us of his grandfather, Mr Asres Tesema, a feudal lord, Dejazmatch, and a loyal functionary in Haile-Selassie’s government; and of his father, Mr Zenawi, “a noted progressive both in attire and outlook (in a small town.)” So far so good. His mother, Mrs Alemash Gebre-Leul, appears next. But not a word of her personal particulars, which is a page long for her husband. Nothing about where she was born, of her parents, her upbringing, her education, all things we learn about her husband in the preceding two pages. Her Eritrean ethnicity and origin is obviously taboo in the mythologized version of Meles. A “pure” Meles has apparently been reckoned necessary. Why not then create a new him by the power of collective amnesia? Eyasu, for one, has already dutifully expunged all thoughts about her ethnicity. Others need only follow his example.

Then follows the fairy-tale of Meles’ early years; the superb marriage of his dotting parents, and Meles as the ideal child growing up: incapable of doing wrong; lovable; innocently playful; intelligent, and (get ready for this) religiously devout. But no mention of the irrepressible rages his mother publicly spoke about. In short, as Eyasu describes him, Meles was the faultless child that every parent dreams about. Not even North Korea’s “Dear Leader” Kim Jond-il , a certified child prodigy in his early years, according to the nation’s Communist party, had a more perfect childhood and adolescence. But deprived of the eccentricities and shortcomings that are essential human attributes, the portrait of Meles that emerges is jarringly mechanical and unhuman. It is impossible to emotionally connect to this romanticized Meles. He has been stripped of his humanity.

TPLF’s genesis lies in the Tigrayan National Organiztion (Mahbere Gesgesti Behere Tigray, Magbet), established by Addis Ababa University students in 1974. Eyasu grudgingly acknowledges that Meles was not one of the broadly admired founders. Nor was he one of the renowned eleven, almost all of them members of the Tigrayan National Organiztion, who formally launched the TPLF and its armed struggle on 18 February 1975 (Yekatit 11, 1967 by the Ethiopian calendar) in Dedebit, 900 kilometers north of Addis, the seat of government. Accorded official recognition as the birth-date of the organization, Yekatit 11 (February 18) has been colorfully celebrated every year since 1976; and since 1991, for the past twenty years, is a regional holiday in Tigray.

“A SERIOUS MISTAKE!” shrieks Eyasu.

This is no cry of an irrational man. He has a perfectly plausible reason. The idealized Meles must somehow be brought to center stage in the saga of TPLF’s genesis. His legacy -- his myt -- could not be complete otherwise. History must be re-written.

Eyasu concedes that the armed struggle had indeed begun on Yekatit 11 (February 18), “but the mere launching of an armed struggle does not make an organization,” he argues. TPLF was really established four months later, he contends, when Meles and Abay finally make it to Dedebit, and are entrusted with the task of formulating a program and rules and regulations, which were subsequently all adopted by the organization. “An organization without a program is an absurdity,” he insists. TPLF came into being the day it espoused a clearly defined program. History needs be revisited and revised, he advises thoughtfully. Not only was Meles a founding member, but, unbeknownst to the public, he was the one who had charted the original course. Of course, Meles and a select few others know how the true course of events had actually transpired, Eyasu implies, but are too modest to go against the convention. Someone needs to tell the truth! (“Students (in school) must read this book,” earnest commentators had said at the launching ceremony.)

How then do members reward the genius of Meles when the organization’s first leaders were elected? Inexplicably (for Eyasu), they ignore him and opt for the leadership of Gesese Ayele, who was one of the eleven; Seyoum Mesfin, who was also one of the eleven; and Mehari Tekle, who was not one of the eleven but had just left the EPLF (in Eritrea) to be one of the founders of the TPLF (He assumed the Chairmanship.) A year later, when the founding congress of the party elected the first batch of CC members, Meles was still absent. And Aregawi Berhe, Giday ZeraTsion, Seyoum Mesfin, Sebhat Nega and Abay Teshaye become his superiors.

Evidently, even thirty-five years ago people had problem recognizing the genius that is so palpable for Eyasu.

(To be continued next week.) THE END.

Brief news from Addis Ababa:

Printing press turns back popular magazine

Berana printing press, a holding of the Ministry of Defense, this week turned back a popular monthly magazine, Enku, for the “irredeemable crime” of carrying the New Year messages of two opposition politicians, Negaso Gidada and Seye Abraha. Both spoke of the imprisoned leader of UDJ, Birtukan Mideksa. Ironically, Ethiopia was hosting an international freedom of press conference as this was happening.

The EPRDF-led government still refuses to grant press licenses to independent journalists, despite the absence of a vibrant political press after the closure of the nation’s major newspapers after the 2005 elections.

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: