There has been much talk recently about the possible “retirement” of the über-boss in Ethiopia. Reuters reported that “… Meles Zenawi wants to step down after 18 years running sub-Saharan Africa's second most populous country.” Apparently, the dictator is “bored” with the racket he has been running for the past 18 years, or at least nagging questions about when he will be calling it quits. The dictator says he needs the permission of La Famiglia, “his ruling party before he can leave.” Reuters rhetorically asked: “So when might he go? And what will happen if he does?”
According to Reuters’ guessing game, the dictator could “get permission to leave” at the party congress in September, but that is unlikely “a year before Ethiopia has its next national election due in June 2010.” He could be ousted as a result of an opposition win, but that “would be a shock. The 2005 elections ended in violence when Meles claimed victory, the opposition shouted fraud and about 200 protestors were killed by police and soldiers.” He “wins in 2010 and the opposition cries foul… But despite Ethiopia's close relations with the West, allegations of fraud or violence would be more difficult for the international community to take a second time and the country could see its aid slashed, plunging it deeper into poverty.” The dictator’s party “wins the election, there is no violence and Meles will probably resign within two years and be replaced by a party loyalist who will continue his domestic, economic and foreign policies.” Or the dictator “serves another 5-year term and runs again.”
The dictator is dismissive of these speculations. He says he wants to relinquish power, go into retirement and “have a long good rest.”
To Chuckle or to Guffaw?
We have listened to the amusing blather about staying or leaving office for the past several years. We are never sure whether to chuckle or guffaw every time we hear it recycled through the propaganda machine: “I will resign. I will leave office at the end of my term, but only if my party allows me to. I will stay in office as long as my party demands it of me. I will leave office, but I won’t tell you when. I will leave office when I leave office. Oh! Questions about when I will leave office bore me.” Indeed, the whole affair has become a recurrent farcical comic opera. International journalists ask the dictator when he plans to leave, and he feeds them the same crock of ambiguous, opaque and enigmatic answers in his usual doublespeak and pretentious phraseology. The journalists draw up their own fanciful speculations about what he will do, and the charade goes on and on. But the climax of this bizarre jabber is always the same: “May be I will go. May be I won’t. It’s for me to know, and for the rest of you to speculate about and play guessing games.”
The Solipsistic Logic of Dictators
The question is never whether any dictator will stay or go. We know from Gandhi’s axiom that all dictators eventually go: “There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible but in the end, they always fall -- think of it, ALWAYS.” The question about when a tyrant will fall is solipsistic (has special meaning only to the tyrant) and reveals much about the tyrant’s egoistic self-absorption and self-indulgence with power. The tyrant’s choice of the word “boring” to dismissively respond to questions about the timing of his departure is quite curious. Boredom and anxiety are states of mind on a psychological continuum. Could it be that giving a date certain for leaving office creates in the mind of the tyrant deep angst about unclinging from power and the potential consequences that could follow?
For the critical observer, the question of when the tyrant will leave office is a rhetorical tautology (that is, the question is incapable of producing a truthful answer that can be verified or falsified). In other words, any response by the dictator to the question is unlikely to produce or convey truthful or useful information regardless of how many times it is asked. The response will always be hedged and interwoven in a fabric of deceit and absurd contingencies such as obtaining permission from the party, new leaders taking over, democracy being institutionalized and so on. Consider the following muddled and transparently evasive response:
My personal position is that I have had enough. I am arguing my case and the others are also arguing their case. I hope we will come up with some common understanding on the way forward that would not require me to resign from my party that I have fought for all my life. We are not talking about Meles only. We are talking about the old generation. The party needs to have new leadership that does not have the experience of the armed struggle…. It would be very important for everybody, particularly for the fledgling democratic institutions of this country…. The party is in the process of dialogue, and sooner or later it will make its decision, and that will be it… We have a large leadership pool, any one of whom could take the mantle… [The ethnic background of his replacement] is not a prime consideration. The party has gone beyond that…”
It is not clear from the foregoing statement why the dictator can not leave office immediately or on a date certain, or what argument he is presenting for or against leaving office. But the dictator’s uncompromising conclusory statement “I have had enough.” objectively indicates that he has reached a final and irreversible psychological state on his tenure in office. Simply stated, the dictator is completely disgusted and bored with what he is doing. He does not want to do the job anymore. But he quickly qualifies his expression of disgust by pleading to stay in power so that he “would not [be] require[d] to resign from my party that I have fought for all my life”. He feigns humility by claiming that his staying or leaving office is not about him at all. It is really about the old guards passing the baton to the new generation of leaders and so on. He hedges by implying that he can not leave office until the generational transfer of power is complete. The whole self-contradictory response reflects the solipsistic narcissism of a megalomaniacal dictator who seeks to tether not only the fate of his party to himself, but also the country’s destiny.
But the dictator’s definitive statement invites further query: He has “had enough” of what exactly? Massive violations of human rights? Kangaroo court justice? Systemic corruption? Lies? Perhaps, he has had enough of THE TRUTH!?
All of this farcical talk about leaving office does have a not-so-hidden strategic purpose. It is intended as a trial balloon to divert attention from the already-won 2010 election. The dictator hopes to fool, confuse and confound the opposition and international donors by titillating them with the possibility of his leaving office. We will predict that the dictator and his gang will be shoveling loads of propaganda between now and the already-won election of 2010 in a futile effort to distract public attention and convince donors that they are the only viable democratic alternative.
We should refrain from playing a guessing game of who will replace the dictator. We know for a fact that replacing Tweedledee with Tweedledum from another ethnic group (or replacing the old guard from the days of the armed struggle with a newer generation of their clones) will not amount to a hill of beans. The problems that have been festering in Ethiopia for the past two decades can not be cured by the departure of a bored, jaded, dispirited and weary dictator, or by his replacement clone. The problems are structural and viral in the system of dictatorial mis-governance over the past 18 years. Let’s be crystal clear: The dictator’s “retirement”, “resignation” or whatever nonsense he is talking about will not mean the beginning of the rule of law and it will not mean the end of massive human rights violations. His retirement will not end arbitrary arrests and imprisonments; the independent media will not function freely because he goes; the bantustans of ethnic federalism he created to divide and rule will not vanish immediately, and corruption will not stop. There is only one way to bring about fundamental change: Replace the one-man, one-party dictatorship with a genuine multiparty system.
No Rest for the Wicked!
There is not a single instance in the history of modern dictatorships where dictators voluntarily packed up and left power one fine morning. Dictators are to power as bloodsucking ticks are to a cow. Neither can survive without its life-giving force. There are many reasons why dictators will not leave power voluntarily. In Ethiopia, the reason is that the dictators will never outplay themselves at their own zero sum game. For them leaving power means losing everything. EVERYTHING! It means being held accountable for their monstrous crimes; losing their privileged positions in society; giving up their ill- gotten gains and the absolute power they wielded for nearly two decades.
Old dictators never fade away; they just cling to power like bloodsucking tics on a cow, until they inevitably fall. Sometimes they do run, but they can never hide. As for a “long good rest,” it is written in the Book of Isaiah (57:20, 21), that “the wicked are like the troubled sea, when it cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt. There is no peace, saith my God, to the wicked.”
The writer, Alemayehu G. Mariam, is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. For comments, he can be reached at email@example.com