By Jawar Mohammed*
Whether it is out of sheer arrogance, overconfidence or from being out of touch with reality, the strategic rationales behind Meles’ recent political decisions reflect a poor judgment. Much like the disastrous 99.6% electoral victory that blew up on his face, the decision to re-imprison and the childish manner in which he released Birtukan, by way of “second pardon” is the continuation of Meles’ political miscalculations that keeps backfiring on him.
Two possible reasons can be cited for Birtukan’s re-arrest:
- To preempt her potential as a unifying figure for the opposition, and/or
- A warning signal to other potential political actors who might be tempted to follow in her footsteps and defy the regime.
Regardless of the reasoning, there was little strategic gain for Meles; in fact, he incurred a significant cost. First, given the post 2005 intra-opposition crisis and the heavy-handed government approach, there is no evidence that indicates the opposition performance would be significantly better, had she not been in jail. Second, despite her “bi-ethnic” background, Birtukan’s past political views attracted only a “centrist” political constituency. Thus, it was farfetched to assume that she could have galvanized the opposition by bridging the wide gap between the “Ethiopianist and ethno-nationalist” blocks, or at least not in the short run. Therefore, the strategic rationale to incarcerate Birtukan was based on flawed assumptions.
By jailing her long enough until her endurance runs out, Meles can claim a tactical hollow victory. A tactical triumph that came at the cost of making her a national and international figure, hence a serious strategic setback. Hailed as the Aung San Suu Kyi of Ethiopia, she became an overnight sensation and a rallying symbol for the injustices perpetuated by Meles Zenawi’s regime. The popularity of her case brought about an unwanted scrutiny to the country’s overall political condition further exposing human right abuses, repression of dissent, and the use of development aid to buy loyalty.
Although it is hard to assess the domestic pressure, Meles attended hardly any international event where he was not quizzed and rebuked for her situation. He was fortunate that Birtukan’s breaking point came just as the pressure was becoming unbearable.
Yet, he made a grave mistake. In an attempt to humiliate her and her supporters, he forced Birtukan to sign a supposedly self-degrading letter. But anyone can understand, even those who do not know Birtukan, that the letter was vindictively designed such that it exposed how low the regime is willing to go in order to assert its authority. Meles could have taken the high moral ground by wisely claiming that he was releasing her on compassionate ground — for instance out of sympathy for her aging single mother and young daughter. Or just out of pardon, as pardon is a pardon and nothing else by definition.
Regardless of what her next political role might be, Birtukan has joined those who have left positive footprints on the struggle for freedom and justice in world. Through her act of civil defiance, she dislodged the main objective of dictators — the instillation of fear and obedience among their subjects. She has distinguished herself as a leader willing to walk the talk. She has earned much respect and admiration from friends and foes alike. In contrast, Meles has shamed his international backers and lost the little respect his subjects had for him.
On Cabinet Reshuffle
Aside from the comical nomination of ministers before ministries, there is no substantive change in the new cabinet. As I have discussed in my last commentary on the intra-party promotion and demotion, the composition of Meles’ cabinet has furthered his aim of wiping out all assumed or real threats to his power. We can now say that the current regime in Ethiopia has fully transformed itself from oligarchy to autocracy.
Emerging Southern Domination?
The only change that attracted the biggest attention from commentators is the supposed “Southern” domination in the new cabinet. Indeed, it is refreshing to see individuals from historically marginalized groups assuming influential ministerial positions. However, it would be a mistake to conclude that the South have come to dominate the system. First, the SPDM by design has been the least cohesive of the four EPRDF coalition members. It is composed of elites drawn from more than 45 ethnic groups. Moreover, TPLF’s divide-and-rule intervention has never allowed for a consolidation of the party. Thus, whatever change that took place is only a personal promotion for the individuals while the status of their party remains the same.
Meles “turned his face to the South” for tactical purposes. The first is the need to fend off the now unanimously accepted criticism of his regime as Tigrean dominated rule. He is trying to repackage his regime as that of “a coalition of minorities.” Few Western scholars and diplomats might be tempted to buy it. Second, as his support among Tigrean elites is fast depleting, of course he needs to decrease reliance on them. Shifting his preference to either of the “big-two” (Oromo and Amhara) would have made it easy for his Tigrean adversaries to accuse him of “sleeping with the enemy.” Third, these Southern politicians, with no established constituency of their own and no connection with the military or the security apparatus are the most harmless to his power. In other words, there is no looming southern domination; Meles is simply attempting to give his autocratic power a new face.
The End of TPLF’s Dominance?
As it stands, almost all veteran TPLF leaders are ousted. The organization got only three ministers including Meles. This fact has led some commentators to suggest that the TPLF domination is fading away. I disagree. It is true that TPLF have become weaker since it lost the benefit of collective leadership. However, let’s not forget that Meles is only focused on eliminated the big guys,and the mid and lower level of the organization remains intact. Moreover, its members still overwhelmingly dominate the military and security apparatus, the bureaucracy as well as the financial sector. Hence, even if TPLF loses all ministerial position, it does not mean the end of TPLF’s domination. The new configuration might help conceal the reality (temporarily) but does not change the lopsided course Ethiopian politics has taken 19 years ago.
Loyalty as the Sole Criterion for Promotion
Meles is so obsessed with eliminating even a remotely potential threat to his power that he has completely forgotten ministerial positions require specific qualifications. The new cabinet is composed of individuals with a very thin resume, not to mention their position and qualification is a serious mismatch.
Let us say that, by promoting Hailemariam Desalegn as his deputy, he wanted to send a political message to OPDO and ANDM or perhaps he wants a weaker loyalist to replace him in case he decided to step down. However, it makes no sense to appoint Hailemariam, a man with little leadership credentials and no international exposure to the Ministry Of Foreign Affairs. At the time when, the country, by factual coincidence, is emerging as a key player in geopolitical affairs and international security, common sense calls for assigning such key position to a career Foreign Service diplomat. I doubt the ruling party has such an acute shortage of qualified individuals that it’s forced to fill the post by such an unqualified individual.
From the brief biography of ministerial nominees presented to the parliament, we can see that “proven political leadership in the party” is the single most important qualification. Let that be. How about matching the candidate’s educational and work experience with the office they would lead?
The removal of Girma Biru, a career technocrat with internationally recognized expertise in economic policy is another shocking development. Sources say that Girma himself was in disbelief about his dropout. (Since he was told to run for parliament, it was generally assumed that he would resume his position). This is despite the fact that Girma has been one of the very few cabinet members who knows how to run their department. His demotion is a crucial evidence that Meles has been completely blinded by insecurity that he failed to remember a machine actually needs someone with a brain to run it.
Another weird development is the manner in which the demoted individuals were humiliated. For instance, insiders speak of a horrific way in which Sebhat Nega was humiliated by young cadres who brought up every imaginable detail about the old man’s personal life. It is said that, although to a lesser extent, most of the departing “seniors” were sent off with similar humiliation. In doing so, Meles was trying to eliminate whatever remaining credibility those leaders had within the rank and file, consequently preemptively disabling any threat they could pose from outside.
In the past, Meles was known for never fighting two enemies at once. That shrewdness seems to have given way to insecurity and recklessness that his real and potential enemies are multiplying every passing second. Proverbially explaining such situations a wise Oromo says; “Harrichoo, kana dhiitaa kaan ciniintaa, boruma eenyu wajjii oltaa?” Loosely translated “Dear donkey, you are biting one and kicking the other, who might be left to hang-out with you tomorrow?”
On the Promise of a Developmental State
The strongest argument in favor of a dominant party system is that it guarantees stability, sustainability and efficiency of governance that leads to the birth of a developmental state. However, Meles seems to forget the key ingredients for the success of those model countries he often cites. Those systems owe their success to effective utilization of highly skilled technocrats. In south East Asia, developmental state was achieved because from the get go, they created incentives to attract witty engineers, economists, managers etc.
Developmental state has a faith in expertise. It cannot possibly be realized through heavy reliance poorly educated loyal cadres. It is rather a product of leadership discipline coupled with know-how. Thus, from the kind of people Meles has chosen to run the government, it is fair to conclude that the so-called “Growth and Transformation Plan” is nothing more than a usual time-buying slogan. Five years ago the favorite acronym for every EPRDF cadre was BPR (Business Reengineering Process), now it’s GTP.