Twenty years ago, one chilly and drizzly morning in otherwise uneventful North American winter, I met a Tigrean freedom fighter, a tegadalti, on a short bus ride to the airport.
Our casual conversation quickly veered into politics, as it often does among Ethiopian diaspora with diametrically opposed narratives. The harder I tried to demonstrate the futility of his effort at making Tigrean domination palatable, the more stubbornly he clung to his views. His answers to my litany of “arguments” were to have none of it.
Disembarking from the bus, hardly persuaded, he blurted out something that stayed with me for two long decades: “If the ill-intentioned Amharas could rule Ethiopia for a century, for sure we could do better.” What struck me the most was the sheer confidence in which he uttered those words and the depth of his conviction. As the years passed by and my prognosis of the system’s inherent fragility came to naught, there were times, when I told myself: “maybe, he was right—we are in for the long haul.” The more challenges it faced, the more the system seemed to thrive. This was the case until the demise of Zenawi – the highly clever, ruthless, and wickedly creative “great leader”– a politician par excellence whose stars seemed to rise from one obstacle to another.
The tegadalti was like his mentor, Zenawi, who would simply not back down. Zenawi answered critiques chafing against concentration of power, pointing to the federal structure he helped setup. But controlled the pseudo states through his security operatives. He also pointed to the many non-Tigrean bureaucrats who “run” different functions of government. The fact was these individuals held powerful sounding positions while being subservient to Tigrean minders who executed the job under the title of deputies—the so called tacos in the vernacular of street smarts.
The ruling party is obviously not constrained by any standard of truth. It could go on justifying its actions in like manner, dressing falsehood in the garb of truth. However, in Zenawi’s absence, the ruling elites seem to be at a loss. Now some Tigreans will have to contemplate what it means to work with the “deputy” at the helm. Something serious is amiss with the ruling party. Gone are the self-assurance, the sense of invincibility of the party’s leaders, the correctness of the party’s practices, and the widespread belief in the perpetuity of its rule. Instead of clarity, now we see confusion; instead of efficiency, we see ineptitude; and instead of the usual energy, we witness an inexplicable lethargy.
Two years before the 1974 maelstrom that brought the unceremonious downfall of emperor Haile Sillasie in the hands of his most “loyal” troops, a shabbily dressed, charcoal-faced giant of a man, the futurist Oromo Sufi mystic Roba Garbi, dared his rapt but fear-stricken audience to tear down a picture of the reigning emperor hung on the wall of a poorly lit hall. All were stunned, and hesitated denouncing a sitting King that ruled for a solid fifty years. That was not something they were used to doing. “From here on, he is only a photograph,” Garbi proclaimed in his characteristic deep ringing voice referring to the King. Two years later, the senile emperor and a regime that appeared impregnable were gone, for good. The monarchy withered away not because Selassie’s became just a photograph but because it became leaderless in a tumultuous time that needed strong leadership.
It does not take a futurist to realize that, this week, Ethiopia turned 2005 without a leader. Having buried its last ruler in one of the most spectacular state funerals the country has seen, Ethiopia is in a limbo. Assurances by the ruling party aside; it does not also take a futurist to see that the ruling party is afflicted with no ordinary problem of transition.
That is why, despite the condemnations by their legion detractors, Tigreans and the regime’s supporters have every reason to mourn Zenawi’s death and lionize him. He was indeed extraordinary. As if by a stroke of magic, he turned a provincial movement, the TPLF, into the longest-governing national party. He clung to power against all odds. In mere two decades, he transformed the lackluster town of Mekelle into a metropolis teeming with modern buildings, a world-class university, and cultural centers.
Under Zenawi’s reign, Tigrean students on government-sponsored scholarships outnumbered those from the rest of the population in European and Asian universities. Young enterprising Tigrean entrepreneurs arm-wrestled the business sector, particularly international trade, out of traditional hegemons – the Gurage and the Silte. The Tigrean military was so efficient at war-making that it not only stamped out all domestic competitors but also established its superiority throughout the Horn of Africa region – beating its Oromo, Eritrean, Sudanese, and Somali rivals literally into dust.
Thanks to his strategic insight and cunning behavior, Meles’ diplomatic stature shot up like a meteorite, a fortune most leaders could only dream of. It was in this manner that he dwarfed his contemporaries in the continent and historical luminaries such as the diminutive former emperor Haile Sillasie, whose fame towered over Africa for being instrumental in founding the Organization of African Unity, now the African Union. Zenawi’s fame stood higher than Selassie’s stellar international standing, unrivalled especially among the black race of the world thanks to his eloquent speech against European colonial adventures at the ill-fated League of Nations. In addition, Zenawi not only presided over the longest economic expansion the poor country has ever witnessed but also ensured that its spoils accrued to his kinsmen. In short, he had star power—how else would such an egregious concentration of power stand in a highly contested state?
However, Zenawi’s spectacular successes came with a hefty price: the end of Tigrean hegemony. As much as Zenawi helped raised the profile of Tigrean power to its zenith, he has also left behind an untenable system. Quick or smooth succession or not, the party’s prospects are in dire straits.
The delay in swearing-in Zenawi’s successor has been attributed to constitutional snug or disagreement on Hailemariam or rivalry between the constituent parties of EPRDF. It rather has more to do with the inability to fill the huge void left by Zenawi than all other reasons offered by pundits. The fact is, neither the TPLF nor the other satellite organizations that make up the EPRDF could agree on an acceptable leader that could fill Zenawi’s over-sized shoe. They could elect this or that pretender, but they will have to do so grudgingly and without any enthusiasm.
Hailemariam Desalegn is the presumptive successor only by default; he was just there, plucked out of the multitudes by Zenawi in a whim. Due to no fault of his own, Desalegn is now found wanting to fill the void left by his former boss. If anyone has to be faulted, it is the party, which, by allowing Zenawi to emerge as the unquestioned, the all-knowing, and paramount leader that he had became, now has to confront an uncertain future without the only leader it had known.
Zenawi had a blue print for all contingencies. When none was available, he crammed overnight to come up with one in the morning. His studious ministers who executed his uttering’s as a matter of government policy are now clueless. He left them neither a blueprint nor a leader to rally around even if with some misgivings.
The consequences of Zenawi’s larger than life persona are worst on his mother party, the TPLF. The party is abuzz with factions actively propounding contradictory views on how to continue Tigrean hegemony. The young Turks that surrounded Zenawi in his later years have no idea what it took for a tiny minority to rule such a large and diverse country like Ethiopia. The stalwarts that knew a thing or two were effectively sidelined and would have to fight their way back to the center, in the process earning the wrath of their kinsmen drunk with the intoxicating sense of invincibility and the PDOs who are, even if not openly, chafing at the idea of being used as bystanders for a regime that rules in their and their people’s name.
Zenawi’s widow, the mercurial Azeb Mesfin, a powerful player on her own rights, while determined to leave a mark of her own on the system, has no idea on how to ensure the continuity of her late husband’s legacy and to allow the emergence of a party-wide consensus on who would succeed Zenawi. In the end, Azeb’s wild ambitions and Bereket Simon’s bulldog personality may prove to be the pins that would unglue the structures that made Tigrean supremacy possible. Banishing Azeb to Mekelle, akin to how the Shoan oligarchy confined Menelik’s surviving wife, Tayitu, to a convent in Gondar, is not an option because Azeb is too young and is intricately embedded within the Tigrean political, security, civil society, and military establishment to do so without a fight. Likewise, Simon is too powerful to let go.
Under the circumstances, Zenawi’s heirs have two starkly different options. The first choice is to reform the party and the system. This would not only allow them to rule for three more years but also forestall reprisals against the immense wealth, political, economic, and military, amassed over 21 years. The second alternative is to stay on the course charted by Zenawi—to continue to scoff at calls for meaningful reform and silence any dissent through the threat and use of repression and through incentives, verbal and otherwise. A disaster in the long-term, this option is still feasible in the short-term, thanks to Tigrean dominance in the military and security services. Besides, the PDOs are still far from full self-assertion—even if they are stirring to improve their standing in party’s pecking order. Last but not least, it will take at least two to three years for the myriad opposition and resistance groups to muster a force, be it popular or coercive, sufficient to press the TPLF/ EPRDF into reform or displace it out of power.
Lacking a designated leader that is fairly palatable to all the factions and the general failure to read the writings on the wall, the TPLF is in no position to make a quick bet on either course of action. As a result, the hemorrhaging will continue until perhaps the TPLF bleeds to death. The elevation of a non-Tigrean, for instance Hailemariam, to the helm or installing another more capable Tigrean leader is unlikely to slow down the gradual erosion of Tigrean hegemony. As much as it is confounding how a country goes on without a leader, it is clear that the sun has set on Tigrean dominance.
The failure to name a successor in three months says more than it seems. It heralds that Tigrean domination of Ethiopia is on its deathbed, savoring its last breath. As time goes by, Tigrean power would diminish. Try as it might, it is unlikely that the TPLF will any longer enjoy its position of absolute control of the state. The only question is whether Ethiopia will be able to build on its achievements, if any, or tear down the present and start all over again from the scratch, a course suggested by its tortuous history.
The sooner Ethiopia’s political actors, especially the ruling oligarchy, and the international community that pumped billions to make the expansion possible realized the magnitude of the void left by Zenawi’s death; the better will be Ethiopia’s chances of avoiding a messy transition, also one strongly suggested by its precarious history. Intellectually understanding the opportunities and dangers presented is not enough. Articulating the shortcomings of the current system is woefully insufficient. It requires a bold vision and concerted action on the ground to translate it into reality.
The race to shape Ethiopia’s future is on. In times past, the most ruthless prevailed. This time whoever is able to speedily, successfully, and creatively rally its own community, forge alliances with adjacent communities by harmonizing its goals with the divergent aspirations of others, and gain the backing of regional and global sponsors will emerge a victor, ruthless or not. Unlike the past, this time around may the wisest win!
I have come to view the tegadalti’s convictions as a bluff. Who would fault the man for not correctly reading the verdict of providence? Besides, he had no way of knowing that the leaders he placed so much faith in would come to blows in 2001. He had no way of knowing that Zenawi will be dead in 20 years, not at the hands of his many enemies but from an illness. And that his beloved party would be leaderless.
As to Sayid Roba Garbi, I realize that he was not just a futurist. For someone like me not old enough to hear him speak and skeptical of the ability to peek into the future, he might very well have been an insightful analyst who correctly read the writings on the wall that many failed to do. He saw that Selassie was too fond of his throne to pass it on to his chosen successor in time.
Folks, I am no futurist but will nevertheless go on the limb to pronounce the writing on the wall. It says in fine print: with the TPLF leaderless, a single-party domination of Ethiopia is on its final leg. If and when it does, it will not be missed. If such were to happen, millions would echo: Good riddance—despite the assertions of tyranny’s apologists like Ambassador Rice. If asked to explain the grounds for holding such a strident opinion in the face of claims about the rapid economic growth under Zenawi, many wound respond unequivocally: “No economic expansion, however phenomenal, is worth forfeiting one’s basic freedoms and liberties.”
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