Alemayehu G. Mariam
Last week, a couple of interesting political statements grabbed the cyber headlines. One was a truly entertaining piece entitled “Letter from Ethiopia,” by the indomitable Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega. Eskinder’s “Letter” sought to make sense of the power jockeying that is apparently taking place backstage to replace dictator Meles Zenawi. The other was a bombastic speech given by Zenawi to a captive audience in Mekele in observance of the 35th anniversary of the founding of his liberation movement. In that speech, Zenawi unleashed a torrent of vitriol against his opponents and critics to rival Hugo Chavez’s, and indulged in a little bit of megalomaniacal braggadocio and self-glorification for democratizing Ethiopia and inundating it with prosperity.
Using the so-called election scheduled for May, 2010 as a backdrop, Eskinder crystal-balled the inevitable implosion of the ruling “EPDRF” party, and sketched out the qualifications of the motley crew of droll characters standing in line as heirs-apparent to succeed Zenawi on the “throne”.
Scratch beyond the surface and the EPRDF [Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front] is really not the monolithic dinosaur as it is most commonly stereotyped. [It has become] a coalition of four distinct phenomenon: the increasing confusion of the dominant TPLF [Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front], the acute cynicism of the ANDM [Amhara National Democratic Movement], the desperate nihilism of the OPDO [Oromo People’s Democratic Organization] and the inevitable irrelevance of the incongruent SEPM [South Ethiopian People’s Movement] (a grab bag of some 40 ethnic groups from the southern part of the country). ”
In the battle royal for the “throne” are a number of goofy and cagey characters including “OPDO’s Girma Biru” who is said to be “managerially competent” but a dud and a wimp when it comes to formulating a “grand vision and [lacks] the ruthlessness deemed crucial to keep the EPRDF vibrant and intact.” OPDO chairman Abadula Gemeda, the butt of “the city’s political jokes”, is considered a possible contender and given full credit for his own “comical intellectual pretensions.” ANDM’s Addisu Legesse is said to be held in “particular high esteem” by Zenawi for his servility and slavish loyalty beyond and above the call of duty. Then there is the Svengalian master of intrigue, Bereket Simon whose “influence is expected to wane once Meles eventually leaves the limelight.” The crocodilian Sebhat Nega, “king maker for two decades”, has apparently “chosen to leave TPLF’s politburo” but remains a member of the Central Committee as puppet-master extraordinaire.
In other words, the politics of “succession” to Zenawi’s “throne” has become a veritable theatre of the absurd. The personalities waiting in the wings to take over the “throne” (or to protect and safeguard it) bring to mind the witless characters in Samuel Beckett’s tragicomedy play Waiting for Godot, arguably the most important English play of the 20th Century. In that play, two vagabond characters anxiously wait on a country road by a tree for the arrival of a mysterious person named Godot, who can save them and answer all their questions. They wait for days on end but Godot never shows up, but each day a young messenger comes to tell them Godot will be there tomorrow. As they wait each day, they try to find something to do. They keep busy chatting, arguing, singing, playing games, swapping hats, taking their shoes off, napping and doing all sorts of trivial things just “to hold the terrible silence at bay”. Each day, the characters tell each other that they can not go on waiting. They are so tired of waiting day after day that they contemplate suicide. Godot never shows up but the two characters keep returning to the same place day after day to wait for him; but they can not remember exactly what happened the day before. Godot never came.
Waiting for Zenawi to leave power is like waiting for Godot to arrive. It ain’t happening. He is not only the savior and the man with all the answers, he is also the Great Patron who makes everything work. In his Mekele speech, Zenawi made it clear that he is staying put and the great business of state business will go on as usual; and but for the wicked opposition elements and pesky critics, how things could really be awesome! But he did not hold back in visiting his wrath on his opposition and critics. With rhetorical flourish, he lambasted his former comrade-in-arms, opposition elements and critics with the Amharic equivalent of “muckrakers”, “mud dwellers” and good-for-nothing “chaff” and “husk”. He accused them of being “anti-democratic”, “anti-people” fomenters of “interhamwe”. He called them “sooty”, “sleazy”, “gun-toting marauders”, “pompous egotists” and every other name than could be pumped out of the Insulto-Matic machine. He repeatedly denounced his opposition for rolling in a quagmire of mud and trying to smear mud on the people. After all was said in that speech, it was clear that he was the one doing all the mud-slinging and mud-rolling (chika jiraf and chika mab-kwat). (It must have been a bad hair day for him [no pun intended]!)
Zenawi pulled no punches slamming and vilifying his opponents and critics:
There are those who maintain an eagle eye on the regime with bitter animosity and sully it by painting and drenching it in soot. Regardless, our country has marched into democracy confidently and irreversibly.
Anti-democratic and anti-people forces have so much contempt that they badger our uneducated people telling them chaff is wheat. However, our people are used to winnowing the chaff in the wind and keeping the wheat. Our enemies are peddling chaff to the people and trying to find holes to sabotage our peoples’ democracy, peace and development. But since our organization knows that our operation is airtight, we are not concerned.
The chaff hope to provoke the people into anger and incite them to undemocratically resort to violence. Although they (the “chaff”) can not dirty up the people like themselves, they may try to smear the people with mud in the hope of inciting them into lawlessness.
It was an unstatesmanlike speech, to say the least. But there were a few odd things about the speech itself. Even though the speech was given to a captive audience in Mekele, the clear impression that is created for the listener is that the people of Tigray will be doing the winnowing of the useless “chaff” from the valuable “wheat.” The contextualization of the speech subtly cuts off the people of Tigray from the rest of the country. The incredible amount of venom in the speech could make a snake puke. The allusion-fest to “mud”, “soot,” “chaff”, “wheat”, etc., and the thinly veiled ad hominem attacks, derision and disparagement of opponents and critics points to a deficit of intellectual discipline and rigor to argue and fiercely debate the issues in the court of public opinion. Instead of name-calling, one ought to use hard evidence and logical analysis to disprove the allegations, contentions or analysis of the opponents and critics. In this regard, there is a rather humorous tu quoque (two wrongs make a right) logical fallacy that infuses the whole speech. Zenawi takes the position that since his critics “wallow” in mud and keep slinging it at him, it is right for him to wallow in and sling mud and muck back at them while professing to command the moral high ground. In other words, it is right to “fight mud with mud.” The problem of a mud fight is that everybody gets dirty. It is morally superior and infinitely more pragmatic to fight the “mud slingers” by slinging back at them, not mud pies, but facts, evidence, data and logical analysis.
The speech is also noteworthy for its self-righteousness, messianic fervor and dogmatic certitude in the speaker’s rectitude: Everybody is chaff except the winnowed wheat. Everyone is a member of the Evil Empire except the anointed Jedi Knights of the TPLF who are the guardians of peace and justice in the Republic (to borrow from a popular American motion picture “Star Wars”). Such a Manichean worldview (Weltanschauung) of good and evil and chaff and wheat is symptomatic of narcissistic self-absorption, a behavioral pattern well documented in the psychological literature; and empirically observed in terms of faulty reasoning, acute hostility towards others groups, rigid character attributes and blindness to one’s failings.
The real issue is not about name calling, mudslinging or even determining the true bearers of the democratic cross. The real issue is about the accountability of a personalist dictatorship that is sustained through a self-aggrandizing oligarchy that now craves a veneer of legitimacy by staging a democratic “election” for international donors. The fact remains that no amount of mudslinging, soot smearing or bombastic speech can mask the true nature of an election in a dictatorship. One can put the finest lipstick on a pig, but at the end of the day the pig is still a pig.
As Zenawi’s speech shows, he exercises absolute imperial power for self-gratification and self-glorification; and his declared aim is to mold Ethiopian society in his own image. His ruling regime fundamentally believes that political power grows out of the barrel of the gun (not from the consent of the people), fully aware of their own feebleness without the gun. Their raison d’etre is to amass and centralize political and economic power at all costs and maintain themselves in power by greed, fear and blind ambition.
We fully accept the metaphor of “chaff” and “wheat” as a judicious and appropriate way not just to understand Ethiopian politics today but also as a practical way of resolving the crises of confidence in governance and proper determination of leadership succession. It is the right time now to put the metaphor to a real test: Let the Ethiopian people winnow the “chaff” from the “wheat” in the calm winds of a genuinely free and fair election in May 2010! That seems highly unlikely; and the chaff that stands in the way of the people “shall inherit the wind”.
Alemayehu G. Mariam, is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. He writes a regular blog on The Huffington Post, and his commentaries appear regularly on pambazuka.org, allafrica.com, newamericamedia.org and other sites.