By Messay Kebede
My customary readers may wonder why my political writings increasingly focus on psychological analyses to the detriment of socioeconomic forces. Is it because in my mind psychological factors prevail over socioeconomic conditions? The answer is no unless certain circumstances lend importance to the personality of political leaders. Such is the case when state power falls in the hands of megalomaniac dictators. Only objective socioeconomic and political conditions can create situations that call for a specific rule. However, depending on the personality of leaders, the direction of change imparted by objective factors can be diverted toward idiosyncratic goals. Especially, to the extent that revolutions and wars shatter established institutions, they have the nasty habit of favoring the rise to power of megalomaniac individuals. Once in power, such personalities hijack the social movement and use it to strengthen their power. Their absolute control of state power means that political and economic decisions are taken and implemented with the sole view of satisfying their idiosyncratic goals, chiefly their determination to retain the control of absolute power by all means. In this condition, the understanding of the psyche of dictators is crucial for political struggle. My assumption is that this is exactly the case with Meles’s rule of Ethiopia.
Many Ethiopians still wonder why Meles is uncontrollably seized with the desire to commit actions whose sole purpose is to offend Ethiopians or cripple the country. Among such actions are his routine assaults on Ethiopian nationalism together with his promotion of ethnic nationalisms, the ceding of Ethiopian territories to Sudan, the persistent determination to humiliate opposition leaders, an educational policy that values quantity and politicization over skill and professionalism, and the policy of leasing fertile lands to foreign firms at the expense of Ethiopian peasants and the national progress of agriculture. I will cite as yet another recent manifestation of his hatred of Ethiopia his support––assuming that he is not the initiator—to the decision not to erect a statue to Haile Selassie for his decisive contribution to the creation of African unity.
There is no doubt that some of the mentioned measures are designed to protect Meles’s power. For instance, leasing land to foreign firms provides him with the money he needs to keep his repressive apparatus satisfied, just as the ceding of territories to Sudan buys the friendship of a strategically important neighbor. Likewise, the promotion of ethnic division is how he implements the divide-and-rule strategy characteristic of all dictatorial regimes. However, these measures do not look very rational in that they further aggravate an already brewing discontent, and so can contribute to a brutal end of his regime.
In fact, the adoption of a nationalist position would have been a better way to protect Meles’s power. History teaches us that, to say in power, dictators utilize the divide-and-rule strategy in combination with a nationalist zeal, which gives them a popular support, even if it does not last. Given the resentment that it generates, one wonders whether the method of shielding power by ceding territories and leasing land to foreign companies is a smart choice.
On the other hand, there are acts not connected with power calculus that Meles commits just for the sheer purpose of upsetting Ethiopians. Thus, dismantling opposition forces is certainly a way of fighting for his power, but not the determination to humiliate their leaders by the imposition of degrading requests. Similarly, the characterization of the Ethiopian flag as a trash does not help him strengthen his power. Nor are his numerous demeaning statements, as when he said that the failure of his policy would mean that Ethiopia was not meant to be. His obvious complicity in the decision to deny Haile Selassie the honor of a statue is just a recent example of actions whose sole purpose is to offend Ethiopians.
All this brings us to the enigmatic question of knowing why Meles does not rule the country in the accustomed way of dictators, that is, as extremely jealous of his power, but also as an ardent defender of the national interest, even if his definition of national interest favors his own dictatorship. As already suggested, normal dictators want to be loved by the people they rule so as to give their power a popular basis. Given Meles’s obsession with power, how is then one to understand the undermining of his own popularity by such senseless anti-Ethiopian deeds?
One way of resolving the dilemma of a dictator who undermines his own popularity is to suggest that Meles has a deep hatred of Ethiopia and of whatever promotes the interests and well-being of its people. In a previous article posted on various Ethiopian websites and titled “Meles’s Shame and the Dead-End of Hatred,” I have tried to decipher the enigma of a dictator set on unpopularity by suggesting that the shame of his family’s close collaboration with the Italian colonial forces had evolved very early into a hatred of Ethiopia. Despising and damaging Ethiopia, notably through the diabolization of the architect of modern Ethiopia, namely, the Amhara elite, is his manner of removing the shame, the assumption being that there is really no betrayal if what is supposedly betrayed is worthless to begin with.
If Meles has such a deep hatred of Ethiopia, the question that comes to mind is why he is struggling to consolidate his power instead of simply destroying Ethiopia, for instance by encouraging secessionist groups and triggering bloody ethnic conflicts. Though my previous article raised the issue, it did not directly deal with it for the sake of brevity. The time has come to resolve the puzzle of Meles hanging to the state power of a country that he despises and even scoring some accomplishments, which of course either remain superficial or come with heavy social costs.
Undoubtedly, the key to the puzzle is Meles’s craving for power. Not only is he obsessed with power, but also his hatred finds no better way to vent itself than to keep Ethiopia on life support through his divisive and weakening policy. Indeed, what is more gratifying for a soul tormented with hatred than to prolong the agony of the object of his hatred as long as possible? In other words, his love for power occasionally overrides his hatred while also providing an outlet for it.
Here a restriction should be introduced, which emanates from the very contradictions of a tormented soul. As much as Meles wants to demean and hurt Ethiopia, his passion for power has grown into megalomania, mostly as a result of an easy victory against all his opponents. To his craving for power is now added the belief in his own grandeur and unique destiny. Yes, he hates Ethiopia, but he is also possessed with power and burns with the dream of becoming a great ruler, especially in the eyes of Westerners. So that, hatred and megalomania combine to inspire a deconstructive/constructive political project.
Let there be no misunderstanding. Meles is as committed as ever not to do anything that seems to promote Ethiopia because of the painful consequences on him. He has accordingly decided to erase Ethiopia as we know her and recreate another Ethiopia, this time of his own design. The deconstructive and constructive project thus solves, it is true temporarily, the contradiction between his hatred for the country and his love for power and megalomania: deconstruction satisfies his hatred; construction his megalomania. In effect, he is now promoting a project called Ethiopian renaissance, which he couples with the ideology of developmental state considered as the proven instrument to achieve prosperity.
What we need to understand here is that when Meles exhorts Ethiopians to “achieve the vision for Ethiopia’s Renaissance,” he means the Ethiopia a la Meles, that is, Ethiopia made suitable for his absolute rule and for the pillage by his cronies and party followers. The design excludes all those who fight for a democratic Ethiopia in which people endowed with real rights decide about what is best for them and achieve national unity as equal and free both in their individual capacities and ethnic belonging. Instead of Ethiopians realizing integrative unity and exercising sovereignty, Meles’s project sees them as puppets of a deconstructive project inspired by hatred and megalomania.
To clarify further Meles’s project of Ethiopian Renaissance, we can add that it is tantamount to a child playing with a new toy. Unfortunately, the parallel is misleading for even a child cares for his/her toy: he/she may mistreat the toy, but he/she will not allow others to do so. A better comparison would be land clearing by which you bulldoze whatever has grown naturally for the purpose of planting seeds of your own choice. We know the danger of land clearing when it ignores the conditions of the soil and the well-being of the local population, especially when the land is given to foreign interests. What used to be a fertile land can become barren if such cares are missing.
Since Ethiopia is the object of a resentful policy, Meles cannot provide the care necessary to transform Ethiopia into a flourishing and integrating country. Even if we assume that he is determined to eradicate poverty, the assumption remains far-fetched, not to say utterly unlikely, because whatever his dream of greatness leads him to want is immediately defeated by a forceful resurgence of his hatred. Thus, there is a constant oscillation between hatred and the dream of grandeur: no sooner is a project devised than it is spoiled by the hostility of hatred.
What is more, Meles does not have the people necessary to implement any serious policy of development. In order to strengthen his dictatorial power, he has surrounded himself with yes men, who are irremediably incompetent and profusely self-serving. He has no choice but to reward them by closing his eyes to the widespread use of illegal means of enrichment. Also, the failure of his economic policy together with his tendency to conspire against the nation can only intensify anger, thereby making him unable to mobilize people for any significant national project.
This is to say that the clearing of Ethiopia increasingly looks like a land devastated by the effect of toxic chemicals administered by a spiteful agronomist. Repressive means can help Meles stay in power for a while, but his attempt to reduce Ethiopia to something fashionable at will for the gratification of his tortured mind will never see the light of day. He will remain stuck with repressive methods because his hatred and his hunger for unlimited power always end up by defeating his dream of grandeur.
(Prof. Messay Kebede can be reached at [email protected])