Meles the Pragmatist
Political challenges are dynamic in nature requiring dynamic solutions. In other words, static solutions to dynamic challenges lead to utter failure, misery and chaos. Pragmatism is about focusing one’s efforts on establishing flexible and dynamic political culture able to formulate solutions in creative ways. This is the major contrast between President Isayas Afewerki (PIA) and Prime Minister Meles Zenawi (PMMZ), who facing similar challenges of building a stable political system, chose different political paths. PMMZ the Pragmatist chose a political path of tolerance and engagement with his opponents aimed at creating a tolerant political culture. In contrast, PIA chose to impose his outdated and historically unworkable political solutions on Eritreans, creating and perpetuating a political culture that is intolerant of differences of political opinions and creating a morally and financially bankrupt society. The focus in Eritrea, as PMMZ has done, should have been to learn the requisite culture of political tolerance needed to build a strong country. The outcome of the direction PIA is taking is NOT too difficult to predict, and this is not because we have a crystal ball but because it has been proven time and time again that those who fail to learn from the past (history) are condemned to repeat it.
When PIA and EPLF walked into Asmara on May 24th 1991 and PMMZ and TPLF/EPRDF walked into Addis Ababa a week later, PIA was supposed to have easier time leading a smaller nation than PMMZ with a nation with nearly twenty times the population and infinitely more complex issues. Twenty years later, it is PMMZ who has managed to lead his nation with skill and pragmatism. In contrast, PIA is now arming every Eritrean with a weapon as if NOT a nation being invaded but as if local thieves are going to break into every Eritrean house.
As PMMZ was a pragmatic leader, PIA remains arguably an idealist leader with a temper and ego that makes for a volatile combination that has destroyed Eritrea. PIA is Eritrea’s Robespierre of the French Revolution – except the French removed Robespierre quickly.
Reading the various articles written about PMMZ upon his untimely death and listening to the various tributes coming from the four corners of the world, this writer feels that most have failed, while few have alluded, to capture the true quality of this man and the most important legacy he has left behind. Despite the lazy tributes given to PMMZ as succeeding in the economic front while failing on the democracy front, in my view, PMMZ has succeeded by strengthening the soul and values of its nation. Despite the criticisms of human rights organizations, and they are just doing their jobs, PMMZ dealt with opposition with pragmatism.
Political Principles (PMMZ vs. PIA)
As will be shown below, PMMZ believed in remaining engaged with opponents, applying slight force, i.e. limited and specific force as shown in handling riots, OLF and even Somalia, to maintain control but not to impose absolute power. In contrast, PIA believes in a single principle, “Might is Right”. PIA has used the power entrusted to him through the goodwill of Eritreans to impose an absolute and repressive regime. The use of force includes arbitrary arrests, keeping the youth in perpetual national service, allowing army officers to coerce and rape female in national service and muzzling the population. In contrast, PMMZ is about tolerance while PIA is about intolerance – and in the process, the population of the respective countries are learning same from their leaders. In a way, PMMZ is about optimism in the people, whereas PIA is about looking down on the people, as if they aren’t human but just political tools. Eritrea today is about sadistic politics!
For instance, when PIA has been running around training and arming every opposition worth anything in Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia to create chaos, PMMZ had pursued a policy of containment rather than responding in kind. One such example is the Eritrean opposition. PMMZ has practically ignored them because he believed that a genuine change can only come from within. When PMMZ became more engaged with the Eritrean opposition, it was more to build a wide alliance of political organizations consisting of every segment of the Eritrean population in Diaspora.
Challenges at independence in 1991
In May 1991, PIA (a 44 year old) became a hero for leading Eritreans to independence against all odds. Relatively, Eritrea was expected to thrive as it was relatively endowed with nationalist, hard-working and law-abiding people. PIA had the least challenge to guide a nation into prosperity.
In contrast, PMMZ (a 36 year old) faced significant challenges from the day his forces occupied Addis Ababa and established a government. These were some of the challenges
- Political power had shifted from Showa Amhara to Tigray, and the Showan Amhara weren’t prepared to readily accept this shift of power (such complications didn’t exist in Eritrea)
- PMMZ had to largely demobilize the Dergue army which could have been a source of instability (such complications didn’t’ exist in Eritrea)
- Allowing Eritrea to gain its rightful independence, and especially losing a port, could have been a political suicide – not only among the Amhara population only but also within TPLF.
- A failed nation as its neighbour in Somalia
- Armed opposition groups that refused to join the government, which got worse in early 2000’s.
- Socially and economically unbalanced nation with continued drought and famine issues
Moreover, from the earliest days, when PIA was lavished with goodwill from the Eritrean population, PMMZ faced strikes from civil servants and others.
During 1991 to 1997 period, while PMMZ was dealing with complex challenges and navigating his country through pragmatism, PIA was squandering away his VERY easy opportunity to build a prosperous and politically tolerant nation.
1997 to 2001 Period
By 1996 to 1998, there was a gathering storm in both Ethiopia and Eritrea. PMMZ faced power struggle within the TPLF leadership where Siye Abraha, Ghebru Asrat, Abay Tsehaye and other TPLF members were rumoured to have chosen Seyoum Mesfin to be the leader of TPLF, which would had automatically made him the head of EPRDF and thus head of government. It was rumoured that after intense review, no one other than PMMZ would be acceptable to the Ethiopian people that PMMZ should continue. Regardless, due to internal political struggle, TPLF had pursued a policy of aggravation against Eritrea in Bada, Bure and other bordering areas to divert attention. In 1997, the Tigray administration published a new map that incorporated Eritrean territory.
Similarly, despite PIA’s pretension that Eritrea was a victim of TPLF’s expansionist policies, PIA was itching for a conflict with Ethiopia that would divert internal pressures from within the EPLF to transform Eritrea into constitutional democracy. In 1997, EPLF and the National Assembly ratified the Eritrean Constitution – among which limited the presidential period to two terms. PIA shelved the Constitution, and barely few months later, PIA had begun mobilizing Eritrean army and youths at least 2 months before the May 1998 Badme incident under the pretence of mobilization for development projects but without any particular aim other than to ante up the friction with Ethiopia. It is to be remembered that PIA had told Eritreans in mid-1990’s that Eritrea wouldn’t be dragged into conflicts with Sudan or Egypt, telling us that one ‘needs two hands to clap (similar to saying it takes to tango). The question remains, why did PIA choose to clap his hand with PMMZ? The conclusion can only be to escape from the 1997 Constitution.
As Eritreans, we should only hold PIA responsible for this futile war. As Eritreans, apportioning blame to PMMZ would be to give PIA a wiggling room to escape his sole responsibility, from Eritrean perspective, for engaging in this futile war. Let the Ethiopians hold PMMZ and company responsible for leading them into war.
The manner in which PMMZ expelled Eritreans and Ethiopians of Eritrean origin was illegal. But compared to PIA’s expelling of over 100,000 Eritrean youths into foreign lands and ignoring their plights on the Mediterranean Sea and in the Sinai desert can only be described as a crime. PMMZ robbed these Eritreans of their rightful properties but didn’t kill them. We can get back properties but not precious lives. PMMZ robbed us our properties and livelihood, whereas PIA robbed us the lives of our youths – in their tens of thousands. It would be hypocrisy and criminal to blame PMMZ for robbing us worldly possessions but to turn our blind eyes to PIA robbing us the lives of our precious young Eritreans.
My full respect for PMMZ emanates from what happened after the end of the Ethio-Eritrea war. PMMZ imprisoned his political opponents as PIA did. Abay Tsehaye recanted quickly and returned to PMMZ fold. Ghebru Asrat, Siye Abraha and others were imprisoned from few months to few years after being charged for various crimes (be it trumped up or else). Unlike PIA, these opponents were brought to trial, imprisoned with full access to their families and decent facilities, and later released and allowed to either stay in Ethiopia or leave the country. This can only be a true mark of a pragmatic man determined to strengthen the soul of a country.
In contrast, PIA imprisoned his opponents without bringing them to trial, then incarcerating them in the most inhumane manner that has robbed the soul of the Eritrean nation. To make matters worse, the wives of opposition members, such as Mrs. Aster Yohannes, were imprisoned in the cruelest way that has killed the collective consciousness of Eritreans. A nation without compassion and conscious is a dead country.
Where PIA is slowing killing the collective consciousness of the Eritrean people – under the pretext of national security and imaginary development projects, PMMZ left an indomitable mark based on respect of human life and reformation.
Post 2001 Years
The Post Ethio-Eritrea war period has accentuated the differences between PMMZ as the pragmatist and PIA as a leader at a loss.
- Border Conflict – despite the border decision of 2002 in favour of mostly Eritrea (but remember all the disputed land is Eritrean), PIA’s lack of diplomatic skills has resulted in Eritrea being ostracized from the world. Instead of coming that much closer to resolving the border issue, PIA finds himself defending on grudge matches in the diplomatic battlefields. Meles the Pragmatist is teaching us the lesson that wars aren’t solely fought on military battlefields but on socio-economic, political and diplomatic battlefields. If result is the basis of our conclusions, PMMZ was winning hands down.
- Development Projects – PMMZ has dug deep into every world pocket to obtain funds for various development objects. While PIA is installing additional 44 MW in 12 years, PMMZ is adding in excess of 5,000 MW of Energy. Universities and colleges are established in every corner of the country, airline and train projects are modernised and upgraded, and export projects have shown solid results. In contrast, Eritrea’s development project is Animal Farm’s windmill called Gerset/Farko which no one can tell what its production will be. Few Italians (Denadai, Baratollo, etc….) with few thousand Eritreans managed to build 10 times Gerset/Farko, i.e. the Forto Dam, Gahtelai Dam, Asmara Dam, Ali Gidir projects, with highly profitable exports using 1900 technologies. All this while building infrastructures from scratch. While PIA was busy belittling and expelling local investors, PMMZ courted big ones (such as Sheik Al-Amoudi) and small ones by providing them with easy access to credit and giving priorities to local contractors on government projects. PIA would only give project contracts to PFDJ [Read PIA] or Chinese companies.
- Political Reforms – PIA and his apologists and excuse makers keep telling us that the 2005 and 2010 Ethiopian national elections were frauds or simply political showmanship. As they say Rome wasn’t built in a day. Nation building, including building democratic institutions, is a long process that must pass through the requisite learning curve. PIA or any other genius can NOT install democratic institutions in one shot, and what PMMZ has done is to help Ethiopians move down the learning curve in controlled manner. Unlike Eritrea which experienced a degree of democratic institutions during British administration, Ethiopians have never experienced multi-party parliamentary elections. Although PMMZ temporarily imprisoned his political opposition, it was done only as a means of maintaining order rather than as vindictive political tool.
- Political and Public Institutions - While PMMZ continued to work with and developed Ethiopian and regional parliaments, TPLF, EPRDF, opposition parties, unions and other institutions, PIA destroyed EPLF, the National Assembly, unions and anything resembling a road block to his free reign. PFDJ is a defunct organization that hasn’t met in 12 years. Eritrean judicial system is so corrupt that it is an instrument of repression. The PMMZ government published government budgets, exports, production growth, while not a single Eritrean can say what the revenues of the Eritrean regime is, and where people’s money is going. The Eritrean Central Bank is defunct transferring all hard currency (in 2004/2005 alone transferred over $450 Million to unknown destination), and the only known foreign assets are stashed under PIA’s name in China. Building institutions is NOT about destroying one and building one anew, but rather going down a learning curve. Every year lost will take ten years to get on track. As such, PMMZ has built institutions that are light years away from Eritrean ones. As one sign of PMMZ’s efforts to bring accountability in Ethiopia, and Eritrea is going the opposite direction, a conflict of interest guideline was introduced a couple of years ago for all government employees.
- Socio-Economic Conditions – Inflation in Ethiopia has skyrocketed making life difficult in Ethiopia. But the situation in Eritrea is worse because rampant inflation is accompanied by dead economy. In contrast, the Ethiopian economy is dynamic and part of the price increases has flowed to the rural areas, which have become the backbone of the EPRDF regime. Eritrea is now the largest exporter of refugees on per capita basis, and even very high in absolute terms. Whereas PMMZ has welcomed local and international investors, PIA has thrown them out. No objective observant can tell what socio-economic developments have taken in Eritrea during the 2001 – 2012 period.
Despite the fretting among the genuinely concerned and those political pundits who believe that they benefit from the fall of the Tigrayan power or the collapse of Ethiopia, all peace loving people, including the short- and term-long term interest of Eritrea, is intricately tied to the political stability of Ethiopia.
Above all, the TPLF should remain a source of strength for EPRDF and Ethiopia. One should remain optimistic that TPLF/EPRDF can avoid the challenges of fourteen years ago that challenged the TPLF. It is worth remembering that after the death of Atse (Emperor) Yohannes, Ras Alula beseeched the Tigrayan feudal lords to stick together and repel the new Atse Minilik. Instead, the Tigrayan feudal lords who resented the common man Ras Alula rising to become the army commander under Atse Yohannes, defected to Atse Minilik. However, the patient Atse Minilik courted Ras Alula into his fold and eliminated the Tigrayan feudal lords for being traitors.
As Eritreans, we do not want political void.
However, Meles the Pragmatist has played a major role in helping Ethiopia to remain politically stable way beyond his life. Among other factors, the political culture of engagement and tolerance should force Ethiopian politicians to play by the same rules, lest they become unpopular quickly. Even the fact that PMMZ conducted two elections, something that hasn’t happened in Ethiopian history, is something no aspiring Ethiopian politician can set aside without severe repercussions.
Moreover, by tying Ethiopia’s political and economical life so closely with the US, the West and other international institutions, aspiring Ethiopian politicians can NOT deviate from Meles’ political path without quickly creating diplomatic and political schism with these countries and institutions. No Ethiopian leader, for personal ego reasons and political prudence, would want to be shut out of G8/G20, NEPAD, UK’s Africa Commission, Africa’s Environmental Commissioner, etc and expect to outperform PMMZ, who has raised the stature of himself and the nation that much higher.
This is not to say that totalitarian dictatorship isn’t possible in Ethiopia – and we Eritreans are the first ones to affirm this, but these aren’t the Cold War days when dictators can seek shelter under the Soviets. As PIA is quickly learning, diverging from Western World’s agenda is to create unnecessary political hardships, and even suicide.
The choice of Acting PM Hailemariam Desalegne is an exciting choice. Here is a man who is young at 47-year old, a technocrat, from non-Amhara and non-Tigrigna ethnic group and not from the main stream religions.
The choice of PM Hailemariam is about repudiating and crossing from the violent past to next generation who, hopefully, focus on building a modern Ethiopia based on social justice and rule-of-law.
In contrast, there is no succession plan in Eritrea. Instead of passing the torch to the younger generation as Min. Petros Solomon had proposed, the younger generation in Eritrea is now thrown back to the intolerant and divisive politics of the ‘ghedli’ (struggle for independence) era. This is also the case with the Eritrean opposition. A new generation of politics can NOT succeed in a nation of PIA who has driven political intolerance to its zenith.
Simplistic political propaganda will say that PM Hailemariam will be an outcast from the TPLF regime. Transforming Ethiopia into a modern state requires evolutionary process where power is transferred from TPLF to all Ethiopians in controlled manner for the benefit of all Ethiopians. What the new generation of Ethiopian leaders should concentrate is to build the public and political institutions that PMMZ had begun to build. It is important to ignore those who believe that they benefit from chaos. TPLF should only see itself as temporary vanguard of Ethiopian political stability, and remain engaged, as PMMZ has done, in slowly disseminating power to the various institutions.
Ethiopians have enjoyed the dividends of the diplomatic skills of Emperor Haileselase for decades. However, PMMZ has used his diplomatic skills to become permanent fixtures at G8/G20 and other important international meetings and organizations.
The efforts of PMMZ will similarly pay dividends for years to come – not only internationally but also in their domestic politics.
The political pundits are speculating that Ethiopia’s infighting for the political mantle will lead to the next round of conflict with Eritrea. Others speculate that Eritrea may be tempted to claim the territories awarded to it while, presumably, Ethiopia undergoes through political void.
All these are idle speculations. The probability of the border being demarcated under PMMZ was much higher than successive regimes. Newer regimes can’t finalize the border issue without tempting their own political fate.
If an Amhara regime agrees to abide by the border decision, the Tigrayans will go up in arms because the disputed land lies within their territory. In addition, an Amhara regime that doesn’t accept the secession of Eritrea, and especially resulting in the loss of the Asseb Port, wouldn’t give up more land. Similarly, a Tigrayan leader would find it difficult to secede land to Eritrea without severe political consequences.
The best Ethiopian government to negotiate with is one where a strong leader with political muscle sees the benefits of demarcating the border.
PIA’s Vindication through Pyrrhic Victory Lost
As most speculate, the border conflict wasn’t about the border but ultimately a grudge war between PIA and PMMZ. In his last days, PMMZ must feel satisfied that he has played his cards masterfully against PIA. But judging PMMZ, he is not a vindictive person but a pragmatist who would have sought reconciliation with PIA.
In contrast, PIA is a vindictive person. Among many examples is Mrs. Aster Yohannes who was solely imprisoned as vindictive acts against her husband, Min. Petros Solomon. PIA must feel totally robbed in knowing that he didn’t get his day to humiliate PMMZ. Vindictive leaders are known through history who only got satisfaction when they physically tortured their main opponents.
Was PMMZ Eritrea’s friend? The opposition has been trying to sell us that PMMZ is a true friend of Eritrea. Meles the Pragmatist would probably say that ‘Ethiopia has neither permanent friends nor enemies, but permanent interests’. And as such, if PMMZ could use PIA to destroy Eritrea which would then allow the break up of Eritrea leading to Ethiopia regaining port or simply as weaker neighbour, PMMZ wouldn’t hesitate to do it. But what differentiates pragmatist enemies as opposed to paranoid enemies is that pragmatists work within realistic situations. Pragmatist enemies would work with strong Eritrea, but would not hesitate to undermine their friends or enemies whenever opportunities arise. In contrast, paranoid enemies would pursue scorched earth approach in their efforts to destroy everything everywhere in pursuit of their Pyrrhic Victories. We should always pray for pragmatist leaders for ourselves and as our friends and as our enemies. Deep down, this writer is inclined to believe that PMMZ sought realistic political resolution to Ethio-Eritrea conflict after 2002 – i.e. once he consolidated power.
In summary, PMMZ is a transformational and pragmatist leader who sought to build solid socio-political, legal and economic foundations upon which successive generations can build. This is PMMZ’s legacy as a great leader – he wants the next generation to build on what he has started. In contrast, PIA hopes to revive his hero status of 1991 by destroying Eritrea and thus making it difficult for successive Eritrean governments to lead the nation, and hoping that the ensuing chaos would make the Eritrean population long for the return of his rule. Can the next generation in Eritrea build on the foundations of lack of transparency, unaccountability, intolerance, injustice and corruption that PIA has laid down for them? This is the sad state of Eritrea.
With deep respects and appreciation
May God bless PMMZ’s soul!
August 29, 2012