By Seble Teweldebirhan
Addis Ababa, July 22, 2012 (Ezega.com) – I and several colleagues were inside the AU headquarters last Sunday for the opening of the AU Summit. As the leaders made to their entrance, all of us were entirely staring on the main gate of the building without any attention to what was going on the other sides of the building. In fact, for many of us, the 19th Ordinary African leaders Summit was only a secondary reason to be at the AU compound that day.
The primary reason was this was a moment of truth to clarify the ongoing speculation on the illness of PM Meles Zenawi. If the PM fails to attend the opening of the summit, we thought it was an indication that there was something seriously wrong with his health condition. Especially after some opposition groups and some social media sites claimed that the PM had already died on the night of July 16. The intensity for the journalists was very high.
As several African leaders walked into the main building greeted by the then Commissioner Jean Ping, they did not get the usual attention. Even when the most controversial and headliner leaders like Omar Hassan Al-Bashir of Sudan walked in, they did not get much of an eye from the Ethiopian journalists.
The entire focus, especially for the mostly young Ethiopian media professionals, was to see if PM Meles Zenawi would be able to walk through the door and refute the speculation about his terminal illness. The assumption was if the PM had a few drops of energy and he was in the country, there is no way he would miss the African Summit and affirm the rumor on his critical illness.
As usual, securities of the PM were in the building rushing up and down, talking with their walky-talky radios often. That gave us an impression that the PM might be in the compound. However, we had to see it with our eyes to be sure if that was true. When Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister Hailemariam Deslagne walked into the building, we were disappointed. We let out a long breath, as if our favorite team lost or forfeited a very important game. May be we were like a bunch of children who may have been mistreated or abused by an aggressive father for long, but we still needed his presence for security and continuity.
His absence provided us the certainty that he had a serious illness and he was not in the country at all. However, the speculation that he might have already died was highly questionable when his wife Azeb Mesfin appeared smiling through the door. However, her presence created confusion among us. Some claimed that her appearance assured us that he is not as ill as it was claimed, since if her husband were in a critical state or died, as some claimed, she would not be attending the summit smiling. Others argued that, in fact, it was a sign that showed his critical health condition, since her appearance meant she had to play the diplomacy game, refute other interpretations, and calm the public.
After the Summit began certain that Meles Zenawi, after 19 years of continuous attendance of the Summit, was not taking his chair in the conference hall, I asked myself: why are we worrying to this extent after all? Do we love the PM this much (if we do, it has to be a long-held secret to me). Or, are we just terribly frightened and insecure of what will happen if he is not around?
It is not possible to deny the fact that most Ethiopians have a love/hate relationship with the PM. In fact, there was a time when many considered him as a savior for the country. Though for many journalists at the AU, he is the only leader they ever knew, and most are too young to remember what his early days of power were like, those who have the clear memory claim that, at the beginning, Meles Zenawi appeared to be a leader the country longed to have for centuries.
For anyone who revisited his speeches and commitments in his early days of power, it is not difficult to understand why he holds such a special place in the hearts of many Ethiopians. However, most importantly, his illness tested decades of image building by the media and the ruling party. For the last 20 years, a leader who was solely associated with TPLF and Tigrayan nationalism transformed himself into the leader of the EPRDF and Ethiopia, and making him the only dominant political figure in the entire nation. At the international level, Meles Zenawi is still praised for his impressive economic growth record, his activism for Africa to get its fair share of the damage from climate change, and smooth diplomatic approach that is also backed by the USA.
In the last two decades, several incidents and individuals, especially from his party, the TPLF, challenged his power and leadership. However, Meles always came out at the other end of the crises with more dominance and power.
For the current young generation, Meles is an image firmly printed in their mind and getting rid of it might be difficult especially judging by the confusion most people showed because of his absence.
One can debate about the good and the bad of his rule for weeks and months. But, regarding the relentless public relations work that went through the years, the only thing one can say is ‘bravo’. All the hard work to make people think there is no other way for the country except with Meles Zenawi worked probably beyond anyone of them expected. As the saying goes, “whoever controls the media, controls the mind.”
For the last one week, I have been trying to find those who might argue that the absence of the PM is nothing to worry about. I have asked people whom I thought were very critical of him hoping they will give me a reason why it is OK to see Ethiopia without its long-time leader, Meles Zenawi. My effort did not work. Most said we are better off with him and were frightened to entertain the idea of imagining a nation in his absence.
The predominant view I have heard is that Ethiopia is in a shape that only Meles Zenawi knows how to handle. Many see several critical differences and situations among Ethiopians that threaten the country as a time bomb. The exact minute this bomb will explode, according to them, is when the PM is no longer the leader.
This deep-rooted fear is not only the opinion of ordinary citizens but also of some opposition political leaders. A prominent opposition member who was not willing to be named told me that if EPRDF stayed in power it is very important we have Meles Zenawi as a PM. According to him, only Meles knows how to govern and have the necessary commitment to deal with the situations the country is going through today. That is because he was the mastermind behind every intricacy that the country went through in the last two decades and only himself knows the way out.
PM Meles holds an image of brilliance, commitment, courage, consistency, and energy to make things happen. These characters are testified not only by his party officials, but also by those who claim to oppose his rule and his party. Indeed, this is more than we can say for any of the current political leaders in the country. The disagreement is mostly about what Meles Zenawi does with these qualities.
For the last several weeks, his illness has been a source of worry and uncertainty for many. The dominant opinion I observed is this: it is not the time for him to leave his post. After more than two decades in power, most people do not seem ready to deal with the fact that he cannot lead the country forever. Even if we have forgotten the democratic rule we were supposed to live by, at the end of the day, the PM is as human as anyone of us, and someone who might be incapacitated to lead the nation for one reason or the other. However, such thought appears to be scary and a source of insecurity for many.
Contrary to what some of us may conclude, the fact that people feel this way is far more frightening than the PM’s health condition. This is because this attitude is a very bold testimony that the country certainly depends on one individual, and it is far from building a system (let alone a democratic one) that will carry us forward no matter who holds the leadership chair.
Regardless of how able someone may be, no one in his or her right mind can argue that, in a country of about 90 million people, there is no one as capable or even more capable as any leader. If, after nearly a quarter of century rule, we are indeed feeling insecure and frightened at the prospect of transition, that means we have failed. The country has failed. Our rule has failed in the normal sense of continuity and collective governance as a nation. And this can never be a sign of a successful nation – socially, politically or economically.
Successful nations and people do not fall upon leadership change. Only totalitarian systems do. In death, as in life, such systems do not fare well. History is full of examples of this. We witnessed this recently with many of the former Eastern-bloc countries – the USSR, East Germany, Yugoslavia, etc. Let’s hope ours is not one of them. After all, we have had enough misfortune following the 'divine' His Majesty Haile Selassie, and the 'almighty' Derg. This time ought to be different.
Seble Teweldebirhan is Addis Ababa based Reporter for Ezega.com. She can be reached by sending email through this form.