by Shiferaw Abebe
I have to admit I was somewhat surprised by the emotional outpouring from Addis residents for the death of Ato Meles, particularly following the arrival of the coffin from Brussels. I am though very curious, to say the least, why the coffin arrived under the cover of darkness. Why didn’t they keep it in Brussels for a while so that it could arrive in Addis in the morning in broad day light? The TPLF enterprise is weird in death as in life.
As for the outpouring of grief from the Addis populace, there could be a few rationalizations. One is that Ato Meles has undoubtedly strong support from some section of the society who have benefited from the system he put in place. All leaders, including the wicked, somehow, muster some level of support from some quarter of the society they rule.
Second, Ethiopians are culturally predisposed to showing mercy and a softer heart toward the deceased, so goes the amharic saying: *’yemote lij angetu rejim naw’*.
Third, there is the sociological phenomenon called call ‘herd behaviour’ to look to others to see how to behave. We humans are hardwired to show this behavior. Actually, this behavior must be stronger in our case since we value social conformity more than any other society I can think of.
Lastly, of course, Ato Meles’ death was a sad event after all. He was only 57 years old. It would be great if he were to live longer to see the wedding of his children and to watch his grand children grow. It was also a sad view to watch his wife cry uncontrollably for the death of a husband with whom she had gone through thin and thick dating back their rebel days.
Not to take away anything from Ato Meles’ admirers if it means something to them, but what we see via YouTube could be quite deceptive since a camera always gives an exaggerated representation of reality by circumscribing the reference point. The fact is if tens of thousands of Addis residents came to the streets to receive Ato Meles’ coffin, millions were at their homes, perhaps nursing not his death but the uncertainty his departure has created.
Some say Ato Meles died before he had a chance to enjoy life. This is not only foolish, but also a bad homage to the life and times of the late Prime Minister. Observing his disposition over the last two decades, pity would be the last thing Ato Meles would appreciate. The truth is also that Ato Meles had enjoyed life at least since he came to power for he valued power more than anything else. Why else did he cling to it for 21 years? Why else – if not for the enjoyment of the life power afforded him – did he kill many and imprisoned countless to stay in power for more than two decades?
To put things in perspective, the current sombre environment will pass in the days and weeks to come. What will remain is Ato Meles’ legacy – the good, the bad, and the ugly. I believe he has done some good. But before we get carried away, let me also say every leader does some good. Furthermore, even where Ato Meles did well, I believe, others could have done much better if they were given a chance. Many cite the roads and other infrastructures built in Ethiopia as positives to his legacy. One has to be reminded of the more than $40 billion aid money he received over the years which is enough to build more than what he built over the 21 year rule.
If we overcome our gullibility, Ato Meles’ economic achievements are in fact below mediocre. Ethiopia’s economy is largely sustained by outside money – aid, loan, and remittance – not by the surplus created internally. If these three sources were to stop flowing suddenly, the government and indeed the country could go bankrupt over night. If Ato Meles’ admirers know shame, they have to remind themselves of the fact that, twenty one years later, millions of Ethiopians still live at the edge of starvation.
The worst legacy of Ato Meles is his human rights record. He and his acolytes have turned Ethiopia into a massive prison house. There have been more prisoners in Ethiopia under Ato Meles than under the notorious Mengistu. Remember, Ato Meles came to power promising to set free Ethiopian nations and nationalities from the pseudo bondage of Amhara rule. Ironically, Ethiopian prisons are full to the brim by those same people he promised to set free.
No doubt Ato Meles was a clever man. He had a higher IQ than anyone around him. (No surprise here in view of the people Ato Meles had surrounded himself with and given his disposition to being deeply anti-intellectual). He was also a smart man who understood the cue and language of world power politics faster and better than the other African leaders. No surprise he rose to the top among them.
But the fact is the West has a very low standard for African leaders. By that standard, Ato Meles was an exceptional leader to them, so they bestowed on him all kinds of accolades in the past and on the occasion of his passing. If any leader in the West did a fraction of the crimes Ato Meles did, they would have gone for his throat. But for an African tyrant, killing 200 innocent people in broad day light, children and the elderly included, and throwing tens of thousands to jail does not tilt the scale against him just yet. What is so sensational about hundreds dead by bullets of a tyrant in a land where tens of thousands die of starvation, seems the sentiment. The West’s assessment of African affairs and African politics and economics remains hollow and self serving.
In the final analysis, the true and legitimate judges of Ato Meles’ legacy are Ethiopians.
In life, Ato Meles was never accepted by most Ethiopians as a truly Ethiopian ruler. He never belonged to his subjects. Ethiopians were always convinced that his true love and heart belonged elsewhere. He has done lasting damages to Ethiopia than any leader before him, one of which is rendering the country landlocked. He is someone who derived pride in robbing Ethiopia a sea outlet. The national security implication aside, the economic cost of being landlocked will remain a staggering blow for a poor country like Ethiopia.
In sickness, Ato Meles nursed his ailment in isolation, without visitation or good wishes from his relatives, his close ‘comrades’, if any, his cabinet, and his admirers. His illness was hid from the Ethiopian people as long as it was possible. Even after his subordinates admitted his sickness, they shrouded it with childishly silly statements that contradicted each other. The people who now appear to be grief stricken didn’t have the chance to say their prayers for his recovery. To this date, there is no official statement as to where Ato Meles received medical treatment, let alone the nature of the ailment that took his life.
Death often brings a redeeming opportunity but not for Ato Meles. When he knew he was dying he could have set free the many political prisoners who are unjustly incarcerated and/or sentenced to long prison terms on utterly fabricated charges. This single act would have gone a long way toward redeeming his name and legacy. It could also have set a political trajectory his successors could follow to usher a healing and reconciliation process for a healthy political transition in the country.
Alas, only his coffin, not his goodwill, was brought to Ethiopia under the cover of darkness in a rainy night. It was a pitiable scene. During the reception at Bole Airport, we observe his family members and the coffin emerging from different parts of the plane. Apparently, the body of the all powerful man was kept alone in the cargo compartment for the flight from Brussels. We see at the far corner of the footage Ato Meles’ coffin being handled by four ordinary airport workers like any ordinary luggage. None of his subordinate dignitaries rushed to take care of it. In fact, no one seemed to care to notice it. Even when alive, Ato Meles was essentially a lonely person. He never mingled with ordinary Ethiopians for any event even for a handshake. In twenty one years at the helm of power, he has visited only a few places in Ethiopia.
No doubt Ato Meles has left a big shoe for his ill prepared subordinates to fill. They are like a cast without their star actor. For now they are mustering all the bravado vowing to stay the course the master had charted and left behind. This is a bad omen for the country and eventually for them too. If they want to leave a better legacy than Ato Meles, at the very least, they must free all political prisoners, allow more freedom of the press, and open up the political space for opposition parties to operate freely and vie for political power peacefully. The country has to start a healing and reconciliation journey so the time comes when Ethiopians celebrate and mourn together the lives and deaths of their future leaders.
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