Ethiopia: The Need to Deconstruct the Personality Cult Built around Meles Zenawi
By Semahagh Gashu Abebe (PhD)
The Ethiopian regime and supports are commemorating the second year anniversary of the passing away of Ethiopia’s long time dictator Meles Zenawi. Although the late leader was responsible for making Ethiopia a land locked country and masterminded a repressive ideology that has made the Ethiopian political discourse divisive and unpredictable, his sudden departure had gripped the nation causing credible concern including to his detractors. This is mainly due to the fact that the country has not departed from its totalitarian past and political power has never been institutionalized in the country’s long history. In the past, Ethiopian emperors had absolute legislative, judicial, and executive power. Though the 1974 revolution had terminated the legitimacy of imperial rule, the autocratic form of governance that grants absolute power to head of the state has not been altered. The trends of worshiping the ‘legacies’ of Meles Zenawi is partly due to the continuity of the repressive culture. However, the level of adulation extended to the late leader is unprecedented and transformed into a dangerous precedent.
The most worrying developments related to the death of Meles Zenawi is the attempts made by the regime to perpetuate a personality cult around the deceased leader. The regime has been widely engaged in the adulation of the late leader as ‘the great leader’, the visionary leader’ through using media manipulation and propaganda. The climax of such unprecedented propaganda manifested when the regime erected Meles’s statue at the national museum on 20 August 2014. The legacy of Meles Zenawi has become now a revered issue that may not be freely debated by citizens. Due to the unprecedented level of propaganda exerted in the last two years, many people have become to believe that Meles was indeed a visionary leader.
The personality cult attempted to portray by the ruling group has also brought about a huge psychological impact among the public similar to what happened after the death of Stalin during the former USSR. When Khrushchev delivered a speech on 25 February 1956 sharply criticising the reign of Joseph Stalin, it was reported that some of those present suffered heart attacks and others later committed suicide. Similarly, the continued trend of cultism built around Meles Zenawi will have a lasting psychological impact on our aspiration to build a free and democratic nation. Particularly, the ban and repression of alternative perspectives about Meles Zenawi will significantly undermine the development of independent institutions and prospects of democratic transformation in the country.
Historically, personality cults built around political figures had destructive consequences. A cult of personality arises when a group uses mass media, propaganda, or other methods, to create an idealized, heroic, and at times, worshipful image, often through unquestioning flattery and praise. Personality cults are largely associated with totalitarian regimes where a single leader became associated with this revolutionary transformation, and came to be treated as a benevolent “guide” for the nation without whom the transformation to a better future could not occur. This has been generally the justification for personality cults that emerged in totalitarian regimes such as Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Joseph Stalin in the past .
In a personality cult, the individual leader’s image becomes associated with the new set of values or goals that are perceived by the public to be beneficial to the nation’s well-being. In some cases, such beliefs are maintained even when the said values or goals have a negative effect on the society’s well being. Despite these potential negative effects, personality cults can often be maintained through glorification of the leaders to a benevolent or god-like status. In countries where personality cult of leaders perpetuated such as in North Korea, Cuba, Russia, Libya, Syria and other regimes, break down of democracy, repression, civil strife and instability have occurred.
Thus, this is the time for Ethiopia wholly departs from worshiping the legacy of the divisive political figure and shift towards institutionalizing political power. The central problem that has prevented the country from forming democratic institutions momentarily is the strategy of the ruling group to stay in power through applying different ideologically motivated policies including the adulation of the late leader. Absence of independent institutions has resulted in undermining prospects of democratic transition in the country. Lack of transparency is evident at every level of government in spite of the usual reference by the EPRDF leadership to democratic jargons. Lack of accountability has resulted in public distrust in the institutions and engineered sense of fear among the intellectuals, media and the public. Freedom of expression and the right to association has been severely restricted.
The regime applies different excuses to imprison religious leaders, journalists, opposition political leaders and human rights activists. All the crackdowns coupled with the worsening of economic and social problems are leading the country to the edge of major political chaos. Before it is too late, the regime needs to come to its senses and cease to use the ‘legacy’ of Meles Zenawi for sustaining the repressive and corruptive status quo. Rather, it needs to reverse the trend of building a cult of personality around the late Meles Zenawi and embrace democratic principles and the development of democratic institutions that ensure democratic transformation and political stability in the country.
The writer is a visiting scholar at the Institute of Human Rights at the University of Connecticut and may be reached by email- firstname.lastname@example.org