Meles Zenawi: the Marxist-Leninist Master of “Capitalist Speak”
By Theodore M. Vestal
Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, revered by some and reviled by many, died last month under suspicious circumstances only vaguely explained by his TPLF colleagues. As the Woyane wept in official mourning, the world considered the legacy of Meles’ twenty-one year reign. He was the latest “big man” to rule in Ethiopia in a line extending back to the Emperor Theodore in the mid-19th century. He and his party (in whatever guise of initials or acronyms used along the way) had fought to attain hegemony (one of their favorite words) and struggled to maintain it.
A native of Adwa, Meles grew up in Tigray during the 1960s when ethnic chauvinism and Tigrayan “victimhood” flourished. In Addis Ababa he graduated from the General Wingate School, where he perfected his English but apparently did not pick up on the British sporting sense of fair play. He spent two years studying medicine at Haile Selassie I University, a hotbed of Marxist-Leninist intrigue among the radicalized students in the time leading up to the velvet revolution that disposed the monarchy. He dropped out in 1975 to join the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a group fighting the ruling Derg during the bloody Ethiopian civil war. While a guerrilla warrior, Meles was a founder of the Marxist-Leninist League of Tigray. Thereafter, he always was a Marxist at heart, although he could have a change of heart when conditions warranted. Meles was a careful student of Marxist theory and an articulate spokesman for the ideology. He especially admired the Stalinist brand of communism practiced in Albania by Hoxha, who flipped the bird to both the socialist-revered USSR and PRC. By the end of the civil war when the Derg was defeated in 1991, Meles had worked his way up through the ranks to be chairperson of both the TPLF and the newly created Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a mélange of four ethnic parties, which assumed power in the country with the blessing of the United States. He became president of the Transitional Government of Ethiopia (TGE), which set up a governing system of “ethnic federalism” and facilitated the secession of Eritrea from the country.
In June 1993, Meles and associates wrote down the goals and modus operandi of the EPRDF in a secret sixty-eight page document in Amharic, Our Revolutionary Democratic Goals and the Next Steps. The document proclaimed “Revolutionary Democracy” in place of Marxist socialism as the party’s ideology and modestly asserted that “our revolutionary democratic goals are the only guarantee for the survival of the country.” If one accepts that founding principle, the strategy document can be seen as a brilliant distillation of Marxist-Leninist theories featuring the tried and proved methods of communist command and control. Unfortunately, the democracy theorized by the EPRDF bears little resemblance to traditional definitions of the term that are based on power being widely shared. Instead the EPRDF recycles Lenin’s oxymoronic democratic centralism. The “democracy” there exists in the freedom of members of the party to discuss and debate matters of policy and direction and to decide such matters by majority vote. Once the decision is made, all members are expected to uphold it. And woe be to those who don’t. As Lenin described it, democratic centralism consisted of “freedom of discussion, unity of action.” The key to the centralism of the EPRDF was in ensuring that whatever the forum, a majority of participants could be counted on to reflect the outcome predetermined by the Front leaders. All forums were to have an odd number of participants with a majority trusted to vote the politically correct way. And so it was in election committees, election review boards, “parliaments,” constitutional conventions, and all other official decision-making bodies. With a façade of democracy in action, centralism worked as it was supposed to.
Using its democratic centralism in 1995, the EPRDF drafted a constitution, debated it, and got it ratified. The new supreme law of the land created the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE) and reinforced EPRDF hegemony over the country. The constitution formalized ethnic federalism that in theory should have divided power between the central government and the regions. In reality, both government and civil society were fragmented on the basis of ethnicity, a part of a divide-and-rule system. In every regional government, a shadow party organization operated as a disciplined phalanx to carry out the will of the EPRDF leadership. Apparent devolution, while real power is retained at the center and used repressively, has increased rather than lessened the disharmony of Ethiopia’s ethnic groups.
Perhaps the most controversial article of the constitution vested ownership of land and natural resources in the State. Ethiopians may be granted the use of the land, but constitutionally, they are merely tenants of the State. Land ownership remains a festering sore in the Ethiopian body politic where the sufficient material base for a sense of personal independence and self-respect are denied citizens. Had the EPRDF drafters of the constitution been influenced by Machiavelli rather than the Soviet Constitution of 1977, they might have been more concerned that “when neither their property nor their honor is touched, the majority of men live content.”
In the general elections of 1995, the EPRDF won a resounding victory, and the first prime minister of the FDRE selected by the parliament was Meles Zenawi. Shortly after the elections, the Front published another secret Amharic document, Guideline for EPRDF’s Organizational Structure and Operation, which describes the configuration of the centralized and secretive revolutionary party that works primarily through its cadre, “professional revolutionaries,” whose occupation consists largely or entirely of political activity. Well trained and disciplined cadres accounted for much of the success of the EPRDF in imposing its will on the populace.
After his election as premiere, Meles astutely followed the script of Revolutionary Democracy and added gloss to it during his reign. The strategy document provided techniques for beguiling donor nations and international bodies with what the party appears to do even as the Front follows a very different agenda in its actions. In that effort, the new “masters of deceit” have been most successful. Meles, the Marxist, became the poseur for democracy, capitalism, and free enterprise. He made a good impression on the leaders of donor nations and international organizations with his poised, well-spoken personal charm. President Clinton praised Meles as the leader of a new generation of African leaders, and he represented Africa at G8 and other significant meetings. Ethiopia benefited from being an ally of the United States in the war on terror and standing as a bulwark against the spread of fundamentalist Islam and providing the appearance of stability in the Horn of Africa.
In truth, the FDRE under Meles was a one party totalitarian state. The EPRDF is the supreme political institution of the state and is the prime legal force of societal organization. By controlling both the public and private sectors of society, the party runs a “plausibly deniable” state. Given the opacity of the inner workings of the government, it is difficult to say where the FDRE ends and the EPRDF begins. When either entity is accused of wrongdoing, independent confirmation of responsibility for the action is nearly impossible. Any act that leaves little or no evidence of wrongdoing or abuse can be plausibly denied. Meles and the Front created power structures and chains of command loose and informal enough to be denied (plausibly) if necessary.
The Front reigns because EPRDF leaders, with their superior knowledge of the nature of social development conferred upon them by the party ideology know what was good for the people who needed an able and unifying political party through which to represent themselves and exercise political leadership. In the clever guise of political pluralism in ethnic parties and fronts controlled by the EPRDF, this single-party state was created. To ensure the party’s hegemony, the EPRDF needed to win all elections successively and to hold power without letup. Following the strategy document, the Front did whatever it took to win all elections and to try to destroy effective political opposition. The bloody 2005 election was exemplary of the extremes to which the EPRDF will resort to win at any cost. Having again marginalized political opposition, the EPRDF in 2010 elections could muster only 99.6 percent of the seats in parliament–a shameful mockery of free and fair elections.
Backed by a monopoly of terror, the army, police, and security forces have never hesitated to punish detractors of the regime and suppress the human rights of citizens. The long list of human rights abuses by the Meles regime is sadly documented by hosts of reliable sources and includes extrajudicial arrests, torture, disappearances, and murder of any citizen who attempts “to obstruct the exercise of the rights of the masses” (i.e., disagree with the EPRDF or the government). Indeed, the EPRDF has been an equal opportunity oppressor of all elements of society with the incarceration of prisoners of conscience, journalists, and leaders and members of opposition political parties and the suppression of peasants, businessmen, religious groups, academics, and members of professional trade associations. Caste and ethnicity are no bars.
The free flow of information is vital to a democracy. The EPRDF has staunched the flow by controlling the means of publishing or broadcasting and preventing outside sources to bring news into the country via the internet or airwaves. Ethiopia is listed among the world’s top 10 online oppressors, and government harassment of the private press by routine use of detention and imprisonment and the imposition of prohibitive fines and bail amounts on journalists and editors enjoys international notoriety. Ideally, the government and the people should be in a continuous conversation about the needs of the nation. Under the EPRDF model, the government has a monopoly on what can be said, with the people allowed only a voice in affirming the Front’s wisdom. Whatever top-down monopoly of the conversation the EPRDF had is evaporating with new, inexpensive technologies facilitating communication among people. The Ethiopian Emperor’s lack of raiment will increasingly be made public even over the EPRDF’s blockade of media.
Meles’ accomplishments, touted and burnished by his party, were primarily in economic development, a finding stringently questioned by his critics, foreign and domestic. Informed economists find the sources of statistics expounding Ethiopia’s economic growth questionable, and the general poverty of the population belies optimistic figures about how their plight is lessening. All agree that the EPRDF seized the “commanding heights of the economy” with a boost from its two-track public and private powers. Government fiscal policies eased the way for a selected few of the party faithful and encouraged foreign investment. Cut flowers are now being exported, and “party capitalists” of the EPRDF elite are making money. “Endowment companies” better known as party companies have prospered, as has the state of Tigray.
Others have not done so well under the APRDF’s “authoritarian developmentalism.” Prime agricultural lands in huge parcels are being leased to foreign agribusinesses to raise food crops for shipment to other countries at a time when Ethiopia continues to receive food aid. To his credit, Meles developed ties with China that helped expand the country’s infrastructure with the building of roads and schools and also a new $200 million headquarters for the Africa Union in Addis Ababa complete with a statue of Nkrumah of Ghana rather than Emperor Haile Selassie in the place of honor in front. Meles’ dam projects have initiated a burgeoning hydro-electric power industry that could have serious implications for the residents along the waterways.
In eulogies of the Prime Minister, the Meles government is “credited” with reforms in creating a multi-party political system in Ethiopia (!), in introducing the private press in Ethiopia (!), and in decreasing child mortality rates. All of these credits deserve asterisks and further explanation or refutation. Yes, Prime Minister, but…
Meles had glib answers to most questions from the Revolutionary Democracy document when he could speak in a controlled setting. He was at a loss for words, however, when confronted by a well-informed, prominent Ethiopian journalist who heckled him at a G8 Symposium in Washington, D.C., in May 2012. The eloquent writer and blogger, Abebe Gelaw, shouted “Freedom! Freedom! Meles Zenawi is a Dictator! You are committing crime against humanity!” Not used to being in a land where freedom of speech is the norm, the Prime Minister epitomized the state of being nonplussed. Shortly after the incident, Meles dropped out of public view until his death was reported. It was ironic that the man whose government had “disappeared” so many political opponents was himself disappeared by his government colleagues.
What Meles should be credited with was the instigation of a government that has endured in troubled peace for over two decades. Had he and his comrades not been so thoroughly schooled in the Marxist-Leninist theories of rule by might, they might have used the opportunity provided them as successors to the hated Derg to open Ethiopia to truly democratic governance. In a civil exchange of letters in 1995, I wrote Meles:
You have the power, Mr. Prime Minister, to move quickly and decisively to change the course of Ethiopian history.
By opening political processes to meet the standards of the democratic ideal and by ending human rights abuses, you would make popular sovereignty and self-rule realities, and you would be honored for generations by your countrymen as the statesman who had the courage to share political power and to lead his party into open competition for public offices. It would take a courageous man to step away from the surety of authoritarian rule and to submit himself and his party to the uncertainty required in a truly democratic competition. But you are, I believe, such a man.
Alas, Meles disproved my belief. His high regard for Hoxha with his admiration of Stalinism outweighed his knowledge of Nelson Mandela with “Forgiveness and Goodness.” In my personal dealings with him, Meles seemed a bright, competent, and likeable person. He extended personal kindnesses to me for which I was most grateful. But Meles was a complex man ruling a complicated nation. Future historians will have the task of assaying his legacy and contributions to his homeland.
One can hope that Meles’ successor will open doors for honest communication about the future of Ethiopian governance and society. Most immediately, Ethiopia needs to reaffirm the significance of constitutionalism for the country. The essence of constitutionalism is a limit on government power.This is the most important reason why Ethiopia so badly needs constitutionalism. The overconcentration of government powers without checks and balances is the root cause of so many social problems plaguing the nation. Meanwhile, true power will remain with those EPRDF leaders who control the military, the police, and security forces and the elites who have a chokehold on the economy.
Theodore M. Vestal
Professor Emeritus of Political Science
Oklahoma State UniversityTulsa, Oklahoma