By Mukhtar M. Omer
23 July 2012
Meles is ill, possibly terminally. His absence from the African Union (AU) summit finally served as the proverbial white-hair which a ravenous hyena vomited in the middle of a village which could not account for one of its elderly women. It was a seamless alibi, for it is well-known that Meles relishes big stages and would not have missed one if he was fine. The news of Meles’s bad health sparked speculations, rumors, lies and muddles of all sort. The bulk of the buzz that followed the confirmation of Meles’s illness centered on whether he will survive or not, whether he is indeed alive or already dead, and on potential line-up of rivals in the duel for power within the ruling party. All these issues are relevant, but they should not have been made the most important in the larger scheme of the current Ethiopian politics.
The noise of optimism in the opposition corridors following news of Meles’s illness is an instinctive expression of Schadenfreude by an opposition so eager for a representational triumph, after decades of unrelenting setbacks and failures. It is not the hubbub of hopeful antagonists who expect the demise of Meles to usher a dawn of new politics in Ethiopia. In fact, it is a vivid sketch of the level of desperation in the divided and outwitted Ethiopian political opposition. The exit of Meles can only offer any political dividend if the opposition is able to chart a winning political agenda and strategy. In the absence of this, the ghoulish joy of the last few days cannot be anything above and over an agitated moment of foolish exuberance. The death of Meles is not a sin quo non for political transition. Nor should his survival be a deterrent to such transition. Meles’s bad health, at best, predisposes TPLF weakness; it does not preordain opposition resurgence.
If Meles is incapacitated, Haile-Mariam Desalegn, the Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, will likely succeed him. Meles has been grooming Haile-Mariam for the Premiership. Haile-Mariam is a Woleita from the politically underdog Southern Nations, Nationalities and People Region (SNNPR) and is unlikely to have any real authority. Real power will remain with the military chief-of-staff General Mohamed (Samora) Yunis and the executive committee of TPLF. Azeb Mesfin, Meles’s wife, will continue to play key role in the short-run, and the system will survive the tremors caused by Meles’s sudden departure. Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) bigwigs like Birhane Gabre-Kiristos, Tewodros Adhenom, Abay Woldu and others will be on the saddle. The founding father of the TPLF, Sibhat Nega, could make a come-back and start to recoup some influence by way of political primogeniture. Nega was in the cold for some time, sidelined by Meles, after he clashed with Azeb. Any existing fissures between the ruling personalities will be healed or roofed in the immediate future as the fear of collective demise looms. The servile Bereket Simon and his Amhara National Democtatic Movement (ANDM) will remain loyal to the new leaders. The Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO), a constituent party of the EPRDF, has neither the ambition nor the ability to mount any challenge to the TPLF. The political contour and direction will remain largely the same.
That, however, does not mean the absence of Meles will not be felt. He is, by far, the most creative member of the ruling regime. The TPLF/EPRDF will miss him, particularly in the international arena, where he skillfully managed to accentuate his development credentials and cloud his despotic practices with plausible falsehoods. He is not always convincing but benefited from the willful credulity of a West preoccupied with other agendas in the Horn; a west, which needed his lies to advance its interests. But the EPRDF has many eloquent demagogues and it will find a serviceable alter-ego for Meles.
The new leaders of the regime will also benefit from the lessons Meles bequeathed to them. Every time its rule faced a threat in the last two decades, the EPRDF survived through brute brawl (force) and not through brains. It will continue to quell any future insurrections the same way. It does not need Meles to do that. It needs someone who can order the army and the police to kill and arrest civilians and there are plenty of men in the ranks of the TPLF who would instruct a brutal crackdown. For instance, this week, the Ethiopian government is using force to crush a pesky Muslim uprising, and it did not wait for Meles to recover to get into the demolition job. The men-in-charge know Meles’s methods. The Ethiopian opposition needs to do better than seeking succor from inexorable death to succeed.
Getting the ONLF struggle out of the “peace” limbo
The ONLF has been doing remarkably well in the last six months, without actually doing much. Much of its muscle came from an impending, certainly not inevitable, peace talks with Ethiopia. The wave of expectation has been surging and the consensus is that the ONLF leadership is handling this matter rather well.
Firstly, they have shown remarkable ingenuity in not foreclosing alternatives and options ahead of the talks. No one, can anymore, accuse them of not exploring options other than armed resistance. They have enough witnesses and alibi’s to prove that they were ready for peace. That will be a huge political capital, and it is already winning the organization hearts and accolades among its support base. The argument is simple. If the Ethiopians are not ready for a genuine peace, why should the ONLF be? After all, they represent the oppressed and peace becomes a metaphor for the perpetuation of slavery if the oppressor doesn’t give in. Secondly, they have kept the matter to their bosom and did not run ahead of themselves by consulting the wider community, whose engagement at this stage is not necessary. There is nothing to consult on now when what the Ethiopians are offering is not known.
But ‘peace talks’ has been the lonely political signifier of the ONLF for the last six months. The front needs to do contingencies, and the events of this week, i.e., the health situation of Meles, are a good example why ONLF should have a plan B. It is not secret that Meles is the man who wanted a peace deal. If he goes, it is not clear if the new leaders of Ethiopia would be ready for the compromises Meles could have offered. In the ensuing shock after Meles leaves, the political priorities of the regime might change as well. Another scenario is that the political influence of the hardliners, represented by the army and the security apparatus – which benefitted from the war in the Somali region, can grow.
That is why the struggle should get out of this “peace” limbo. Parallel plans must be devised, while the end-result of the expected peace talks with the Ethiopian government is awaited. The wheels of the struggle must move fast and must not wait for the unknown outcome of a prospective peace-deal. The ONLF must engage the Ethiopian opposition and must compromise if that is a price to pay to forge a common front. If we can accept peace from the TPLF who killed tens of thousands of our sons and raped hundreds of our sisters, why can’t we sit with the Amharas who in reality has not inflicted as much pain on us? The idea that we can get a better deal from the Tigres than the one Amharas could offer – simply because the Tigre’s pay lip-service to ‘federalism’ and ‘rights of nationalities- is hopelessly worn-out, lewd in fact. The truth is, any deal you get is always proportionate to the strength of the political biceps you own and can flex.
There is a real problem when you cannot function outside your preset political predilections or phobias, even when exigencies and realities demand an adjustment. There is a real problem when you become a prisoner to the timetables and agendas of your enemy, both conceptually and functionally. The ONLF needs to reclaim the agenda-setting, and it can do so if it can produce ideas different to the stolid but isolated armed struggle that it has been waging for over two decades. Not by abandoning the armed struggle but by augmenting it with imaginative political formulas. It can set the agenda if it can do a political facelift and embrace new inclusive and broader political identity and policies.
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