By Alemayehu G Mariam
The Sandcastles and Dams of African Dictators
All dictators on the African continent have sought immortality by leaving a legacy that will outlive them and endure for the ages. But all have inherited the wind.
Kwame Nkrumah led the first sub-Saharan African country to gain independence from colonialism in 1957. Nkrumaism sought to transform Ghana into a modern socialist state through state-driven industrialization. He built the Akosombo Dam on the Volta River, at the time considered the “largest single investment in the economic development plans of Ghana”. He promoted the cult of personality and was hailed as the “Messiah”, “Father of Ghana and Pan Africanism” and “Father of African nationalism”. He crushed the unions and the opposition, jailed the judges, created a one-man, one-party state and tried to make himself “President for life”. He got the military boot in 1966. He left a bitter legacy of one-man, one-party rule which to this day serves as a model of dictatorship for all of Africa. Nkrumah died in exile and inherited the wind.
Gamal Abdel Nasser sought to create his own brand of Arab socialism and nationalism and propagated it as a secular Pan-Arab ideology. Using an extensive intelligence apparatus and an elaborate propaganda machine, he promoted a cult of personality projecting himself as the “Man of the People.” He built the Aswan High Dam with Soviet aid. He ruled Egypt in a one-man, one-party dictatorship and crushed all dissent, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood. Today the Muslim Brotherhood is in power and Nasserism is in the dustbin of history. Nasser left a legacy of military dictatorship in Egypt and inherited the wind.
Mobutu Sese Seko proclaimed himself “Father of the Nation” of Zaire (The Democratic Republic of the Congo), and became dictator for life. He declared, “In our African tradition there are never two chiefs….That is why we Congolese, in the desire to conform to the traditions of our continent, have resolved to group all the energies of the citizens of our country under the banner of a single national party.” Mobutuism consisted of the delusional thoughts of Mobutu and his program of “Zairianization”. He promoted a cult of personality describing himself as the “the all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest leaving fire in his wake”. Mobutu built the Inga Dams over the Congo River hoping to create the largest hydroelectric facility in the world. He left a legacy of kleptocracy and inherited the wind.
Moamar Gadhafi proclaimed the “Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya” and ushered the era of the state of the masses (Jamahiriya). He sought to elevate Libyan society by reducing it to a massive collection of “people’s committees”. He brutally suppressed dissent and squandered the national resources of that country. He launched the Great Man-Made River, the world’s largest irrigation project and proclaimed it the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” After four decades in power, the “Brother Leader” and author of the Green Book literally suffered the death of a sewer rat. He left a legacy of division and destruction in Libya and inherited the wind.
Idi Amin Dada, the “Butcher of Uganda” and the most notorious of all African dictators, imposed a reign of terror on the Ugandan people and sadistically displayed his tyrannical power to the international press. He pompously described himself as “His Excellency President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea, and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular.” He built no dams by damned the Ugandan people for 8 years until he was forced into exile. He left a legacy of death, destruction and ethnic division in Uganda and inherited the wind.
The “Great Leader”?
The late Meles Zenawi, like all African dictators, sought to make himself larger than life. He was not only Ethiopia’s savior but Africa’s as well. He sought to project himself as a “visionary leader”, “inspirational spokesman for Africa” and supreme practitioner of “revolutionary democracy.” Following his death sometime in late Summer 2012, the propaganda to deify, mythologize, exalt, immortalize and idolize him became a theatre of the absurd. Hailemariam Desalegn, Meles’ handpicked titular prime minster, in his speech to the party faithful in parliament virtually made Meles a lesser god offering blessings of “Eternal Glory to Our Great Leader.” Even the original “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung of North Korea achieved no more glory than being “The Sun of the Nation”. Desalegn promised to consummate his own divinely delegated mission with missionary zeal: “My responsibility now… is to successfully carry out the aims and ambitions of a great and notable leader… Following in the footsteps of our great leader, we will strive to maintain and develop the influential voice in regional, continental and international forums” and “successfully implement the aims and vision of our great leader. He was not just a brilliant generator of ideas: he was, par excellence, the embodiment of selflessness and self-sacrifice…”
Was Desalegn talking about Meles or the Man of Galilee?
The Vision and Legacy of the “Visionary Great Leader”
Like all African dictators before him, Meles had illusions, delusions and obsessions. He did not have a grand vision; he had illusions of grandeur. Like Mobutu before him, Meles had the illusion of building Africa’s largest dam, the so-called Grand Renaissance Dam, on the Blue Nile at a cost preliminarily estimated (unadjusted for cost overruns) at nearly USD$5 billion. Experts believe such a dam if built will “flood 1,680 square kilometers of forest in northwest Ethiopia, near the Sudan border, and create a reservoir that is nearly twice as large as Lake Tana, Ethiopia’s largest natural lake…. The current cost estimate [for the dam] equals the country’s entire annual budget…” Moreover, the dam “could cut the Nile flow into Egypt by 25% during the reservoir filling period” and substantially reduce the reservoir capacity of the Aswan High Dam. According to a document obtained by Wikileaks from the private intelligence group Stratfor, “Sudan’s president Omer Al-Bashir had agreed to build an Egyptian airbase in his country’s western region of Darfur to be used for assaults on The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) should diplomatic efforts fail to resolve the dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia over Nile water-sharing.” A legacy of regional war and strife?
Meles did not have a growth and transformation plan; he had delusional plans of economic growth and transformation. As I have demonstrated in “The Voodoo Economics of Meles Zenawi”, Meles “has been making hyperbolic claims of economic growth in Ethiopia based on fabricated and massaged GDP (gross domestic product) numbers, implying that the country is in a state of runaway economic development and the people’s standard of living is fast outstripping those living in the middle income countries.” When the U.S. State Department reported an average inflation rate (FY 2008-2009) of 36 percent, Meles predicted a decline in inflation to 3.9 percent in 2009/10. His Growth and Transformation Plan (or what I called “Zenawinomics”) which I reviewed in my June 2011 commentary “The Fakeonomics of Meles Zenawi”, “is a make-a-wish list of stuff. It purports to be based on a ‘long-term vision’ of making Ethiopia ‘a country where democratic rule, good-governance and social justice reigns.’ It aims to ‘build an economy which has a modern and productive agricultural sector with enhanced technology and an industrial sector’ and ‘increase per capita income of citizens so that it reaches at the level of those in middle-income countries.’ It boasts of ‘pillar strategies’ to ‘sustain faster and equitable economic growth’, ‘maintain agriculture as a major source of economic growth,’ ‘create favorable conditions for the industry to play key role in the economy,’ ‘expand infrastructure and social development,’ ‘build capacity and deepen good governance’ and ‘promote women and youth empowerment and equitable benefit.’ Stripped of its collection of hollow economic slogans, clichés, buzzwords and catchphrases, Meles’ growth and growth and transformation plan is plain sham-o-nomics. A legacy of inflation, economic mismanagement, crushing foreign debt and environmental destruction?
Meles had no national vision; he only had a vision of ethnic division. His warped idea of “ethnic federalism” is merely a kinder and gentler reincarnation of Apartheid in Ethiopia. For nearly two decades, Meles toiled ceaselessly to shred the very fabric of Ethiopian society, and sculpt a landscape balkanized into tribal, ethnic, linguistic and regional enclaves. He crafted a constitution based entirely on ethnicity and tribal affiliation as the basis for political organization. He wrote in Article 46 (2) of the constitution: “States shall be structured on the basis of settlement patterns, language, identity and consent of the people.” In other words, “states”, (and the people who live in them) shall be corralled like cattle in tribal homelands in much the same way as the 10 Bantustans (black homelands) of Apartheid South Africa. These tribal homelands are officially called “kilils” (enclaves or distinct enclosed and effectively isolated geographic areas within a seemingly integrated national territory). Like the Bantustans, the Killilistans ultimately aim to create homogeneous and autonomous ethnic states in Ethiopia, effectively scrubbing out any meaningful notion of Ethiopian national citizenship. Meles’ completely fictitious theory of “ethnic (tribal) federalism)”, unknown in the annals of political science or political theory, has been used to justify and glorify these Kililistans and impose an atrocious policy of divide and rule against 90 million people. A legacy of ethnic balkanization, political polarization, brutalization, and sectarian strife?
Under Meles, Ethiopia became the poster country for international alms and charity and crushing international debt. During his two decades plus tenure, Ethiopia has been among the largest recipients of “economic aid”, “development aid”, “military aid”, “technical aid”, “emergency aid”, “relief aid”, “humanitarian aid” and aid against AIDS in the world. As I argued in my commentary “Ethiopia in BondAid?”, Meles has successfully subverted international aid and loans, particularly U.S. aid, to strengthen his tyrannical rule. A legacy of international aid addiction and beggary?
Corruption under Meles Zenawi has put Ethiopia on life-support. The World Bank recently issued a 448-page report entitled, “Diagnosing Corruption in Ethiopia” . The cancer of corruption has metastasized in the Ethiopian body politics. The Telecommunications Sector of Ethiopia is in terminal stage:
Despite the country’s exceptionally heavy recent investment in its telecoms infrastructure, it has the second lowest telephone penetration rate in Africa. It once led the regional field in the laying of fiber-optic cable, yet suffers from severe bandwidth and reliability problems. Amid its low service delivery, an apparent lack of accountability, and multiple court cases, some aspects of the sector are perceived by both domestic and international observers to bedeeply affected by corruption.
In the Construction Sector, “Ethiopia exhibits most of the classic warning signs of corruption risk, including instances of poor-quality construction, inflated unit output costs, and delays in implementation.” Corruption in the Justice Sector “takes one of two forms: (a) political interference with the independent actions of courts or other sector agencies, or (b) payment or solicitation of bribes or other considerations to alter a decision or action.” Corruption in the Land Sector is inherent in the law. “The level of corruption is influenced strongly by the way policy and legislation are formulated and enforced. For example, the capture of state assets by the elite can occur through the formulation of policy that favors the elite.” In other words, the laws are written to rig the bidding process to give Meles’ cronies, buddies and supporters a significant advantage so that they can pick up state assets at fire sale prices. A legacy of endemic corruption?
Meles’ “revolutionary democracy” as an ideology or policy guide never quite transcended the sloganeering and phrase-mongering stage, but he indulged in its rhetoric whenever he was overcome by revolutionary fervor. In a seminal analysis of “revolutionary democracy” and arguably the “first paper to seriously examine the political programme and political philosophy of EPRDF based on a review of its major policy”, Jean-Nicolas Bach of the Institute of Political Studies (Bordeaux, France) in 2011 described “Abyotawi democracy (revolutionary democracy) [as] neither revolutionary nor democratic.” Bach argued that revolutionary democracy is a ‘‘bricolage’’ (hodgepodge) of “Leninism, Marxism, Maoism, and also liberalism” concocted by a “small group of party ideologists around Meles, and a few agencies.” As an ideology, “revolutionary democracy” “provides justification for fusing political and economic power in the party-state run by EPRDF.” A critical “review of party pamphlets and official party/state discourses reveals the degree to which revolutionary democracy has become an ambiguous doctrine vis-a`-vis ‘liberalism’” and “remains a powerful fighting tool to exclude internal and external ‘enemies’.” One commentator recently likened revolutionary democracy to communism and fascism. Revolutionary democracy is responsible for delivering a 99.6 percent parliamentary victory to Meles’ party in 2010. A legacy of rigged and stolen elections and bad governance?
Melesismo: Meles’ Greatest Legacy
Meles’ singular legacy is Melesismo, a political legacy I foretold in my December 2009 commentary entitled “The Raw Machismo of Power”. Meles perfected Melesismo– the political art of “My way, the highway, no way… or jail!” Melesismo reaffirms the ignoble principle that might makes right.
Meles’ worshippers proclaim they are marching in his footsteps with the same reverence of those who claim to walk in the footsteps of the Man of Galilee. They ostentatiously display raw machismo invoking the divine power Meles. How little things have changed? From a legacy of the divine right of kings to a legacy of the divine rule of a lesser god!
Meles’ worshippers seek to mythologize, canonize and idolize him. But they cannot reincarnate Meles as the “Messiah”. Even the great Nelson Mandela is undeserving of “eternal glory”. He said so himself, “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.” Neither saints nor demons deserve “eternal glory”. Meles will eventually be consigned to the dustbin of history as nothing more than another petty African tyrant.
Meles’ greatest legacy would have been what he said his legacy would be. In 2007, Meles said his “hope is that [his] legacy” would be not only “sustained and accelerated development that would pull Ethiopia out of the massive deep poverty” but also “radical improvements in terms of good governance and democracy.” Without radical democratic improvements by Meles’ worshippers, Meles will be remembered in history as a reactionary petty African tyrant.
Is it possible for Meleismo to hold the center after Meles? Will Melesismo survive Meles?
My friend Eskinder Nega, the personification of press freedom in Ethiopia today, who was jailed by Meles, was likely right in foretelling the inevitable implosion of the “EPDRF”. Eskinder wrote, “Scratch beyond the surface and the EPRDF is really not the monolithic dinosaur as it is most commonly stereotyped. [It has become] a coalition of four distinct phenomenon: the increasing confusion of the dominant TPLF [Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front], the acute cynicism of the ANDM [Amhara National Democratic Movement], the desperate nihilism of the OPDO [Oromo People’s Democratic Organization] and the inevitable irrelevance of the incongruent SEPM [South Ethiopian People’s Movement] (a grab bag of some 40 ethnic groups from the southern part of the country).”
Meles was a man with a mission who confused mission with vision. He has completed his mission. History will record his legacy to be human rights violation, press suppression, ethnic division, endemic corruption, obsessive secrecy and a political culture whose lifeblood is impunity, lack of accountability and transparency. Shakespeare wrote, “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones…” Scripture teaches that “He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind: and the fool shall be servant to the wise of heart.” Meles and his worshippers have profoundly troubled the Ethiopian house and they shall inherit the wind!
Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.