Violent political transitions are a permanent fixture of the Ethiopian political landscape. The long good-bye of Menelik II a hundred years ago led to a protracted and tumultuous transition of power to his grandson, the young Iyasu. Power was transferred from Iyasu to Haile Sellassie by a palace coup d’état, to Mengistu Hailemariam by a popular revolt, and to Meles Zenawi through a triumph of guerrilla forces. Each transition was preceded by political tremors such as purges, palace putsches, assassinations and mutinies.
The tremors often signified political decay and simmering popular dissatisfaction, but the incumbent leaders generally ignored these signs and remained in power long after their authority had lost legitimacy. Their refusal to step aside deepened popular discontent which in turn increased the potential for yet another violent transition. When the inevitable collapse occurred, the power went to the stealthy schemer who recognized the direction of events and hung around the palace to take over the power before other contenders.
Against this historical backdrop, the events of the last two months are momentous. Ethiopia held a state funeral for a deceased leader for the first time in nearly a century. Power has now passed from a supercilious autocrat to a reportedly mild-mannered technocrat. What has occurred is certainly not a peaceful transfer of power to the opposition, which is currently the accepted test of a successful democracy. The passing of power from one leader to another even within the dominant party is nonetheless historically significant as a conjuncture that offers an unexpected opportunity for a new beginning.
In 1991, the new rulers of Ethiopia promised to end centuries of autocratic rule and put Ethiopia on a path toward a democratic transition. That glimmer of hope for a peaceful transition dimmed over the 1990s as the EPDRF gradually eliminated one real opposition group after another.
In 2005, the promise of democratization was dealt a severe blow when the government resorted to killing peaceful protesters rather than share power with the opposition that made significant electoral gains in the national elections that year. The hope for democracy died in the summer of 2006 when the late Meles Zenawi declared that the goal of Ethiopia’s democratization was to pursue a so-called ‘dominant party democracy,’ a system in which political competition would be allowed to take place, but only to confirm the ruling party in power.
In other words, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) would remain in power until Ethiopia had achieved sustained economic growth and emerged out of poverty. Until such a time, according to the prime minister, the dominant party will go on to win elections to protect the development project from the influence of “rent-seekers” and elite patronage.
The late prime minister’s political theory explains why the party declared that it had prevailed in the 2005 and in the 2008 local government elections. In 2005, any challenge to the legitimacy of the party’s electoral “victory” was met with a ruthless crackdown and a series of legislation that severely constricted the political space in the country and paved the way for the 2010 election results that can only be achieved under totalitarian regimes.
The electoral gain of the opposition in the 2005 elections was clearly a repudiation of the direction of the EPRDF. It should have served notice to EPRDF leaders that it was time to change course. Instead the party assured itself of the correctness of its program and clamped down on any form of dissent. As such the prime minister chose to repeat the mistakes of his two immediate predecessors in the wake of the attempted coups d’etats of 1960 and 1989.
By ignoring the warning signs that things weren’t going well, both men put Ethiopia on a trajectory for another violent transition of power. Meles Zenawi seemed to follow suit in his reaction to the 2005 election results. Now the architect of the ideology and the lynchpin on the “democratic developmental state” belongs to history. His passing offers an opportunity for course-correction and also a chance to pull back from the trajectory that was in place to lead to another violent transition.
Trust No One
Some in the political opposition has suggested Hailemariam Desalegn should be given time to prove that he is indeed a man of integrity and competence. This is a reasonable suggestion. The man has an inspiring biography and, by all accounts, a genuinely humble demeanor as a person. I have no doubt the private person can sometimes shape the public one. But appearances can be deceptive. Some video clips that have recently surfaced show Meles Zenawi himself was humble and modest in his manners soon after he ascended to power.
There are several factors that limit Hailemariam’s ability to bring about the changes the country needs. The first is institutional. It is obvious that those who have dominated Ethiopia for the last two decades and have vowed to keep power because of right of conquest still hold the most important levers of power. If recent actions such as the promotion of 37 general officers during an interregnum and dragging out of the appointment of a new prime minister are any indication, the Tigrai People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) doesn’t seem ready to allow Hailemariam to exercise the full powers of his office. In fact, Sebhat Nega has emerged on the political scene as a paramount leader in the mode of Deng Xiaoping or Ayatollah Khomeini.
The second limitation is theological. Some observers have noted that Hailemariam is a Protestant Christian from a historically marginalized group in the south who would not abuse his power. The new prime minister himself has invoked his faith as the basis for his moral leadership. In an interview with a local magazine, Me’iraf, Hailemariam is quoted as saying: “I’d rather hurt myself than see anyone injured by my action.” Protestant theology indeed recognizes the possibility that a religious person can transcend the selfish impulses of human nature and consider the well-being of others.
However, Protestant theology also posits that human institutions can never have the capacity for moral action that the individual possesses. Put differently, the individual person’s capacity for self-transcendence, righteous deeds and altruistic action is often undermined by the inherently immoral nature of human institutions. Paraphrasing a line from Jean-Paul Sartre’s play, Dirty Hands, we can ask: “can Hailemariam govern innocently and with the purity of his religion?” It is hard to imagine he is lucky enough to avoid the taint and odor that go with the territory of the unsavory business of governing.
There is ample research that shows that one does not have to be evil to do harm. John Darley, a Princeton social psychologist, points out in his article, “How Organizations Socialize Individuals into Evildoing,” that organizational factors, structures and forces often create socially negative environments in which well-meaning individuals are socialized into evil-doing. Management scholars Clinton Longenecker and Dean Ludwig have argued based on the story of King David and Bathsheba that success can lead to moral failure they called the “Bathsheba Syndrome,” a condition that afflicts leaders who, once they reach the plateau of power, convince themselves that they can use organizational resources to advance private interests with impunity. King David was a godly man; but he succumbed to the syndrome. Hailemariam’s faith might serve as his firewall against the temptations of power. But he cannot be not immune to human frailties. The test is whether he wants to democratize Ethiopia by himself or, realizing his limitations, reaches out to all Ethiopians to build institutions that would outlive the architects who built them.
This brings me to the third limitation, which is the personal commitment and leadership capacity of the new prime minister. In early 2010, in an interview with Peter Heinlein of the Voice of America, Hailemariam stated his firm belief in the “dominant party democracy” theory of his mentor. In an interview he gave in April 2012 as deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs, Hailemariam categorized opposition forces into two extremes: chauvinists and narrow nationalists, claiming the vast middle space for his own party and its ideology and ceding no space for the political opposition.
It is possible that at the time he had no choice but to sing the praises of his all powerful boss. Now that he has ascended to the pinnacle of power, he has yet to give a hint that he intends to chart a new course for Ethiopia. In a series of speeches and interviews as prime minister, he has only vowed to continue to implement the policies of the “Great Leader” (his word). What makes many observers skeptical about his capacity to effect change is his repeated declaration that he would be the primus inter pares of the “collective leadership put in place by the party.”
There is nothing inherently wrong with the notion of collective leadership. When those words come from Hailmairam’s mouth, however, they imply that he is saying “I am not my own man.” If he is his own man, he may be a Machiavellian leader who doesn’t want to make moves before he has consolidated his power and his capacity to see reforms through to success. If his public statements thus far are any indication, however, he is not ready either to open up the political space for the opposition or to seek a clean break from the old guard, the old ways of doing things and the old ideas that were leading Ethiopia to another violent transition.
Doomed to a Violent Transition?
At the time of Meles’ death, the EPDRF regime had established complete domination over the political space and the instruments of power in the country. In a political culture where a violent takeover of power has been the rule for political transition and an environment where the coercive apparatus of the state has penetrated the private spheres of individuals, a strong case can be made to justify taking up arms to confront tyranny. Should, then, Ethiopians resort to confronting force with force?
Even though it is tempting to respond in the affirmative, the answer to this question should be negative. The only beneficiaries of violent transitions have always been the individuals or groups who won the trophy of power. The violence of transition has consistently nurtured an insatiable craving for revenge and fostered a vicious cycle of political instability. The destruction of the old system that occurs during a transition leaves very little intact, forcing the inchoate order to start rebuilding the infrastructure of politics, economy, and society from scratch. The justification of rebellion against tyranny should not readily lead to an automatic choice for violence. History shows that successful leaders have not been those who readily resorted to the warrior impulse in human nature but those who chose to see the world as it really is and respond to the demands of the day with patient determination.
The passing of Meles is a natural end of the life of a mortal man but it is also a passing of the political structure built on one man. The EPRDF’s center is now arguably irreparably damaged. This situation provides an opportunity for a genuine struggle for democracy, development and peace that should be seized. The alternative is another violent transition and starting all over again. This time, that starting over itself may not be possible. In any event, I suspect Ethiopians are tired of the insanity of wuha qida wuha melis (doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results). After Meles, trust only institutions, not individuals.