The Monitor (Kampala)

27 June 2009

Ethiopia: Meles Zenawi Quitting; Isn't It a Joke?

column

According to reliable news reports, Ethiopia's political strongman of some three decades, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, has indicated that he is to relinquish power and step down voluntarily. If that comes to pass it will be a truly epoch-making event.

In Africa's 50 or so years of flag-and-anthem independence less than half a dozen leaders have had the strength of character to walk away from the political dining table at their own free will.

Among these you can name Leopold Sedar Senghor, Julius K. Nyerere, Ketumile Masire, Joachim Chissano and, of course, Nelson Mandela. The jury is still out on Jerry Rawlings.

As for Nigeria's Abdul Salaami Abubukar, one doesn't really know whether he was a full executive president in the first instance.

In a continent where everyone else is dragged away screaming via a military coup, put of action by somebody's bullet, or expires naturally due to the ravages of time, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's statement of intent is nothing short of a political earthquake.

Among other things, the good man is only 54 years of age, a mere political baby when compared to some of Africa's dinosaurs.

Secondly, he has been in the political trenches since 1974 when he walked away from Addis Ababa University's Faculty of Medicine after 2 years of study to join the Marxist-Leninist league of Tigray within the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front.

He opposed the Mengistu Haile Mariam dictatorship with every atom of his energy until 1991 when the latter was finally ousted and he (Meles Zenawi) was elected interim president.

In 2000, he conducted the first ever multi-party national elections which he won soundly and fairly to become prime minister. He has notched up many other "firsts" in the politics of his country and won at least 8 international awards for exemplary leadership.

The only accolades he is yet to win are the Nobel Peace Prize and the Mo Ibrahim award.

He once joked that the letter "M" had become synonymous with Kleptocracy considering that Ferdinand Marcos and Mobutu both had surnames beginning with "M". As "Meles" he did not want to join this club of robbers.

All of the above still leaves the question unanswered. What is the good man up to? Having dedicated more than half his life to the proverbial political struggle to liberate his country, why is he cutting and running? Has the business of governing Africa's second largest nation (population-wise) become too much for him after only 9 years as elected Prime Minister? How does he hope to survive out of power in a country crawling with scores of generals? Wouldn't it be more natural for him to declare himself Emperor Meles Zenawi I?

Some elements in the Clinton Administration, dying for some good news from Africa , once created a club of young seemingly progressive leaders from the continent and dubbed them. "The New Breed".

It was a cruel illusion that appeared to deliver the kiss of death. Within a couple of years of that tag, "The New Breed" of Africa 's leaders were at each other's throats.

Eritrea's Issias Aferweki attacked Ethiopia in 1998 over a disputed border town named Badme, triggering a savage war that reportedly accounted for an estimated 80,000 fatalities on both sides. Rwanda and Uganda both invaded the DR Congo and stripped that country of its resources, to the bone, before turning on each other in the 3 infamous battles of Kisangani . Is Meles Zenawi trying to reclaim the moral high ground as an example of a "New Breed" of Africa leader?

If that is so, it will go to prove that there is life after politics. Those who have made themselves hostages by over-staying in power may wish to remember the proverb: "Nnakina bulungi yena ava mu idiiro" that is to say that even the greatest dancers of all must vacate the dance floor at the peak of his exhibition.

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