Five years since his untimely death, aged 57, the name Meles Zenawi is still active in Ethiopian political discourse. Ranked as a 'Great Leader' posthumously by the supreme power of the land, the Parliament, such a status was unprecedented by any leader at least in the modern history of Ethiopia since roughly the mid-19th Century.
The title 'Great Leader' entails two things. For one, it is meant to honour one's outstanding leadership quality. At the overleaf is the immense influence of the man. While the capacity of Meles as a leader has many critics, his influence in his own ways is uncontestable.
Meles has been such an influential figure that he was able to institutionalise his thoughts, conceptions and even personal behaviours to alter the Ethiopian historical, political, legal and economic path. The influence remains intact even after his death. The thoughts of Meles Zenawi are set to rule the country for the foreseeable future.
Sophisticated as his conceptions were to his supporters, the personality of the man is equally cloaked in mystery for his critics. Some brand the late Prime Minister as selfless, pragmatic and democratic minded. There are also people who rather depict the man as eccentric, dogmatic, and undemocratic. With all that featured in the most influential but controversial leader, understanding Meles means understanding the political economy of Ethiopia, at least in the past quarter of a century since 1991.
Indeed, to make a proper inference on Meles Zenawi requires going beyond traditional biographic sketches. To draw inference out of the life and work of Meles, it is important to be investigative. Perhaps, the trademark of Meles was shaped when he was just a school boy. The foundation of his personality also lies in his years of armed and political struggle, which accounts for most of his youth and adulthood. A particular importance in this regard is 'Hegelian philosophy' and its Marxist-Leninist extensions of the 'exploiter-exploited' dictum and the concept of 'material determinism'.
Those who shared a playfield and classrooms with Meles attest that the foundation of the personality of the man as a politician and statesman were deeply rooted. For his childhood friends, he was an adventurous boy, who used to try out what they did not dare. The extension of such a personality could be glimpsed in his bolder policies, which often challenge the traditional state of affairs as untouchable.
A curious student remembers Meles as a schoolboy, who used to spare much of his time reading and studying. For a leader who is widely celebrated as wise, tireless and workaholic, those traits are unsurprising. Often described by those who were close to Meles as a man solid to his ideals, such personality was rather deeply rooted in him. His mother once described Meles as a boy who hated appearing weak or getting outsmarted by others. His teachers also recalled Legesse Zenawi - the school name of Meles - as a student who excelled in debates, a student exhaustive enough to defend his line of argument. Perhaps the extension of that is his political personality, for which his political contenders always cried foul over his alleged political tackles.
The school boy Meles then found Hegelian philosophy, which he then adapted to the heart of his political and economic theory. Many describe Meles' policies as adventurous, for the manner with which his ideas and concepts are intermingled is widely regarded as irreconcilable. According to the Hegelian philosophy, a particular subject or concept is a synthesis of the two opposing sides - the thesis and antithesis.
A leader often portrayed by his political rivals as a reactionary, and programmatic by his adherents for jumping on opposite corners of ideological lines, Meles always mixed different ideas to create a new synthesis. His political and economic philosophy is the product of such a combination of concepts which appear mainly opposing.
While conceptualising democracy, Meles adhered to the revolutionary democratic concept, which merges two concepts often portrayed repellent, 'revolution' versus 'democracy'. In laying his vision for his country, he built upon 'Unity through Diversity', an emblem subjected to extensive controversy.
For Meles, administrative regions drawn along language fault lines rather cemented the cohesion of diverse groups of Ethiopians. The extension of such conceptions of Meles gave rise to the controversial article 39 of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia constitution, which stipulates the rights of Nations, Nationalities and Peoples (NNPs) to self-determination, including the right to session. Meles always argued article 39 is a warranty for NNPs to live under one roof.
Contradicting the conventional narrative on Developmental state paradigm and democratic systems, which outlaws for any possible go-with of the two, Meles came up with a new concept saying that democracy could be maintained with a developmental state paradigm as the rule of the game.
Indeed, Hegelian philosophy explains the synthesis that could occur between Democratic Developmentalism (DD), a brand-new philosophical line of economic, political and bureaucratic system of governance accredited to Meles.
This very same theory, and his style of leadership, has driven some to assume he is a reactionary, while others see him as pragmatic. In other areas of the economy too, Meles has always been portrayed as two faced - a socialist and capitalist. For his political opponents, mostly from his party, Meles was subservient to imperialists for his departure from Marxist-Leninist ideals. Right wing political figures, on the other hand, accused Meles of being a socialist and even a dictator.
Actually, the revolutionary democratic leader borrowed both from the socialists and capitalists.
His Socialist inclination was best exemplified in his adherence to the concept of material determinism - a methodological tool of scientific socialism which relies upon every subject of political economy. Material determinism entails that every aspect of life - be it history, culture, moral standards, political system and security - is predominantly shaped by material or economic forces.
Indeed Meles embodies economic forces as fundamental, perhaps as his governance envisioned to build up a single economic community. Worth noticing is his curiosity over where and when material determinism is appealing. For instance, as opposed to the Marxian narrative of history, dialectical materialism as it is does not explain the Ethiopian history, the historical relationships among the different ethnicities of Ethiopia.
With Meles' description on Ethiopian history following the exploiter-exploited dictum on account of cultural or religious domination of one ethnic group, it is unsurprising he would realign himself from the Marxian tool of conceptualising history with dialectical materialism.
Though Meles disregarded dialectical materialism to explain Ethiopian history, he does not rule it out altogether. Unless for the instalment of a political system that works for a just economic order which benefits all Ethiopians, such an exploiter-exploited sort of relationships is inevitable.
Realizing such a political system which targets to end elitism is the backdrop of ideals of revolutionary democracy, which in the mean time has graduated to take the pillar of democratic developmentalism. Meles in waging war against elitism, the Revolutionary Democrats set to empower the 'mass' - the rural peasants and urban proletariats - with civil, political and economic rights.
More specifically, the criticism the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) faces for an alleged deliberate disempowerment of certain sections of society, mainly the urban intelligentsia, by depriving them of their settlements, selected cities and towns is not as clear cut as some make it look. Meles and his party justify this as fixing the economic imbalances that were skewed in favour of urbanites and urban sectors, alienating the rural peasantry, as a result of the ill policies of past regimes.
A reflection of that is the two contrasting views on revolutionary democratic leadership in rural and urban Ethiopia, with the rural peasantry in love with and the urban intelligentsia disliking the EPRDF. Another reminder of that is the popular impression people have on Meles, which is polarized.
Worth important to note is that, of all those that love or loath Meles, only a few group either in support or opposition of him have the means to affect Ethiopian politics, with the larger populace kept passive. In the face where philosophy, logic and principle have little effect in the political arena, what could give a relief to the people of Ethiopia is a strong man or political group able to deal with the hostile and rocky political landscape in his own way and appear up front to dictate.
Perhaps, such a value judgment may be unjustified by standard political norms. But with elitism alive and well, political stability without the forceful management of someone like Meles Zenawi is unachievable.