Open letter to PM Meles Zenawi
From Eskinder Nega | March 4, 2011



Meles Zenawi, prime minister of Ethiopia

To: PM Meles Zenawi, Addis Ababa
From: Eskinder Nega
Subject: Message from the people

Dear Ato Meles Zenawi,

Perhaps it is the jinx of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s unprecedented 12 years in office. He had after all controversially breached the unwritten code scrupulously respected by all Presidents after George Washington, America’s first President, who had refrained, on grounds of principle, from serving more than two terms.

Of America’s nine Presidents after Roosevelt, who have since been constitutionally restricted to a maximum of two terms, four, Eisenhower, Reagan, Clinton and Bush (the son), have succeeded in serving a second term, while another four, Nixon, Ford, Carter and Bush (the father), had to settle for a single term. The ninth, Obama, at this time serving his first term, is set to break the tie in about two years.

Roosevelt, who is widely rated as one of America’s top three best Presidents (along with Washington and Lincoln), was plagued by ill health from the very beginning. He literally overworked himself to premature death. He would most probably have had a few more good years ahead of him had he retired after a third term. Whatever may be said of its merits and demerits, the Constitutional cap on Presidential terms his four terms enthused has at least diminished the possibility of similar fate befalling subsequent American Presidents.

Inadvertently, the eight years to which they have been limited to have over the years proved neither too short nor too long.

But this letter is by no means about the damage which two decades of overwork, which you have spoken of and I empathize with, has exacted on your health. Notwithstanding my conviction that you and your party have fundamentally marred Ethiopia’s standing and potential, it is my duty as a Christian not to wish you ill-health. It is a responsibility I try to live up to by earnestly wishing you the long life I hanker for my family, friends and myself.

Whether the term served was one or two, American Presidents have time and again described life at the helm of their nation as profoundly lonely -- almost depressingly so. Roosevelt, the only person to have served more than two terms, died before he had time to recount of his experience. But few doubt his experience was any different. Most historians, in fact, reckon that as his tenure elongated his solitude had deepened.

This is in a nation reputed not only for one of the most accessible Presidencies on the planet, but also, intriguingly, so unlike Ethiopia, celebrated for cabinet members and advisors who provide the President with honest, sound and frequent advice.

Ethiopian monarchs literally believed in their divine sanction. Everything they did had heavenly design. There was no rational nor reason for doubt. The certainty of religious assurance completed them.

But the nation’s last monarch, Haile- Sellassie, returned to his throne from half a decade exile in the UK with this world of absolutes shattered beyond redemption. Both the shock and resulting lonesomeness were inevitable. In his declining years, he was almost inconsolably lonely. Even his eldest daughter, Tenagnework, with whom he had a unique bond, seldom shared the details of his very private world.

Mengistu is intuitively extroverted in a way that Haile-Sellasie never was, but this was not enough to insulate him from the isolation the position ultimately entailed. The forced retirement he imposed on Fikre-Sellasie Wegderes and Legesse Asfaw, his two closest friends and political allies, as the EPRDF closed in on Addis in mid-1991, best illustrates his eventual predicament.

None of these leaders, however, whether Ethiopian or American, had to wrestle with the emotional anguish of a bitter break between irreplaceable friends the way Meles Zenawi had to. The lost friendships between Meles and Seye Abraha et al were forged over three decades under the most difficult circumstances. New friends could not possibly fill the void created by their loss. A descent to the emotional wilderness, where it is undoubtedly lonesome, is the least that could have happened to Meles.

A decade has now elapsed, sir, since you had become a profoundly lonelier man than either Ethiopian or American leaders of yore.

And perhaps this would not have really mattered, as could reasonably be said of American Presidents, if it was somehow tempered with a liberal flow of honest advice.

This being Ethiopia, though, leaders seldom enjoy the privilege of honest advice from subordinates.

Much has changed in Ethiopia over the past four decades. But also much more remains intractably the same. And no where is this permanency more evident than in the realm of Ethiopia’s bloated officialdom. By the power tradition, leaders are told what they want to hear, not what they should.

The rule in this world is simple: Thrive with opportunism and sophistry. Perish with honesty and integrity.

Play by the rule and reward will assuredly come even if only slowly. This is the dominant spirit of the times that has enabled your wife to suddenly ascend to the most senior ranks of the EPRDF. In her rise lies the climax of the decline of the “revolutionary generation that moved mountains”, to use one of your favorite aphorisms.

With the attainment of status and privilege dominating the thoughts of your subordinates, here is what you are hearing from them: a grateful populace enthralled by fast economic growth, political stability; a happy, hopeful youth; and content farmers. In other words, a nation on the verge of take-off, boldly united under Meles’ indispensable leadership.

Here is the gist of this letter, the real message from the grassroots: a nation outraged by high soaring inflation; a public scandalized by unprecedented corruption, rampant unemployment, political oppression, chronic shortage of land in rural areas. In sum, the nation is desperate for change.

You have essentially wasted the two decades with which you were blessed to affect change. In place of pragmatism dogma has prevailed; in place of transparency secrecy has taken root; in place of democracy oppression has intensified; and in place of merit patronage has been rewarded.

Ato Meles Zenawi: the people want -- no, need -- you to leave office.

The people are closely watching events in North Africa as I write this letter. They are debating the implications for Africa, including Ethiopia. And they have been inspired by the heroism of ordinary Libyans.

Listen to them before it’s too late.

Thank you for your time.

The end.


THANKS FOR THE SUPPORT

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