President Paul Kagame presenting a medal to Melis Zenawi for his contribution in the RPF's struggle. The extent of his participation in the Rwandan civil war has never been made public.
This weekend I got myself engaged into a deep conversation with an Ethiopian woman. I was curious for a firsthand account on how their flamboyant, tough talking leader, Melis Zenawi had shaped the “New Ethiopia”.
At first, I was slightly surprised as most of what she told me ran counter to the conventional view that I had known and read through media sources. Then the lady said something that kept me thinking “never trust politicians. They are all manufactured in the same factory before being dumped around the world!”
I must say that I am a little less cynical and want to remain hopeful. I tell my friends that, if it weren’t for hope, I would have long gone. My best friend calls it “false hope”, and he considers it to be the “worst kind of hopelessness”. I continue to disagree, if anything, to keep my sanity.
Anyway, the conversation with the Ethiopian lady triggered me to do further research. And, I landed on a good exegesis of the recent Ethiopia’s political history.
Much of what I found seemed to support my friend’s thesis. That Paul Kagame and Melis Zenawi are twins bound by an affinity and uncontrollable appetite for power. Indeed, they run the two countries in a roughly similar authoritarian manner.
Both leaders hail from minority ethnic groups, Kagame a Tutsi and Zenawi a Tigrinya. And, given this unfortunate fact, both have a hard time winning the support of the majority voters who most often belong to rival ethnic groups.
Both presidents are widely supported by the West and are regular participants at Western elite conferences such as the Davos based World Economic Forum. Fearing democracy, both have purposefully manipulated the political scene to keep a strong hold on power.
In both countries, opposition candidates as well as journalists are an endangered species. Both the two men and their elite networks face fierce resistance from individuals, groups and armed rebels that see their respective governments as both illegitimate and oppressive.
Born in 1955, Melis Zenawi has his entire life draped in political conflict. In 1975, at the tender age of 20, he interrupted his studies at the Addis Ababa University where he was pursuing medicine, to join the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front. In 1991, He ousted the Marxist dictator Haile Mengistu. Mengistu was not without his own share of brutality. He had been the Stalin version of Ethiopia and had killed thousands in what was known as the “red terror”.
Likewise, Kagame’s record beams with pride and has intrigued many. It is the story of a difficult and humble beginning with a glorious end (“end” is perhaps not the right word). After years of guerrilla fighting, he successfully put an end to genocidal violence and embarked on a rebuilding mission that has had some significant successes.
However, both men have become permanent barriers to democratic reform and are in many ways building a personality cult characterized by grotesque levels of political intolerance. They are accountable to no one and only surrounded by a clique of yes-men. Inadvertently, their largely unchecked powers have caused serious setbacks.
This is the face of Zenawi’s Ethiopia today. His ethnic group the Tigray, although less than 7% of the entire population occupies 90% of the top military and civil service position. Over his 20 years of power, he has repeatedly been accused of vote rigging and harassment of opposition candidates.
In 2005 when the opposition was seen to be winning more parliamentary seats than desired, Zenawi suspended the vote count—winning with 99.99%. The elections were disputed and the government fearing a new wave of dissent turned on its critics killing two hundred of them. Moreover, they imprisoned seventy opposition leaders charging them with the usual crime of treason. Although most of opposition activists would later be released, the most vociferous and promising one, the leader of Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ), Ms. Birtukan Mideksa remains locked up jail.
Indeed, the parallels between the two countries ran deep.
As Rwanda goes to polls on August 12th, opposition candidates face fierce harassment. In a country praised for having the largest number of women parliamentarians, the leading female opposition candidate, Madame Victoire Ingabire is under house arrest. Although both Rwanda and Ethiopia are praised for gender reforms (read a critique of Ethiopia’s gender reform and Rwanda), it is becoming clear that the reforms are superficial at best and opportunistic at worst. In both countries, power is inordinately crystallized into the hands of one man, the despot and by extension one ethnic group.
This is not only unhealthy for democracy but a catalyst for further chaos.