The Death of Meles Zenawi and the Uncertainty of Ethiopia’s Line of Succession
The death of Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, announced earlier today (August 21, 2012), has precipitated a storm of questioning and speculation about who the next Prime Minister will be and whether there will be a significant shift in the relations of state power. Even before his death was officially made public, his disappearance from view for the past two months prompted many to wonder what was happening behind closed doors. For now, the Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn has officially assumed responsibilities, as Ethiopia’s Constitution specifies (article 75). According to an ABC report [here], the Council of People’s Representatives will decide sometime this September whether Hailemariam will retain the position for the rest of the term until the 2015 elections. Hailemariam’s position is somewhat weak because he was appointed to this leadership position only two years ago after the 2010 elections and doesn’t seem to have much influence with many important constituencies. Some question whether he can control the military. Obviously, this is a very important moment in Ethiopia’s history considering that Meles has been its Prime Minister since the very first election after the constitution was ratified in 1995 and has actually held de facto power since the Revolution in 1991.
There are numerous lines of inquiry that one can take, but the questions that I would like to focus on are these: (1) What constitutional ambiguities does the Meles’s death expose, if any? (2) What does the American response to Meles’s death tell us not only about U.S.-Ethiopian relations but also about American culture? Indeed, many Oromos in the United States have been wondering why American newspapers and the American government have been so silent on Meles’s disappearance from the political scene for over a month, seemingly waiting for some official announcement (like the one today, [here]). Before I continue discussing this issue, I have to admit that I am no political scientist, and I usually find contemporary Ethiopian politics to be a confusing maze of acronyms. I am writing this blog largely because my past involvement in Ethiopian and Oromo issues has led several of my friends to ask me what I think about this. In answer to that question, probably the best thing I could do is simply refer them to this excellent analysis published by Jawar Mohammad the day before Meles’s death was officially announced. So, read Jawar’s piece for a political analysis. As for myself, what I have to offer as a scholar of literature and language concerns the narratives that people make in order to make sense of what’s going on and the blind spots that those narratives create. The only blind spot in Jawar’s piece is the role of foreign governments in the politics of his homeland, but that is an issue that, lacking concrete evidence, Jawar was perhaps wise to avoid, since one can only theorize about it — and theorize I will do.
Let’s look at the constitutional question first. The official narrative of Ethiopia that the constitution tells is the narrative of a democratic federal state that shares power among various constituencies in various ways. In some ways, the Constitution’s language seems excessive, giving far too much detail about the procedures and duties of each office, as if it has to illustrate its democratic qualities by spelling out each thing governments might do, and yet, at the same time begging the question of why some things are not included on the list. In the midst of this excess, there is at the same time a lot missing. Importantly, there is not much in Ethiopia’s constitution about an official line of succession, except to note that the Deputy Prime Minister represents the Prime Minister in his absence (article 75). Significantly, the Constitution neglects to say how the Deputy Prime Minister is appointed in the first place. The fact of this seemingly absent process may explain why so many of my Oromo friends on Facebook have been speculating for the past month about secret negotiations and politicking behind closed doors. The problem of a line of succession is certainly not unique to Ethiopia. The language in the U.S. Constitution was originally vague about the position of the Vice President and also unclear about who would fill the position if both the president and vice president died or were removed from office. However, in the case of Ethiopia’s constitution, we find a very slippery language throughout. On the one hand, the Constitution emphatically asserts a transparent (article 12) and accountable (article 72) government by elected representatives (called “councils”) of the people. And to be sure, the Prime Minister and his various officials are beholden to the Council of People’s Representatives (article 72 and 77). What is slippery is how much power the Prime Minister is granted by the Constitution, including the power to “supervise” and organize the activity of the councils and the many important positions that are appointed rather than elected (article 74). For instance, it has long been noted that the office of the President is purely ornamental, being merely appointed by the Council of People’s Representatives and having no formal power whatsoever (article 71). Notice that nobody is even considering the President as candidate for any future office; why would they? The office is little more than an empty symbolic gesture. But considering the politically weak position of Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam, and considering the ambiguity and lack of transparency in how such political appointments are ratified, it seems to me that the issue of the line of succession needs to be revised and amended.
The second question is America’s response and the narrative Americans tell themselves. It would seem that America is just finding out about Meles’s situation today in the New York Times even though people who are invested in Ethiopia’s politics have been wondering about Meles’s health for a long time. Even the British newspaper, The Guardian, wondered about Meles’s apparent disappearance two weeks ago. It would seem that American newspapers held off reporting about Meles until after they received official word from the Ethiopian government. What do we think about American newspapers’ apparent lack of journalistic tenacity? I want to suggest three possible viewpoints. We could simply chalk this up to the general lack of concern Americans have for other countries. We might call this viewpoint the “innocent ignorance” viewpoint. The opposite viewpoint is that the American government was so heavily invested in what was taking place behind the scenes that it actively suppressed all discussion in the mainstream press. We might call this the “paranoid conspiracy” viewpoint. Neither of these viewpoints seem reasonable to me. The first avoids the obvious fact that lots of people were talking about it and the other obvious fact that American newspapers often speculate wildly about the regimes of other countries before receiving official word from the governments of those countries. The second assumes all sorts of unprovable things and forgets the more mundane workings of state institutions (e.g., the constitutional procedures for temporarily transferring power and the state bureaucracy that actually does most of the work, whether or not anyone is actually “leading” it.)
I think the best way to go about thinking of this issue is to compare the Ethiopian situation to similar situations in other countries. Without belaboring the point, we can easily recall the constant speculation (much of it irresponsible) about the health and stability of the leaders of other nations, such as Cuba, North Korea, Iran, Syria, Libya, etc. What do all these nations have in common? Obviously, there is conflict between them and the United States. So, what’s the simple moral of the story here? This is not so clear. One might speculate that the press follows the political interest of the U.S. government, so if the U.S. government is interested in undermining another government, then the press will jump right in and say as many nasty things as it can in order to justify American hostility, meddling, invasion, etc., but if the U.S. government is interested in supporting another government, then the press will hold its tongue and be polite. After all, President Obama today praised Meles and has never acknowledged the many human rights abuses perpetrated by his government, e.g., see [here]. But it’s hard for me to buy into the theory that the press is simply the yapping dog serving American political interests, even if we might clarify that we mean that it serves American corporate interests (i.e., the corporations who pay for the advertising), not that it serves the elected government (i.e., Congress). What seems somewhat more likely to me is that the press makes a careful calculus about what sort of journalism is both profitable and safe. Hence, when we look at the narrative the press tells about Ethiopia, we see that it is significantly different from what President Obama officially says. The press is emphatic about two things: first that Meles was a successful leader who reformed Ethiopia in positive ways and helped transform Ethiopia into a democratic, prosperous nation, and second that he was a ruthless, oppressive autocrat under whose rule democracy floundered and human rights were constantly violated. How Meles could be both those people at the same time is hard to figure out, and so the press has to be very careful about where these two images of Meles come from. It has to appear “fair and balanced” after all, yet all the while revealing very little.
And what I mean by revealing very little is that the press so often seems to avoid actually investigating some of the roots of the issue — not only the constitutional question that I raised, but also the very troubling relationship between American foreign policy and Ethiopian domestic policy that has been going on since the Clinton administration and only seems to get worse. I often find myself wondering if journalists ever go to the library and look stuff up before they start reporting on it. And in this case, what has long troubled me is something the press never talks about, and that is the degree to which the United States supports Ethiopia with money and weapons in exchange for political favors, such as the attack on Somalia in 2006.
However, I want to be clear here. I don’t think either the press or the American government has a clear agenda with regards to Ethiopia. So, when I say that the U.S. is supporting Ethiopia, I’m not saying that this line of support is consistent or unilateral. It is, in fact, symptomatic of many of the classic ideological contradictions that Karl Marx long ago observed in capitalist, colonialist countries who propagate a set of conflicting values. Americans want democracy in Ethiopia, but they also want a secure state friendly to American business interests. Americans want pluralism and tolerance worldwide, but they also ally themselves with some groups against others, in particular against those others who desire a government according to either Islamic or Socialist principles. Americans want economic development in Africa, but not competition from Africa. The point being, what will never be fully addressed in the American media is the full relationship between Ethiopia’s line of succession and America’s very confused sense of itself and its own interests. As James Ferguson’s book Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order demonstrates, it is hard for both Americans and Ethiopians to think beyond the category of the nation-state when we are assigning responsibility for political and economic problems and speculating about possible solutions.
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