By Nahom Freda Mola
I just listened to an interview former Ethiopian president Mengistue Hailemariam gave on SBS Radio (available on many Ethiopian websites) about Mandela’s legacy and Ethiopia’s contributions to South Africa’s triumph over apartheid. Mengistue gave some interesting tidbits about his brief interactions with one of the greatest human beings that graced the faces of the Earth. At a time when the whole world is mourning Mandela’s death and celebrating the life of this greatest son of Africa, Mengistue dwelt on the mundane of what he did for Mandela rather than what the world benefited from Mandela -– a person who overcame hatred and forgave his tormentors and charted a new course of reconciliation, freedom, justice, and equal rights for all South Africans. In the interview, in characteristic Mengistue style, he attempted to discount and belittle what the Hailesselase Government did to advance the cause of freedom in South Africa.
But most tellingly, Mengistue ignored the crucial achievements of Mandela and miserably failed, as did his successor, Meles Zenawi, to appreciate and learn from the legacy of this extraordinary human being and African leader.
When asked what he thought was Mandela’s central and enduring legacy, Mengistue launched into his myopic and black and white analysis of class and color warfare and suggested that Mandela gave away “true” liberation of black South Africans by entering into a negotiated settlement with the leaders of apartheid South Africa. Mengistue alluded that Mandela’s legacy may not necessarily be as positive because he compromised with the leaders of apartheid South Africa. Mengistue also conveniently ignored the fact that Mandela voluntarily relinquished power after serving only one term and left the rebuilding and reconciliation of his country to his younger comrade-in-arms. Whether his comrades succeed or fail in achieving these objectives (granted there are some glaring disappointments at the moment) only time will tell. But this will not in any way diminish Mandela’s humanity and accomplishments.
One can tell that Mengistue’s preference would have been to penalizing the leaders of apartheid and those who benefited under the system, no matter what the impact of such an action would have been on the South African economy and its potential to widen the chasm among the races. Mengistue seems solely driven by the urge to exact revenge on those that dehumanized, exploited and abused black South Africans. In Mengistu’s mind, Mandela should have pursued avenues such as those the Colonel and his Dergu colleagues took to address past grievances under Haileselasse in Ethiopia – the outcome of which we all know has politically and economically embroiled Ethiopia to this day and unfortunately will likely continue to do so for a long time to come.
It is shocking that despite having more than 20 years of time to reflect on his 17 years of misrule, Mengistue is still unreformed and unrepentant. He believes negotiating with opponents is not a winning formula. He still adheres to the belief that politics is a zero-sum game, where the victor and canny should claim all the spoils. He still does not believe in accountability and does not acknowledge the effects of his bestial brutality that caused horrific mayhem, torment, and sufferings on so many Ethiopians. His misrule includes his rigid stubbornness that may have irreparably damaged Ethiopia’s national interests. He obviously has not only failed to reflect on his misdeeds and atone for his crimes; he tried to use the interview to paint himself in the best possible light and even ventured to criticize Mandela. To the extent that Mandel made mistakes, it was because he was only human, and to his credit, had acknowledged his own shortcomings before he died. This is a true hallmark of a confident leader and one of the reasons why Mandela is revered by his supporters and former adversaries. Mandel’s humanity and magnanimity obviously have no place in Mengistue’s hardened hart and outdated political calculus. For Mengistue these qualities represent political weaknesses. In the final analysis, Mengistue is a lost cause, and I hope, no matter how long it takes, he will one day face justice and account for his immense misdeeds and crimes.
Now let me briefly turn my attention to Mengistues’ successor Meles Zenawi and his flag bearers. In 20 years of power, Meles had ample opportunities to introduce needed reforms and set Ethiopia on a course of genuine reconciliation and true democratic change. Instead he chose to remain shackled by real and/or perceived hatred and resorted to revenge politics by killing, imprisoning, torturing, abusing, and belittling his opponents. Instead of uniting the diverse people of Ethiopia and galvanizing them to achieve greater heights of freedom, justice, equality, and dignity, he doggedly worked to divide and create animosity among them. Instead of genuinely addressing ethnic grievance, he exploited them to instill fear and distrust among various ethnic groups. Instead of championing for free and fair elections and term limits he staged fake lections and manipulated outcomes to cling to power until he was forced out by death. Instead of building a merit based system, he fostered nepotism, ethnic favoritism (discrimination), corruption and greed. He bartered Ethiopia’s national interests for the expediency of sizing and staying in power and to enrich himself and his cohorts. He corrupted the justice system and robed state institutions of their constitutional power and reduced them into his personal instruments of vendetta and self-enrichment. He came to power as a poor man and departed this world as a billionaire. This in short is Meles’ legacy, sad, but true. No amount of perverted propaganda and falsehood, in high gear since Meles’ death, can change this fact. Of course, he has achieved some measure of success in expanding infrastructure, health care and education. But, overall, his legacy is permanently tainted by his gross human rights violations and the incalculable damages he rendered to the territorial integrity, national interests, and body politics of Ethiopia.
Meles’ disciples are caught in the futile task of trying to create a grandiose legacy that does not exist and to piggyback on such a farce to stay in power. Ethiopia’s current leader and their supporters should abandon this charade and instead acknowledge Ethiopia’s myriad political and economic challenges and devise genuine solutions. They should realize that by continuing this charade they are cheating no one but themselves. Money and/or power cannot buy true love and genuine admirations of the type the world is bestowing on Mandela today and will do so tomorrow. The world is paying tribute to the life and legacy of Madeba because his accomplishments and his humanity appeal to the best ingrained in each of us, regardless of class, race, ethnicity or other background. One only hopes that the current Ethiopian leaders learn from the legacy of Mandela and repudiate Meles’ hate politics for good and find the courage to open the door for genuine reconciliation and a brighter future for all Ethiopians. By doing so, they not only free the people but themselves, and will no doubt earn the people’s true respect and admiration. Let us hope Madeba’s celebrated legacy on the world stage will guide the actions of current and future leaders to bring peace, freedom, equality, justice, and prosperity for all.