Editor's note: Eskinder Nega is a prominent Ethiopian journalist who, on July 13, 2012, was sentenced to 18 years in prison under the country’s Anti-Terrorism Proclamation of 2009. Just prior to his detention, Eskinder had published an online column critical of the use of the terrorism law to silence dissent and calling for the Ethiopian government to respect freedom of expression and end torture in the country’s prisons. On June 27, 2012, Eskinder and and 23 other journalists and opposition politicians were found guilty on terrorism charges.
Below is an open letter Nega wrote to the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi on March 4, 2011, criticizing Zenawi's two decades of dictatorship. Though Zenawi died last month, one can read this letter as an alternative obituary on his rule and that of his rebel army-turned-ruling party: the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front.
Learn more about the campaign to free Eskinder Nega.
This essay is part of The Mantle's series Against Censorship.
Dear Ato Meles Zenawi,
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, Tengnework, with whom he had a unique bond, seldom shared the details of his very private world.
[Former Communist Dictator] 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 Wegderse 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 nowhere 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.
Learn more about Eskinder Nega's imprisonment here.
Against Censorship, Ethiopia, Free Press, Free Speech, Journalism