From a "Piece of Cloth" to a "Sovereign People"

January 29, 2008

In a recent interview with The Guardian, Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia's current Prime Minister, had the following to say: "Democracy is the expression of a sovereign people."

For those who have not closely followed his speeches over the last nearly 17 years since he came to the helm of power in Ethiopia, one might be tempted to take him as an Ethiopian soldier of both democracy and sovereignty after reading his statement quoted above. Arguably, any society has the innate wish to have democracy to express its multitude of desires and the sense of sovereignty to feel secure. Consequently, any leader that is a soldier of democracy and sovereignty may well qualify for the status of a national hero.

A closer look at Meles Zenawi's practices since he came to power reveal otherwise. Any nation's flag may be viewed as an expression of sovereignty. In the United States, the first pledge is to its flag as follows: "I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

Soon after he came to power in Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi characterized the Ethiopian flag as a piece of cloth. One can argue that the then or current Ethiopian flag may or may not express the values and wishes of all its citizens. However, characterizing it as a piece of cloth by the top leader of a supposedly sovereign people was baffling to many. This was confounded by the fact that Meles' birthplace of Adwa was a battlefield where Ethiopian heroes trekked to fight and defeated the Italian army over a century ago. Without a doubt, that battle was an expression of a sovereign people and the Ethiopian flag should have had significance at least for those who fought in that war. It must have been troublesome for many to hear from their new leader that the flag under which they fought for sovereignty is a "piece of cloth."

As a matter of fact, the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF), in which Meles Zenawi got involved after withdrawing from his university education at an early age, and which he has been chairing for a long time up to today, was set out to liberate the Tigray region from Ethiopia. Article 39 of the Ethiopian Constitution that was passed under the watch of Meles Zenawi recognizes the right of nations and nationalities of Ethiopia to self-determination up to and including sucession. None of these two ventures of Meles Zenawi are in tune with the essence of a sovereign people, and much less an expression of sovereignty.

In the eve of the 2005 legislative elections in Ethiopia, over two million people reportedly marched in Finfinne (Addis Ababa) in protest against Meles Zenawi's leadership of Ethiopia. If the protests against his rule by the people for nearly 14 years of his rule weren't an expression of democracy, that demonstration must have been a classic one. It showed an expression of the quest for democracy from inside Ethiopia. Outraged by the crackdown on the alternative political parties in Ethiopia after the 2005 legislative elections, U.S. lawmakers initiated the Ethiopian Democracy and Accountability Act of 2007, or H.R. 2003, in the U.S. House of People's Representatives and passed it with a unanimous vote. That is an instance of an expression from outside Ethiopia for a desire to see democracy and accountability in Ethiopia.

In the interview mentioned above with The Guardian, Meles Zenawi seemed to argue for his case by employing the case of Zimbabwe's president's relations with the West. Zimbabwe is currently hosting Mengistu Haile Mariam, the former dictator in Ethiopia against which Meles Zenawi fought with significant support from the West. By using the case of Zimbabwe for arguing his case, he has defeated the very purpose he fought against Mengistu a good part of his adult life.

If Meles wished to see the expression of democracy from the inside, he must have seen it. If he wished to see the expression of democracy from the outside, he must have seen it. Perhaps, what he couldn't admit to see in the past is the bottleneck. We can only hope that the expressions of democracy from the inside and the outside have been seen in turn that what is left is its meaningful delivery in return. And that shouldn't be seen as a charity, but it is the people's right that they shouldn't be denied by anyone.

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