RENÈ LEFORT: ON THE “GOSSIP COLUMN”

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Amen Teferi
Referring to the latest conferences held by the Prime Minister Hailmariam Dessalegn,the French journalist Renè Lefort, in his article titled as “Ethiopia: a leadership in disarray,” published on 4 July 2014, has likened the current government of Ethiopia with a ship that has lost its captain and being sailed by a captain who knows not how to navigate the vesselunder his command.

Moreover, he claimed that “the country is in the grip of a threefold transition,” namely, the unexpected and unforeseen transfer of the rein from Meles to Hailmariam; the passing of the reins from the “veterans” to the next generation; and the slackening of the state economy as “the state is no longer adequate to drive the growth.”

I found the air of the writer to be so impudent and his claim so outrageous and shaky.Renè Lefort has alleged that the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi had“the sole sway at the summit of the Party/State pyramid”while his successor, Hailmariam,is utterly handicapped by “collective leadership,” Lefort argued.

As Hailmariam, who chose/forced to the run the state by means of “collective leadership,” is referring cases that fall under his jurisdiction to the multiple committees that he formed around him and that resultedin indefinite postponement of decisions.

On the contrary, asRenè Lefort claimed, his predecessorPrime Minister Meles Zenawi had been vested with the power to sway, while his important allies -“the key figures of the TPLF”held positions “on the tier below [and]enjoyed the command of an immense public and semi-public sector of the ‘modern’ economy.”

Renè Lefort has opened his article recapping a question that was raised by Addis Fortune, Englishweekly, to the premier during the latest press conferences.He allude to that question -“Can you tell me who is in charge in the government?” - simply because he found it to be a good hook to sling on his preconceived notion. And there hewent on to discuss what he claimed to be a strap that handicapped Hailmariam’s government.  

Renè Leforthas further asserted that after Meles “While the colossal body of the pyramid is more or less intact and still performs its main functions, its single apex has exploded into multiple centers of power.”According to him these “multiple centers of power are of unequal weight;[and] none of them have achieved critical mass.”

In fact, he has admitted that it would be an “overstatement to speak of paralysis”in the government. However,he has asserted that “the party’s pinnacle is at least ‘in disarray.”He also has noted that the “personal legitimacy of [Hailemariam] is deeply flawed and narrow,” because,he says, his political base is Woleyta, a place which heasserted to be “one of the southern marches of the old Abyssinian Empire, peopled by those formerly called “barria.”

Then he added that Hailemariam, like all his predecessors, is not a Copt. But rather he “belongs to a small offshoot of Pentecostalism [which is] considered as heretical even by other Pentecostals.And he reasoned that these are the shortcomings that have rendered him to be “a front man without teeth."

According Renè Lefort, Hailemariam himself is well awareof these handicaps and these have led him to restrict himself to seek consensus through “collective leadership.”Lefortalso has mentionedthat Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn’s “legitimacy is largely indirect”for his ascension to power was solely effected by the personal preference of the late premierMeles Zenawi.This made Hailemariam’s “personal legitimacy to be deeply flawed” Lefort argued.

Hence, lacking the basic conditions that would legitimize the exercise of government power in Ethiopia, without which one cannot enjoy personal political legitimacy;Lefort argued, Hailemariam has tried to cope with this deficiency of “collective leadership.” And he is well awareof his condition and position, Lefortsaid, and hence “collective leadership”is a mechanism without which he cannot discharge his function as a Premier and thus opted to run the state by it.

The decision to go for“collective leadership” is both a premeditated recourse that would help him to squeeze himself out of the bottlenecking situation and an incidental return to the old way of doing politics. Being forced by the daunting political circumstances that have engulfed him, Hailemariam has no choice but to adopt a “collective leadership” style. Thus, according Lefort, Hailemariam sought to gain minimal leveragethrough a political maneuver that would befit the state of affairs in which he found himself.

Leforthas also acknowledged that “collective leadership” is an old item in EPRDF, as he has noted saying “the main markers of the TPLFin its heroic era.”For it has now returned to its old style of decision-making, Hailemariam’s government is suffering from the relegating effect of collective leadership.

Indicatingcollective leadership to be a lengthy and time consuming decision-makingprocess Lefortnoted that when heated debate sprang in the top echelons of theEPRDF it would be so contentious and these issueswould be taken up by one of the multiple committees that Hailemariam has formed around him. They would take on the matter with a view to reach at consensus and in the absence of consensusdecisions would usually be indefinitely postponed.

At times, when consensus is reached, the decision would be prescribed to everyone, in a manner that befit the legendary sense of hierarchyinthe Ethiopian society, he argued.And these decisions may either be fully or partially implemented across the entire administrative echelon, while they may alsosink without trace beneath the weight of some antagonisms.

Lefort argued that this decision-making processcould be “messy or incomplete”and as a matter of fact, they are supposed to remain within the strict boundaries of the vaguely defined term of reference called “Meles’s legacy.”This “legacy” is a kingpin in that it is instrumental in cementing the commitment and/or holding together the EPRDF leadership.

He further asserted that this is the condition that has enabled Hailemariam’s government to remain in unison and relatively become functional. On the contrary, it has also frozen it and rendered it to be rigid,despite the existence of acutely changing situations that require flexible adjustment to the fact on the ground, Lefort argued.

Now, it is difficult to tell whether Lefortmeant to ascribe the failure of Hailemariam’s government in delivering swift decision to the unwavering commitment to“Meles legacy” or the collective leadership. Is it the “immutable principle of democratic centralism” or “the single common referent” -Meles’s legacy- that hand tied Hailemariam’s government behind its back?

The curtain twitchier Lefort,inclined to say that the leadership is handicapped by Meles’s legacy for no one is allowed to detour from this roadmap and as diversion from this would be construed as an attempt of subverting “Meles’s legacy.”

Lefort held an ambivalent position in this regard; as we see him taking the blame to“traditional Abyssinian culture” which as he claimed would favor decisionstaken after brooding for a longer time. One may also take him to mean that the problem to lie in the traditional “collective leadership” that has been in place during the reign of Meles and that continues to be such after him.

He never showed a slightest inclination to deny the fact EPRDF has this traditional way of deliberating on public and party matters for a long time, and duly reach at a consensus,which in fact rendered the style of the party’s leadership as “collective.”

Is Lefortsuggesting that Hailemariam and his comrades should “have to learn efficiently, how to make a collective leadership work?” Or is he advising them to get rid of this “collective leadership” and continue with the decision making after the fashion of Meles, which he alleged to be different from now.

Though he is amateurish in getting across his message, the readers of his article would never fail to grasp what he is gettingat. And to that extent he is successful as he has squarely indicated us what he wanted to purport –you have shaky and poorly disposed government in Ethiopia in post-Meles period.  

And then he is trying to create a schematic argument that could skillfully support a point that otherwise would readily be dismissed as an untenable claim. Thus, the introductory paragraphs of his article are nothing but a foolish camouflage made of the scraps of town gossips and he tried to smugglehis preconceived notions about the predicament of the EPRDF in the post-Meles period.

This is the glistening and the concrete point one will discover when one courageously striped down to its underpants the veneer of the faulty rationalization of the claims he forwarded in his botched write-up. He made admirable effort in promoting such trivial rumor that was destined to have place only in “gossip columns.”

Lucky enough to have an eye-catching title as ‘journalist’ and being generously adorned with such a phrase as “an expert on Ethiopian…” Leforthas made commendable effort to take some pettychitchat out of the “gossip columns” and run it on some mainstream media as worthwhile academic or journalistic piece. I think, to that degree, Lefort has good reason to feelcomplacent about himself. 

Undoubtedly, he set out to cock some mistrust among the party members and degradingly picture EPRDF. He pointedout an “ongoing power struggle” within the EPRDF but he tried to qualify his statement saying “while the power struggle has not yet been overtly launched, everyone is jostling for position, either as a player contender or as a member of the winner’s camp.”

He further asserted that “no one wants to put their head above the parapet” as, according to his judgment, “None of the leaders feels strong enough to veer off the roadmap for fear of all the others joining forces to put him out of the game.”

Therefore,Lefort concluded that “The state is like a ship that has lost its captain,with no one in the crew able or willing yet to take his place, which continues to advance but with an increasingly stuttering engine, and along an unchanging course.This cannot last.” 

One may or may not concur with the fancy or opinion of Lefort and that may depend on the information or formation of the ideas we are entertaining. However, we should unanimously acclaim the ingenuity of this French journalist who never hesitate to invest his time to scrupulously “analyze this” and “analyze that” in a manner that would remind us of the accomplished actor Robert Denero.

The point is, from the word go, Hailemariam and his comrades have made their plan of action public and declared and vowed to strictly follow the footsteps of the late premier Meles Zenawi. They had sworn to continue implementing the development plans and projects put in place before the death of Meles with renewed and redoubled commitment; for that was the wish and craving of the entire people of Ethiopia who had been sending clear messages to top leaders of the party to that effect.

As an expression for the deepest respect they have for their comrade who had passed away before witnessing the realization of the grand plan he had laid down, they have committed themselves to work harder to transform the living standard of their people by realizing the goals set in the GTP.

He also hasmentioned that the decision to have three deputypremiers was triggered by a precipitatedanger created by the unexpected and unforeseendemise of Meles.No doubt, the sudden loss of a visionary leader,such as Meles, who managed to earn an enticing designation like “a world class mind,” would at least have chilling effect on the zealousinspiration which could emanate from his presence.This is really undeniable fact that exists infront of our eyes.

One cannot dispute the absence of agreat leader who left behind an ambitious development plan like the GTP, would put anyone anxious and spur a kind of frustrationor self-doubt. Therefore, it would be wise to devise a mechanism that would somehow recompense the loss of an experienced leader who has the knack to identify his way even in the darkness. And to that extent, failing to devise any safeguarding measureagainst real or imagined problems that ensue from his absence would be unforgivable mistake on the part of his successors.

Hence, it would be an act of wisdom for Hailemariam to find some ways to make up for any anticipated gaps the absence Meles could create and devising some coping mechanism that would recompense (any real or imagined) drawbacks, I guess, is rather a step that crisply marks his ingenuity and the soundness of his judgment.

However, some hypocritestried topurport this decision as an act of frailty and idiocy. They have even tried to construeit as clue for the power struggle going-on among top leaders of the EPRDF. I would contest thatthis is a reflection of an utter lack of common sense. In my view,this decision rather transpires the unflinching resolve of the top leaders of the EPRDF to realize the vision of the late premier.

Similarly, the consideration of the ethnic origin of politicians who are shortlisted as candidates for higher government offices is a customary practice in the ruling party EPRDF. I guess, this is everybody’s knowledge and therefore nonsense to take the assignment of three prime ministers following the death of Meles as an indication of a schism in the EPRDF. The debut of the practice and idea of ethnic representation in the public offices was long before the death of Meles period. I may argue that ethnic representation was, is, and will remain in the years to come to be one of the distinguishing features of EPRDF.

If Hailemariam wishes to have three prime ministers one would rightly anticipate his appointment will take into consideration the ethnic/party background or origin of the candidates. Hence, ensuring the representation of the four member partiesof the front should not be interpreted as a signalfor a power struggle amongst the top leaders of the EPRDF.

EPRDF always sought after ethnic representation in all of its political assignments and exert itself much to meet this objective without compromisingother equally important interests of the public.Though it is enthusiastic about the realization a federal civil service that would reflect the true image of Ethiopia; it never failed to uphold and embed merit as its guiding core principle, be it in the civil service or the party.

EPRDF will only abide the principle of representation when candidates considered for a post are assumed to have more or less equal qualification, experience and efficiency and under such circumstances representation will assume over-riding preference. EPRDF has clearly stated that merit should be the sole and overriding principle of the civil service. It would not allow ethnic representation to be misused and serve as a pass-card for indolence or inefficiency.