Mr. Rene Lefort’s Not-so-strong Case for a Strongman in Ethiopia

To our readers: This week we feature commentary on Rene Lefort’s recent article, “Ethiopia’s crisis,” published in openDemocracy. Today we post an article by one of our readers, Elias Dawit. We encourage more submissions for posting in the hope that we can facilitate a reasoned conversation about Ethiopian politics, devoid of the polemics and narrow political agendas that dominate the discussion.

By Elias Dawit

The number of western commentators on Ethiopia is on the increase. Some have an enduring interest in the country’s overall development and try to come up with a we’ll researched academic assessment that aims at shedding light on the future of the nation. Still others are mostly interested in current events such as investment opportunities or the state of human rights and democratization and the focus of their attention is often fleeting. But there are also commentators who defy easy categorization because they have a penchant on the one hand for clams of academic vigor and dabbling in what could amount to prophesy about the future on the basis of vitiated observations of the present, on the other. While claiming to stick to the tools of strict academic integrity, they often arrive at the kinds of sensationalism that only characterizes yellow journalism.  Rene Lefort, a French citizen–whose sole claim to an in depth knowledge of Ethiopia consists mainly of a book he wrote about the Dergue revolution more than three decades ago and occasional visits to Shoa Robit and Mekelle-is one such commentator who can be considered the text book example of the latter category.

In the last ten or so years Rene has been writing about Ethiopia. Whatever the dates or the topics, however, there are dizzyingly constant themes that recur throughout his lengthy articles. In what can be seen as a childlike obsession with the fate of the country under EPRDF, Rene often ponders the issue of TPLF dominance and the systematic emasculation of other parties within the EPRDF as though it were an incontrovertible scientific truth. He often makes bold claims of firsthand knowledge about the most important discussions of senior party and government leaders behind closed doors as if he was physically there taking notes verbatim. Some of his mostly categorical remarks and his conclusions are akin to fortune telling. But his rather gleeful predictions of an impending downfall of EPRDF government did reach more hysterical levels particularly after the demise of Meles Zenawi in 2012 going as far as to predict that EPRDF’s days were numbered.

One constant feature of Mr. Lefort’s articles on Ethiopia under EPRDF is that he often operates in an evidence free zone, very much like the US State department’s yearly report card on countries’ human rights records. in both cases, whenever a semblance of effort to come up with evidence is made, it is often unmistakably self referential where allegations all too liberally made in previous reports are offered as evidences in the next one. it is not unusual to read a litany of allegations that invariably make categorical statements about the government without so much as second thought. He has the audacity–or recklessness perhaps-to quote articles of individual contributors to Tigraionline or aigaforum as though they were official positions taken by the executive committee of the TPLF. If that’s not bad scholarship, nothing is.

Building on the venerable tradition in European shoddy scholarship of the sort Rene is a typical specimen, the whole counter factual claim of lopsided power balance in the relations between the constituent member organizations of the EPRDF is repeated ad nauseum that it has almost become an incontrovertible fact in its own right. The myth of key institutions being exclusively controlled by the TPLFites is so hyped in the writings of people like Rene Lefort. That is why otherwise mundane responsibilities at the lowest rungs of government immediately assume unheard of importance as soon as they are occupied by a Tigrinya speaking civil servant. Needless to say, the parties that comprise EPRDF have always been equal in decisions they make and with respect to governing their regions which to all intents and purposes is what really matters in the post 1991 federal Ethiopia. To the extent that EPRDF has failed in delivering on its promises to the people the entire leadership would have to be accounted for. Mr. Lefort will have none of this, though.

If his past allegations of monopoly–and prediction of EPRDF’s impending doom-are eerily similar to the same ones regurgitated by the rejectionist Diaspora based Ethiopian opposition, it is simply because he takes everything written on their websites and every word uttered by their leaders-most of them his contemporaries-lock, stock and barrel.

His recent article is yet another absurd exercise in political fortune telling. all of the above and many more fallacious arguments are reproduced with painful detail. But this time around, he seems to have adopted an unusually cautious tone in his predictions. In this article he tries to make sense of why his previous predictions about a disintegrating ruling party and a fractured leadership inevitably facing imminent collapse didn’t come to pass. While he is still positive that the EPRDF’s days are numbered, he appears to be baffled as to why the spiraling crisis he declared to be beyond the pale barely two months before his latest doodle is petering out. He now seems hard pressed to find the explanation for EPRDF Government’s possible new lease on life and he blames the state of emergency declared by the government for standing in the way of his prediction. More on that later.

What is so special about his latest fortune telling piece is that in a clear about-face he now laments the lack of a strongman at the helm of matters in the country for the uncertainty that has, in his educated assessment, engulfed the country. TPLF is no more the all too domineering elephant in the EPRDF room that Rene has always told us it was. It is more like a Primus inter pares, a prime among equals because, he tells us OPDO and ANDM have become ever more assertive. This is the scenario he had hoped would vindicate his prediction that TPLF, by refusing to abandon its dominant position, would ultimately bring about a total collapse of the entire edifice we call the Ethiopian state. He expresses an element of surprise in the fact that more assertive leaders of OPDO and ANDM are now coming to the positions of power despite his ‘well informed opinion’-or prediction-in the past that the ‘Tigrayans would never allow that to happen.’

I believe Ethiopia under EPRDF has a long way to go before the constitution becomes the only guiding principle in the country’s and all nations and nationalities begin to enjoy the full measure of their rights. EPRDF as a ruling party will have to account for its past failures and missteps whatever the successes it has achieved in addressing poverty as well as introducing the baby steps of democratization. That said, genuine democratic exercise is not about which ethnic group gets what position on the basis of prepackaged quota. It is mainly a function of the extent to which people have the fullest possible participation in the country’s political life at all levels of government. This is obviously alien to the likes of Rene Lefort, though.

Strange though it may sound coming as it does from a self styled erudite who proffers democracy advice at whim, Mr. Lefort once again breaks to us the sad news that EPRDF government cannot navigate the troubled waters for long because, more importantly, Prime Minister Hailemariam lacks the strongman qualities of his predecessor.  Or Hailemariam did not receive the password from Meles, as he jokingly puts it.

It’s not clear if he will stick by his new found admiration for strongman leadership as a panacea to Ethiopia’s political ills. Unbeknown to him, however, he has made an incredible departure from his previous position that the challenges Ethiopia had faced following the death of Meles Zenawi were the direct consequences of the twenty years of authoritarian leadership by Meles and the TPLF which according to Mr. Lefort have always been accused of monopolizing all aspects of power in the country be it political, security and economic.

Mr. Lefort seems convinced that Armageddon is around the corner despite what he considers to be a temporary calm that has returned to the country courtesy of the state of emergency whose primary objective according to him was “to instill fear and uncertainty”. But even here his propensity to make sweeping conclusions gets the better of him when he assures us that the semblance of stability the security services have managed to restore will soon lead to more instability and chaos a] because the EPRDF leaders are only temporarily suspending their mutual squabbles and settling for a marriage of convenience and thus affecting the efficacy of the security sooner or later b] because there is no likelihood of a strongman emerging anytime soon.

Two things must be made clear here as a quick perusal of many of his articles in the recent past would reveal some recurring themes. Rene has an almost religious certitude about the veracity of what ‘his sources’ tell him about the squabbles in the EPRDF leadership—such as alarmists and complacent—whoever those sources might be. The security forces who proved “to be incapable” of controlling the protests in Oromia and Amhara are now taking advantage of the state of emergency to restore a semblance of calm. But his take is that this won’t work for a long enough time because his ‘sources’ have always confided in him that there is bound to be a mutually assured destruction of the security and defense establishment services as a result of the deep seated rivalry he would have us believe will surface between the top leadership despite their temporary unity. To claim an imaginary tension between people at the helm will pit institutions against each other is an exercise in wishful thinking of the sort Rene has perfected into an art form. It would be a waste of time, however, for me to try and remind Rene that the very stellar track record of these institutions not only suggests otherwise than his oft-repeated old wives’ tales. My worry, indeed fear, is that the people throughout the country seem to be more in favor of continued bigger role for the security institutions than most in the government care to admit.

To my second point. What Rene Lefort told us barely a year ago to be the most important factor that rendered the quest for a stable democratic order futile was the legacy of the strongman/authoritarian leadership left behind by Meles and the strict control of government institutions by TPLF to the detriment of the independent aspirations of the other three members of the ruling coalition. Now he seems to agree at long last that this rather imaginary chokehold that TPLF had over EPRDF is no more or is dwindling. And yet the apparent disappearance of the very factor he had always told us militated against democratic governance in the country has now mysteriously necessitated the reincarnation of another Meles as a way out of the mess that Rene’ is positive Ethiopia finds itself in. If this is the most classic example of self contradiction, Rene doesn’t seem to have the stomach to see it for what it is.

Mr Lefort is adamant that the government’s ongoing and publicly promised reform is not going to work. In fact he is so convinced it’s going to fail that he doesn’t even bother to offer any explanation why. The only way law and order could be restored is by another strong man who will have to emerge after some time of chaos and disorder-or steady deterioration and rotting , as he put it; the proof being his selective reading of Ethiopian history. It seems clear that he prefers to hold onto his defunct view point about history repeating itself in the near future. If, as they French say, the more things change, the more they remain the same, that’s not necessarily the case in Ethiopia’s unstoppable march towards full-fledged democracy.

Mr. Lefort quotes “One senior official” who confirmed to him “it is not until the country enters a capitalist stage that pluralism will impose itself: with the emergence of social classes, each will construct its own political party to express its interests. What the EPRDF is still seeking is not simultaneous development AND democracy, but development THEN democracy.” This obviously is an exaggeration at best or a deliberate misinformation by his “senior official” at worst.

Because in my opinion one of the stupidest choices EPRDF has long made is its insistence that both democracy and development must come simultaneously thereby opening the Pandora’s Box of democracy way too early. EPRDF has all along been consistent in its rhetoric that Democratization is a must and an existential imperative for Ethiopia to survive and thrive.  It has largely managed to put in place the requisite fundamental institutions. True there have been set backs here and there as a result of entrenched historical challenges and of tradition that play havoc with the deepening of democratic values and culture. Doubtless significant progress has been achieved in the overall effort to enhance the democratization process in the country.

The peoples of Ethiopia are demanding more vibrant democracy, dependable stability, sustained peace and full well recognize that they don’t have to abandon one in favor of the other. While he is entitled to remaining stuck in his time warp, it wouldn’t hurt to recognize, for once, that Ethiopia has changed forever with the adoption of the 1995 constitution. The protests were not about setting the clock back on the progress made thus far but rather a call for more enhanced democratization and economic development. The Ethiopian people have also been right to be alarmed by the introduction of widespread violence in what have largely been legitimate protests.

That is of course why the very people in whom Mr. Lefort is convinced the state of emergency was meant “to instill fear and uncertainty” are throwing their support behind its successful implementation. They have always understood that violence will only beget violence. Even so, Ethiopians are not clamoring for a strongman who keeps his password close to his chest. Any leader who can listen to and address their grievances will do.

That EPRDF should get its ass in gear and start doing things that make sense to the masses is of course an absolute imperative and it has clearly promised as much. Whether in fact the most senior leadership does have the capacity to do so is of little or no importance to me as I know full well failure to do so will render it irrelevant in the eyes of millions of its members and more importantly in the eyes of a more assertive public that cherishes its incipient yet deepening democratic system and is ready to stand guard against any backsliding. Despite Mr. Lefort’s scary predictions of an impending doom, Ethiopia will continue to flourish.

To make his predictions, Mr. Lefort often brings forth history as offering the insight into what awaits Ethiopia in the future. As Winston Churchill once remarked, a [politician] needs “the ability to foretell what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month and next year…and to have the ability to explain afterward why it didn’t happen.” It was as if he had Mr. Lefort’s articles in mind.

A friend of mine once told me he had once asked Rene Lefort if he ever worried about his integrity whenever he made predictions about the imminent fall of the EPRDF government only to be proved wrong year after year. If, to paraphrase Al Pacino’s character in the movie Scent of a Woman, integrity is the stuff out of which great men are made, there is every reason to suspect that Rene does not have one.



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