After a two-decade long service as both a political leader and statesman, Meles Zenawi passed away of natural causes five years ago.
Meles was a man who tirelessly expended his years in struggle. As a youth and an adult, Meles was a guerilla fighter, struggling hand in hand with his comrades in the Tigrayan People Liberation Front (TPLF). As a statesman, Meles incessantly fought Western powers and their subordinates with pen and paper on ideological and policy lines.
When it comes to a leader such as this, understanding the man, in the words of former United States ambassador to Ethiopia, Donald Yamamato, is to “understand the underlying philosophy of his government”.
To question the life and work of Meles Zenawi means to deduce inference on what the future may hold, as his legacy is yet to fully divulge and his policies to be completely realised.
More importantly, a systematic look into the most influential but controversial leader shades light on the foundations of his thoughts, which have ranked him a great leader, an ideologue and a thinker too. Indeed, the conceptions of the late Prime Minister of Ethiopia in the realm of politics and the economy is telling about the pillars of revolutionary democracy and democratic developmentalism.
Meles had unpredictable, if not blurred, goals to those unfamiliar with him. This was not without reason, but nor are his thoughts, policies, strategies and tactics that buried too. The very construct of political and economic philosophy of Meles lies in fighting elitism. For Meles, what justifies politics and political power is the need to promote fairness – fairness in a sense that the larger mass of the population should exercise the most power. He promoted a system of political and economic governance in favour of collectivism rather than elitism.
He staunchly argued that elitism is the major component of Ethiopia’s political past. His ambition to change the 3000-plus years of autocracy arose because has viewed this Ethiopian history as disingenuous. For Meles, such a political system is too dubious to embrace all the various nations and nationalities of the country as it was tainted by elitism. Regimes had failed to accommodate the whole of ‘Abyssinians’ as one people, instead focusing on a few ethnicities.
For the late Prime Minister, the essence of politics is in promoting a political system where there is no hegemony by any one religion, culture, language or others. The history of Ethiopia reflects political elitism, where some cultures have been imposed on others. Moreover, past regimes attempted to set, and most times did, state religions that everyone is forced to follow. Rulers favoured a policy of one people and country, despite the diversified populace.
In general, revolutionary democratic political goals, with Meles being the chief ideologue, arose from the need to fight political elitism. It was once political elitism dissolved that it was possible to exercise democracy, which values the individual just as much as the crowd. Unless individual right was reinforced, elites privileged in the past regimes will have monopolized politics, as they possess all the means and tools, the propaganda machines, the media and the economy.
Meles underscored the need for a strong and dominating political party that works for those types of goals, which devised the constitutional, legal and institutional mechanisms that helped end political elitism. The backdrop of the very contentious constitutional article on political governance, ethnic federalism and the rights of nation and nationalities for self-determination were meant to dissolve political elitism.
Another key area of interest for Meles was the economy.
The economic philosophy of revolutionary democracy stems from two basic issues; one is that the country`s economy lacks the essential institutional and structural elements which could serve as foundations for an ideal economy. As a manifestation of that, according to revolutionary democratic teaching, the economy lacks sectorial diversity; is experiencing structural problems; and has an unjust resource distribution where wealth is concentrated in urban areas, while there is unemployment and lack of foreign exchange earnings in rural areas.
Two, the basic nature of the economy has exposed it to a great deal of foreign influence and to changes in the global economic order. In general, the economic system has widened the wealth gap. Hence, it is on the background of fighting economic elitism that Meles tried to assert his economic lines, as defined in revolutionary democracy and later consolidated in democratic developmentalism. That is why revolutionary democrats argue Ethiopia cannot practice a neo-liberal economic system, which otherwise, according to Meles Zenawi, would amount to swallowing before chewing.
The very endemic historical, socio-economic, psychological and cultural features of Ethiopia require a unique system of political, economic and bureaucratic governance. So, the very foundations of democratic developmentalism gave ideological support to those particular circumstances featuring the Ethiopian political landscape.
Indeed, promoting a political and economic system that forestalls elitism is what justifies the teachings of democratic developmentalism. According to the economic theory, a political system is democratic if it works in favour of the larger mass of the population with all the means to exercise politics. The corollary of that is the need for a political system to work for socio-economic progress that benefits the larger segment of the population.
On the other hand, economic governance is democratic if it is meant to promote economic and social justice. Hence, a democratic developmental state works to fix structural, infrastructural and institutional elements that are vital problems of an economic system which is fertile ground for elites to amass wealth while disdaining the economic benefits for the larger mass.
The economic goals of developmentalism are justified to these ends. The government works to promote an independent economy whose base is a large local market; maintains a balance between the regions and the sectors; creates inter-sectoral linkages that support each other; and promotes a fast economic growth which benefits the mass and ensures social justice.
Meles adhered to constitutional and ideological devices in his confrontations with elitism. It has all been reflected in the policies, strategies and tactics of his politics, which the leader exhaustively fought for to his death. Such an influential figure who was able to institutionalize his thoughts has realigned the historical, political, legal and economic path of Ethiopia within just a quarter of a century. His influence will remain intact, even after his death, with his thoughts set to rule Ethiopia for the foreseeable future.
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