So how do you really mourn a dead tyrant?
WE may have an answer. When Ethiopia’s longtime dictator, Meles Zenawi, died last month, thousands flocked to Bole International Airport, in the capital, Addis Ababa, standing in a drenching rain to welcome the body of their “irreplaceable” leader, who unbeknownst to them died abroad of “infection.”
A ruthless dictator dies and thousands turn out, hysterically wailing, in cities and townships across the country. Sounds familiar?
Following the death of Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea’s Kim Jong Il late last year, the whole country came out, literally, to mourn the “dear leader.” Even Mother Nature joined in the national grieving — when a cloud descended over the capital, Pyongyang, shortly after a sobbing journalist read the announcement on state TV. But that’s North Korea, a secretive communist state shunned in the west.
Is Ethiopia not different, though? A constitutional democracy, Ethiopia’s ruling party, the EPRDF, won the last election by a landslide – carrying 99.6 percent of seats in the rubber-stamp parliament. For the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, a darling of Western aid, its deceased leader of 21-years was an international rock-star. “Africa’s finest and titan,” as they say, Zenawi, 57, rarely missed G20 summits and the World Economic Forums.
Up until his demise on August 20, Ethiopians were only told that the premier was on a much-deserved break, finally resting after decades of shouldering “enormous and herculean tasks.” But when his body arrived in a casket draped with a party flag; great their leader was, Ethiopians knew in their hearts and did not wait for the ruling party to officially declare a week of national mourning. Dressed in black, a custom for mourning the dead, they just went to the airport.
During his two-decade old reign, Zenawi hardly ventured outside of his palace to talk to ordinary citizens, except on the state TV. Even then, he was often rude, irate and threatening. But since his demise, it is as if the country’s 94 million souls are knocking on the palace to pay respect for a leader they have barely known. Not least the urchins, prisoners, lepers, street kids, hospital patients, and beggars who passionately spoke of how the mere hearing of Zenawi’s development plans and visions the premier had for their uplift turned their lives around.
But, how genuine are the tears, the hysteric wailing, and chest beatings in Ethiopia?
A closer look at the ways in which the ‘funeral committee’ choreographed the mourning period reveals a lot. First, the ruling party ordered regional administrators to arrange a well-orchestrated mourning service to be held in stadiums and public squares across the country. Attendance was required for all civil servants.
For example, in Wolayita Zone, home of Ethiopia’s acting PM, citizens were told to come out in large numbers to a planned mourning ceremony, according to documents reviewed by OPride. In Jigjiga, the capital of neglected Somali region – off limits to aid workers and journalists alike – Aljazeera’s Mohamed Adow said hundreds gathered to bid farewell to the late prime minister, who lifted the profile of their region. A similar memo from Ethiopian Tour Operators Association president, Yohannes Assefa, instructed the association members to immediately forward names of drivers and plate numbers of designated vehicles that would transport people to mourning sites.
Authorities at University of Gondar, in northern Ethiopia, also sent out a letter requiring the school community to attend the mourning service in that town. The Addis Ababa University, one of the premier learning institutions in Ethiopia, even set quotas for each college and department to mobilize a specified number of mourners for Sunday’s state funeral.
All that pales in comparison to the case of street dwellers that were heard praising Zenawi on state TV. “It is because of confidence in our father [Zenawi] that we sleep on the streets,” a sobbing homeless man told the camera pretending to wipe away tears. “Now that he’s gone, I feel like we are fatherless.” A young woman in her 20s, also a street dweller, testifying to Zenawi’s miraculous powers added, “our father [Zenawi] fed us by turning a stone into bread.”
After Zenawi is buried this week, if the hysteric public mourning is any indication, we would soon be told, the Ark of the Covenant, a biblical treasure hidden for thousands of years in this ancient Christian enclave, gleamed with a special light, radiating through all the layers of its leather encasing, bearing Zenawi’s name, even if slightly misspelled. It won’t be a first. The Old Testament is said to have spelled prophet Muhammad’s name wrong and Nostradamus prophesied the rise of Hisler.
Or maybe someone would spot migrating birds singing praise for Zenawi on their way to the warm coasts of the Indian Ocean. Do Ethiopian birds migrate?
Ethiopia is not new to these kinds of miracles. One such story relates to an 18th century thug turned king Tewdros II. The story goes that as soon as his birth was heralded, the spiritual capital of the three Abrahamic religions, Jerusalem, just across the Red Sea, was wrecked with commotion. Commotion did the good king create, not in Jerusalem as prophesied but in his home country.
The stubborn king was sure of his great destiny to pick fight with the British king, another hardheaded man who sent a well-equipped army all the way to Africa, forcing the Ethiopian king to commit suicide rather than being taken captive. Heroic, isn’t it?
There is also a legend about Menelik II, a great 19th century Ethiopian ruler. The legend held that before the great King was born, a soothsayer saw the rays of a rising star, no ordinary star but the sun itself, emerging out of his future mother’s womb. But Menelik, who is often hailed as the Black King, Tikur Sew, should rather be remembered for cutting off women’s breasts and mutilating the sexual organs of Oromo and Wolayita males – who failed to realize his greatness and resisted calls to surrender. Given the man’s predilection for cutting, the Italians, whom he vanquished, were lucky they escaped with their sexual organs intact. Knowing the passion with which Italian men loved their women that would have been a disaster.
Zenawi’s mother did not see a miracle as illustrious as Menelik’s but something special nevertheless. Too bad Tigreans, the minority rulers of Ethiopia, always have to come short to their Amhara cousins, Ethiopia’s traditional rulers. The story unfolds like this: A neighbor saw Zenawi’s mother dancing to a traditional Tigrean dance, shibshibta, after foreseeing that her son would grow up to be a great leader of the entire universe.
A minister, who overheard this vision, instructed a farmer from a nearby village to dream an even greater dream, which the farmer will do not to be outdone by a woman. In the dream, God Himself talked to the farmer and asked the latter to keep their conversations secret, not like the priests who went around disclosing the details of the Covenant that was supposed to be a secret deal between Moses and God, talking man to man privately in a secluded dessert hideout so that no one could eavesdrop. The farmer overheard God making a special promise to an angel of a Tigrean descent, Zenawi’s folks, that, as compensation for the grief of losing their 18th century king Yohannes IV, the Sudanese severed his head off, He would bless the Tigreans with an offspring, Zenawi, a man whose name would travel far and wide.
Unlike Tewdros II, Yohannes IV, and Menelik II, Zenawi had the advantage of being born in a new era, long after Ethiopia introduced TVs, and more recently the Internet. Whereas his predecessors had to rely solely on hearsay to spread their greatness, Zenawi had monopoly over the media. Besides, he skillfully muzzled the free press and arrested or forced critical journalists into exile. The machinery that he had built is now attempting to create a persona greater than his life.
Ethiopians should take solace knowing that in this business of orchestrated and highly choreographed mourning for a fallen leader, Ethiopia is beating communist North Koreans at its own game. They are not even commies. Ethiopia abandoned communism in 1991. The only thing the two countries have in common is, Ethiopia sent troops to the Korean War—one of the few African countries to do so.
Supporters of the Ethiopian regime are mortified by the North Korea comparison. Akin to the words of the late prime minister, they call it the work of a few terrorist hecklers. We don’t know about North Korea but not all Ethiopians are weeping and wailing out of a genuine love for Meles and a great sense of loss. It has been said, “Ethiopians are very dramatic and emotional when anyone does.” This is part true.
There is also what German Philosopher Frederick Nietzsche called a herd mentality. Nietzsche argued that people in a herd act in the same manner as obligation to each other and also in conformity to socially accepted norms. Ethiopia’s state-run TV was instrumental not only in disseminating talking points repeated by shepherds and scholars alike but also what is now generally the accepted way to remember Zenawi’s legacy.
As Zenawi’s powerful friends: Bill Gates, Susan Rice, Johnnie Carson, Thabo Mbeki, Olusegun Obasanjo, Paul Kagame, and Yoweri Museveni descend on Addis Ababa to attend or speak at his funeral, one thing is certain. The Ethiopians are at least spared of one embarrassment: North Koreans did not outperform them. On Sep. 2, in what would be the most illustrious and extravagant state funeral in Ethiopia’s history, thousands are expected in Addis to bit adieu to their “irreplaceable leader,” who in the words of one mourner was both “the father and mother not only to Ethiopia but all of Africa.”
If Zenawi toiled to make dictatorship acceptable, his heirs may even go one step further. The wise Oromo says, the young follows in the footsteps of the elderly.
So how do you really mourn a dead tyrant?
Meles the “lion” was Ethiopia’s “philosopher king” for two decades. But thanks to a creeping succession battle, we could not sing, “Long Live the King” as we are condemned to do. We could however proclaim, “Long live dictatorship.”
We take comfort in knowing, unlike other dictatorships, such as North Korea, it is not Zenawi’s son taking the helm in Ethiopia. But then again, how about the prospect of being led by a rather dour politician without any political base and a record of accomplishment? Hailemariam Desalegn, Zenawi’s former deputy, has endearing humble beginnings, but what to do with competence?
Fortunately, unlike North Korean generals, the Tigrean puppet masters pulling string behind the scene will have to babysit a grown adult. So despite being located in different continents and wearing different skin colors, we are not unlike North Koreans after all.
As we now know, dictators copy each other– in life, and in death. The safest routes to mourning a tyrant is to act as if he is alive until his friends die off or are brought to the gallows or face the courts handcuffed. In Ethiopia’s case, that won’t be anytime soon.