Letter from Ethiopia - September 2002

from Tizibt Mezgebu

Dear Readers:

For today’s letter, I had planned to write about the new educational system in the country where the “Matrik” school leaving exam is now given at the 10-th grade. Those who failed the exam are now sent to the technical schools taught by new instructors brought from Cuba, India, Pakistan and China. Since many students failed the exam, most people now blame W/o Genet Zewde for this. Don’t forget also that most mothers still blame her for the trouble we had more than a year and half ago when students rioted and many of them were killed. As the new school year was approaching fast, this was what was in my mind. 

But what happened a few weeks ago changed my mind about the topic. The prime minister finally surprised us all here in Addis Ababa by leaving his office and venturing to “enemy territory” not for 1 day alone but for a whole 3 weeks. As you remember there have been numerous complaints and jokes why he had never met ordinary citizens in the past 10 years or so. When he invited business people to Menelik’s palace about 2 months ago, some took notice. However, Meles ended up lecturing them for hours and told them that he disagrees with them in almost all points raised, some concluded that he hated every minute of it. Even when asked about how EPRDF bodies like Mega are amassing wealth and killing competition in the country, Meles just said this is news to him. Most people thought Meles did extremely poor and was totally unprepared and unconvincing. In fact, it looked like he called the meeting because of pressure from outside like the World Bank. 

Then a month ago, Meles invited all the professors from the university and told them EPRDF wanted a dialogue with them. Every night for 3 weeks Ethiopian TV carried a summary of this meeting and many of us stayed late watching his performance. My husband who complained that the show looked like qebele meeting instead read a book for the whole 3 weeks as I was watching TV. So what did I think about it? If truth be told, Meles outperformed our esteemed professors in most accounts. True, he was nervous at the beginning not knowing what to expect and perhaps afraid that he may face extremely embarrassing questions on some of the issues he is known to be extra sensitive about. But what does he get from these educated people? Questions on Article 39 (I am assuming my readers know this article about right to cessation) and the land tenure system! Any EPRDF cadre will tell you that these are areas where Meles can write a book about. I thought myself that it was like asking Qebele Cadres questions about Che Guevara!  Meles defended his views in ways he must have done hundred times throughout his Communist and now "Revolutionary Democracy" days. I remember the same arguments from EPRP and Dergue people many years ago. Meles got even better once he regained his confidence and none of the participants could match his oratorical performance. When he came to the meeting in short-sleeves in the second week or so, then everyone realized that Meles was finally at ease and was smelling victory. When questions he did not like were asked, he easily deflected them. In the closing days, when one of the esteemed intellectuals invited the prime minister to visit the dormitory room he once occupied, we thought finally some one trapped him and the weaknesses of the prime minister were going to be displayed. We thought they will show him the despicable situation of 6 and 8 students in one room and ask him to explain things. Instead, Meles who took up the offer visited the empty rooms which looked clean. The students are on vacation until September! Needless to say, Meles was once again the victor and our professors looked like actually students accompanying their instructor on a tour of a laboratory. 

Meles' first performance on TV about 11 years ago when EPRDF came to Addis Ababa was much similar. For reasons still unclear to us after 11 years, the intellectuals were tongue-tied and could not counter Meles. My friend at my office said the score now is - Meles 2 and Intellectuals 0. This is worrying me and a lot of people I know. You see modesty is not in the vocabulary of the prime minister and this "victory" may give him more of the vice that he is often accused of - arrogance.  

Now the talk among friends everywhere is how the people in the university forgot to ask Meles questions on Asseb (how long can a country survive without a door to the outside?), how the EPRDF’s parastate bodies are controlling the economy (Meles had told the business people that he knew nothing about this and he will investigate. Well, how is your investigation going, Mr. PM?), about the student leaders in prison and exile, about the recent killings in Awassa and Ambo? Last weekend when we met our friends for coffee, my husband finally offered his opinion. The professors were not a good match to Meles because it has been more than 10 years since (since the end of Dergue) any of them attended a “niqat” session while Meles is still practicing in every EPRDF meeting. A re-match could also be considered after they undergo a few of these sessions, my husband had suggested. I am sure Meles will agree for a rematch because he seemed to have enjoyed the show himself. But I am still worried if our professors could be a match. The students? Yes, I would think they will be a good match for Meles. 

It looks like Meles was very satisfied by his performance so much that we are now in the middle of a new round of discussion between EPRDF people and students. This time Meles is not involved yet. He sent the other people around him who actually make him look much smarter. Also do not forget that Meles is looking for friends after his trouble of last year. This worries me. I even think maybe we shouldn’t have insisted on Meles meeting people! Ordinary people – yes, students - yes; because they won’t hesitate to ask him simple but more pressing, appropriate and the right questions. That will be the biggest test for Meles so far. Will he surprise us by doing so and facing the risk of finally running out of his well-rehearsed talk that is not taking us anywhere? Only time will tell.  Until then, we are hoping that our favorite angels and tabots give the gift of oratory back to our educated people.

I wish all of you a Happy 1995 until we meet in another letter soon.

Tizbit Mezgebu negn Ke Saris

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