The government of Ethiopia organized a congress that founded the Meles Zenawi Foundation (MZF) on the 6th of April 2013 at the AU Hall in Addis Ababa. The foundation is set to establish a library, a research center, a fellowship programme, and a public park, and will also recognize great achievements. Present at the occasion were Meles family; senior government officials; Presidents of the Sudan, Uganda, and Djibouti; former President of Nigeria Olusegun Obasanjo; Commissioner of the African Union (AU) Commission Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma; and other invited guests.
Foundations play a crucial role in advancing social and economic development, science and technology, equality, democracy, and the rule of law worldwide. Taking this context, it is required to acknowledge and support the MZF, as Ethiopia needs more and more such independent voices as foundations, think tanks, professional associations, and NGOs.
The late PM Meles, picture from Google
Unfortunately, the MZF seems to lack, from the very outset, such qualities as independence, diversity, innovation, and ambition expected of all foundations. I could argue that the MZF looks a quazi-government ministry that is intended to give to the works of the late PM eternity. I could further conclude that the foundation would not significantly contribute to the betterment of democratic culture and governance, freedom, and the rule of law in Ethiopia. It is rather intended to scale up and sustain the status quo. The following points ground this conclusion.
Aim of the Foundation
The rationale behind the formation of the MZF is to preserve the “legacy” of the late Meles. According to the AU website, “The Meles Zenawi Foundation aims to pursue the developmental democracy and socioeconomic renaissance initiated by the patriotic and pan-Africanist late Leader”. And the Ethiopian Radio and Television Agency has it that “The Meles Zenawi Foundation is dedicated to preserving and advancing the legacy of the Great Leader Meles Zenawi in his lifelong commitment to peace, justice, economic development, good governance, and democracy for the Ethiopian and African peoples”. Similarly, Walta Info wrote “The Foundation would serve as a living center of ideas and programs to further advance the works and legacy of the great leader Meles Zenawi”.
All these tell us just one thing: the foundation would not entertain ideas that deviate from the golden standard, Meles’ views and policies. Studies, scholarships, libraries, publications, and recognitions all must clearly reflect and advance the late PM’s convictions. We know that Meles did not care for democratic governance, individual freedom, free and fair election, national assets and cultures such as our flag and our borders, corruption, and generally the rule of law. The foundation is unfortunately poised to repeat the same failures. Nothing new is going to happen- it’s all about old wine in new bottle. This conclusion is consolidated further if one considers the governing bodies of the foundation.
The founding congress named 13 personalities to serve as board members for the foundation. Four members of the board are from Meles family, Azeb Mesfin is made President of the Board. The other members are Dr. Tedros Adhanom, Sufian Ahmed, General Samora Yenus, Tedros Hagos, Aster Mamo, Kassa Tekleberhan, Muktar Kedir, Shiferaw Shigute, Abdu Mohammed and Ahmed Nasir. These are all ministers or top government officials.
Generally, the government seems the creator and owner of the foundation. These officials are not known for running their respective government apparatuses quite well, save Dr Tewodros in his capacity as Minister of Health. It is unlikely that they would invest the kind of competence and conviction required to successfully run the foundation. The best they could do is just to simulate the operations of their government ministries and offices.
Why did the government like to get hold of the foundation this much? It is not because they have the readiness and competence to run an entity of this kind. It is because they do not want to see a genuinely independent organization that champions democratic principles and practices. The government is suffering from obsessive-compulsive syndrome- they have the conviction that no chance should be given to any organization to operate uncensored. They control professional associations, public institutions, religious institutions, and even Idirs. It is in deed due to this grip on power that enabled them to rule for decades. The government generously takes care of bills for any organization that plays within the defined territory.
According to Walta Info, “Funding for the Foundation will come from private donations, income generating programs, contributions from the government of Ethiopia and other sources in accordance with the law”. During the founding congress of the foundation, the regional governments of Ethiopia, the Addis Ababa City Administration (11 million), EFFORT (one million), MIDROC Ethiopia (25 million), and the Sudan, South Sudan, Rwanda, Uganda, and Djibouti pledged to provide nearly 184 million Birr for the foundation.
That means, regional governments (tax payers) have already started to feel the heat- it is their obligation to cover a significant part of the foundation’s costs. Just to preserve the legacy of the late PM, one has to pay. Contributing a lot for a foundation that is not going to conquer new grounds is both economically and morally unaffordable. We already have nine regional governments and millions of EPRDF cadres that work day and night to echo his legacy. Why should we need another structure having exactly the same mission? What are the legal and moral grounds to establish an ‘independent’ foundation under government proclamation? Is it under the government’s legal jurisdiction to open new foundations for the founding members and ‘great’ leaders of EPRDF following their deaths? Helping and facilitating the establishment of a genuinely independent foundation is commendable but requiring, by law, the tax payer to regularly donate seems arbitrary and out of mandate.
The legacy of Meles is itself highly controversial. That Meles was a visionary, democratic, and nationalistic leader is true only to EPRDF members and sympathizers. For the majority of Ethiopians, Meles failed to consider them as valuable and respected citizens. That he was a technical writer and speaker did not translate into democratic ideals and the rule of law. Erecting skyscrapers, constructing roads, schools, health facilities, and giant hydro-electric dams did not leave real legacy: people should have come first. If the founders really care about Meles, they should make the foundation a really independent organization that studies, disseminates and champions democratic ideas and practices regardless of Meles’ conviction. It is only this way that they could preserve Meles in Ethiopian history.