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What Is So Great About Greatness?

What Is So Great About Greatness?

By Mitiku Adisu

Ethiopian leaders, like their compatriots everywhere else seem to have been stung by the ‘greatness’ bug. So virulent is the sting that they no longer think they are accountable to ordinary citizens. Without exception, leaders have come to believe things will be alright so long as they are in power. Thus, young dreams, crumbs for the sick, the elderly, and children are daily sacrificed on the altar of their ambition!

Start with The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) activated in 2011 by the late-Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, 1991—2012 (idea was originally Haile Selassie’s; d.1975). Mengistu Hailemariam, 1974—1991, could not get the project going because of insurgency led by Meles and others draining his energies, the West bent on sabotaging his “pro-Soviet” government, and Egypt threatening war (and training and funding anti-Mengistu forces), etcetera.

The GERD was dubbed the “biggest dam in Africa” before it even got off the ground. Meles “The Great Leader” and “World-class mind” (Susan Rice) soon added “Meles the lion” to his accolades; Aiga magazine has gone on to explain that the “lion” metaphor in fact failed to fully convey Meles’s “unfathomable depth and iron will!”(sic) There we go. A year later “the lion” had died of unspecified illness. The GERD has continued to unnecessarily cost the nation; in 2018 the chief engineer was mysteriously found dead, corrupt officials are being rounded up as I write this for stealing billions of birr collected from forlorn mothers, and so on.

Ethiopia under Meles was touted as the “fastest growing economy.” The race began in earnest and thirty years set to catch up with (and surpass) Malaysia or Singapore or South Korea. To be like “middle-income” country x, y, or z by the year … became the rallying cry. Meles of course excelled in making the West pay for his “developmental state” and for being a “key ally” in the war on terror. Twenty-Five years into the race the prize continues to elude despite growth data proposed for each year by the ruling party. Hope nations we are after take the Great Hare’s break!

A bit of history here. Abiy "took over" from Meles; Meles from Mengistu, and Mengistu from Emperor Haile Selassie. “The Great Leader” Mengistu was said to have been successor to Tewodros II. According to a ‘received’ prophecy in ፍካሬ ኢየሱስ Fikaré Yesus The Explication of Jesus “a man named Tewodros (II), 1818—1868, would restore the Ethiopian Empire to greatness and rule for 40 years” (echoing Israelites’ journey to the Promised Land, never mind the growing pains of their disobedience). Alas, it all ended in a fiasco! At the height of his reign Mengistu had brandished the largest standing army on the continent, vowing to bomb 'enemies of the revolution' to smithereens and to “take control” of Nature that had kept sending drought instead of moisture.

Emperor Haile Selassie I was ‘King of kings’, ‘Lion of the Tribe of Judah’ (he never attempted to stop the titles coming), ‘Light and Father of Africa’, and god to Rastafarians who to this very day believe he has not died at all! Haile Selassie carried the greatness of Ethiopia on the strength of his royal highness until he was forced to give up the ghost and the crown.

An interesting aside of relevance would be to look at names of Ethiopian rulers. ‘Kassa’ (meaning restitution) is Tewodros’s pre-coronation name which he changed to the Greek T(h)e(o)(w)od(o)ros, ‘God’s gift’; one had no chance against him whose existence predated his reign! ‘Haile Selassie’ is ‘power of the Trinity’; the news of famine claiming thousands of his subjects had to be kept hidden to protect his imperial image abroad. ‘Mengistu’, ‘his government’ (referring to the reigning monarch whom he as a 36-year old army major brought to his end). ‘Meles’ is a nom de guerre (his given name being Legesse, he (God) gave); Meles and his comrade Isaias (of Eritrea) went to war (1998/2000) simply to prove who was king of the hill (at least 80,000 were slaughtered and no one is talking about them). ‘Abiy’ (b. 1976) is short for Abiyot (referring to the 1974 radical socialist revolution embraced both by Mengistu and Meles). It is interesting that Abiy could win the Nobel for peace after suggesting rebellion!

Meles sought to return Ethiopia to her “former glory” (no one was sure what that meant but some said it was a ploy to favor his region Tigray at nation’s expense). It was during Meles’s reign that a stela stolen in 1937 was brought back home from Piazza di Porta Capena, Rome.

And how had the 58-tonne, 24-metre (80ft) stela gone missing? Well, there was a Mussolini, a fascist, Italian and friends with Hitler, who seized power through violence and agitprops and believed he was Caesar come to life to Make Italy Great Again (MIGA?). And as a Caesar, he was to avenge the shame Ethiopians visited upon Italy in 1896 when the latter arrived, uninvited, to lay claim to a fertile real estate during Christian Europe’s “scramble for Africa.” Fifty years later, with mounting youth unemployment in Italy and World War Two approaching, Mussolini needed to capture Ethiopia and turn it into a granary depot, resettle a million or so Italians and feed soon-to-starve masses left behind. Sounds like Lampedusa on steroids!

Mussolini mobilized adventure-loving Italian youth (with promises of riches to anxious mothers). On a quiet October day in 1935 fascists came polluting Ethiopian skies (Vittorio and Bruno Mussolini in the cockpits) mustard-gassing the green earth, farming communities, churches and priests as the latter stood praying. Vittorio had said bombs were "budding roses" and killing "exceptionally good fun!"*

Ethiopians fought and fought hard five long years to rid themselves of Mussolini’s savagery. All this because Mussolini believed he was a Caesar! Italy has yet to account for that genocide!

In 1945 Mussolini and mistress Claretta Petacci were caught on the Swiss border, shot and killed, physically abused by an angry mob, and hung upside down from a metal rafter. Two days later Hitler (of the Third Reich) committed suicide. How the haughty fall is always surprising and yet similar!

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Self-elevation is not an invention of Ethiopian leaders. Beginning with Adam & Eve every civilization had taken a tab at it—but never without draining its bitter deadliness to the last dregs. Babylonians built a tower with a purpose: "Come,” they said, “let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves” (Genesis 11:4). Centuries later, “as [Nebuchadnezzar, c. 605 BC – c. 562 BC] was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon, [he] said, “Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?” Even as the words were on his lips, a voice came from heaven, “This is what is decreed for you, King Nebuchadnezzar: Your royal authority has been taken from you. You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals …. until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes” (Daniel 4:28-32).

“Herod [11 BC – 44 AD] dressed himself in his royal robes and took his seat on the official platform to make a public address to them. The people began to shout, ‘The voice of a god, not of a mortal!’ (Acts 12:21-23, NTE). Herod was struck dead because he did not give God the glory.

The late-Saddam Hussein (d. 2006) came 2,500 years later claiming he was Nebuchadnezzar himself; he shelled out millions in the hope of resurrecting the glory of Babylon. Look how it all ended.

Is greatness necessarily a bad thing? When is it a good thing? Why the craving to make a name for ourselves? Googling “Meles, legacy” returned 144,000 results. “Mengistu legacy” 86,000. “ Haile Selassie legacy” 266,000. Interestingly, beginning with a year before Meles’ death and six years following it the one word that cluttered Ethiopian airwaves was the word “legacy” (always in conjunction with Meles). In fact, his hand-picked successor Hailemariam Desalegn (2012—2017) vowed in so many words to bury his own ambition in order to promote and serve Meles’s legacy!

With Abiy Ahmed in the driver’s seat the search for greatness is in overdrive. Abiy, who counts Meles Zenawi as his mentor, has amassed in just two years enough accolades to fill two walls of the national gallery. Three months after taking office he got summoned by Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni (in power since 1986; and not a good omen we might add) and handed “Most Excellent Order of the Pearl of Africa Grand Master” (whatever that is). Of course Museveni the “Most Excellent Grand Master” had already declared himself “Sabagabé” (King of Kings)! And according to Abiy, his late-mother (not in jest) had prophesied he is destined to be ሰባተኛው ንጉሥ sebategnaw negus, the Seventh King of Ethiopia! Go figure. Abiy’s inaugural speech on taking office (April 2, 2018) was decidedly the marching order to reclaim the “lost glory!”

Trump (and his advisers) came up with Make America Great Again (MAGA) slogan, and in view of election 2020, Keep America Great (KAG). But PM Abiy has bettered Trump in several ways; Abiy’s version Make Ethiopia Great Again (MEGA, as in the Mega Dam or Mega lotto or more recently, Make Ethiopia Green Again!) made more sense than MIGA, MAGA or KAG! Nonetheless, the two could not have been more different in the way they interacted with the public. Trump’s suggestion recently that the 2019 Nobel Peace prize should have been awarded to him, not to Abiy, was at once silly and, looking at Trump’s audience, smart! Indeed, within days of those remarks Abiy had offered to direct Trump to “take his complaint about being overlooked for the Nobel Peace Prize to the award organisers.” There we go.

* * * *

Abiy is into tall buildings previously dreamed up by Meles Zenawi. The original, a 99-storey, office-hotel tower (later revised to 58 storeys) would have upon completion taken pride of place as the tallest on the continent of Africa (South Africa leads the way with 55-storey skyscrapers). It appears Abiy has now settled for a 52-storey edifice (to be built with help from the Chinese of course). Abiy also is into authoring books. A million copies in Amharic, Afaan Oromoo, and later in English of “Medemer” መደመር were shipped home from China. The book (in green jacket and a photogenic Abiy on the cover) is an attempt to turn a frazzled body politic into a wearable garment for all!

A year before taking office (while Intel Colonel) Abiy had published እርካብ እና መንበር erkab ena mambar, that is to say, a high chair/saddle and stirrup—under a strange pen name ዲራአዝ dira'az. Recently, a first volume in yellow jacket ፍሬ ከናፍር ዘ ዐቢይ አሕመድ Fré Kenafir—a compendium of speeches, aphorisms, and wisdom tidbits was published. The jacket for the next volume will more than likely be red, as it should complete the green, yellow, red colors of the national flag! Ironically, the phrase Fré Kenafir was last in official use during Emperor Haile Selassie’s reign! Talk of history repeating itself!

Skyscrapers are just the beginning. Ethiopian Airlines has announced it will begin construction of an international airport “bigger than Charles de Gaulle.” Early last month Ethiopia launched its First Satellite (with Chinese help). Abiy early on has promised that his mission will not be limited to elevating Ethiopia but also bringing Eritrea in from the cold and later proceed to the Horn region, to the rest of Africa, and finally to the world. O, bama! O, bama! A headline last week suggested Abiy’s role in bringing Israel and UAE together.


Unity Park on Old Menilik Palace grounds was recently opened to the public where dead and living figures stared at you (Abiy’s included). Abiy’s new party is named Prosperity Party (PP)! PP comes across as a grand anti-poverty drug cocktail (think Norman Vincent “Pill”) with prosperity gospel somewhere in the mix. Psychiatrist Dr. Mihret Debebe’s close friendship with and influence on Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is very evident, as the former (though not an appointed official) routinely sends out short “mind-set” messages over the Internet from the Office of the Prime Minister.

“Prosperity” for party name is odd considering prevalence of extreme poverty, high number of out-migration, and the educated unemployed. With techno savvy political prophets and prosperity evangelists, and church leaders in disarray Ethiopia may well be on uncharted path.

Ethiopia’s population is today second only to Nigeria’s. It will take a miracle to remember half the names of Ethiopia’s multitude (80 percent of the 110,000,000 under 40 years of age). Growth and greatness at such a breakneck speed has been known to be addictive and conducive to coercive governance and corruption. Driving under such influence could be dangerous, and seeking greatness for its own sake—even with good intentions—is a sure way to dash high hopes.

One fact we can be assured of this: all who talk big, seek greatness or enable it for its own sake will be disappointed; pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall. Only righteousness exalts a nation! (Proverbs 16:18; 14:34)
* On 19 February 1937 a fifth of Addis Ababans were massacred by fascists.