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We must avoid personality cult like a plague, but we shouldn’t get scared when our politicians become popular

By Dilwenberu Nega
Tigrai Onlne December 12, 2013

We must avoid personality cult like a plague, but we shouldn’t get scared when our politicians become popular

Addis Fortune’s periscopic column, “Fineline,” reported: “Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom’s over-exposure to the public through the social media and the mainstream media over the issue of Saudi returnees has not been liked by his comrades in the administration including the Prime Minister. He was derided for turning the crises into a publicity platform.” (Addis Fortune 11/12/2013) I will not be tempted here to vouch for the veracity of Addis Fortune’s scoop, but given EPRDF’s well-known anathema to the cult of personality, I am tempted to err on the side of caution and accept Addis Fortune’s claim at face value.

Having suffered under Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam’s brutal rule, I know only too well the sheer sense of suffocation people felt under a regime where a cult of personality was the order of the day. I suppose critics of the last Janhoy would say the same thing about the debilitating effects on society’s general sense of well-being as attempts were made to turn into God the alleged “255th direct descendant of King Solomon and Queen of Sheba.”    On the other hand, no-nonsense EPRDF’s success in nipping in the bud any disposition to turn a  a revolutionary democrat into a demi-god has been one of the reasons behind the smooth succession process following the untimely death of its long-time leader, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.

However, the need for the EPRDF to take in good stride public reaction to a job well-done by EPRDF’s ministers cannot be over emphasised, for what is at stake here is not the rise or fall in the popularity graph of an EPRDF minister, but the common good of EPRDFites, and by extension the common good of all Ethiopians. Dr Tedros is a product of an ever-evolving EPRDF, he is who he is today because of and not despite of EPRDF. This doesn’t, of course, mean that Dr Tedros has not added feathers to his cap as he navigated his way through the corridors of power: from Head of the Health Bureau of the Regional State of Tigrai to Minister of Health and now to  the all important post,Minister of Foreign Affairs. Nor doesn’t it mean that he is bereft of admirers both within and outside Ethiopia. But the bottom line which must be valued byall is that he is an asset and not a liability to the EPRDF.

When I hear EPRDF panelist on ETV speak of “their readiness to duplicate the best practices of other states and graft them onto our system, I often say  to myself if only we did it this way in Ethiopia.” And there is nothing wrong in aping others, as long as it serves the common good. It is, therefore, in that spirit that I suggest EPRDF take a leaf out of the British Conservative Party in a bid to ensure that the popularity of its ministers doesn’t spill over to build a personality cult. Here, I need no one to remind me that the British Conservative Party is the very anti-thesis of EPRDF and to ask what would be the point of making it a bench-mark for revolutionary democrats. But the point I want to highlight here is not ideology, but how a political party of a rich democracy had managed to deal effectively with a looming threat by a cult of personality.

When Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in 1979, the Conservative Party had the onus of convincing a wary and skeptical  British public that Margaret was the right person to “put back the Great in Britain!” Consequently, the Party recruited the world-renowned PR Consultants Saatchi & Saatchi “to sell Margaret Thatcher to the British.” And sell it did: by changing everything from her wardrobe to the way she communicated with people. She soon started conquering hearts and minds as she went out and met ordinary citizens and listened to their problems and shared their hopes and dreams. And when people saw her tame the mighty Trade Union Congress (TUC), and when they themselves started to reap the rewards from a raft of social reforms that Margaret introduced and when she became the victor in the Falklands War of 1982, they called her “The Iron Lady.” But the Party had to struggle with what it called “the punishment of popularity” as her critics started accusing the Party of succumbing to Margaret’s personality cult. The Party’s fiery Chairman and a long-time friend of Margret had to intervene and said: “What’s all this hullabaloo about a personality cult. For a start, you can’t have a personality cult where there is no cult, and as far as I am concerned the Conservative Party is a political party and not a cult. But the moment the Party becomes a cult, you can count me out. Popularity, on the other hand is a whole new ball game. Margaret is popular because she keeps on winning for the Conservatives, the moment she stops winning for the Conservatives she lustre of her popularity fades away, so what’s the point of waging a war of attrition over a trivia.”

By the same token, as EPRDF is a political party and not a cult, it should cease to equate the popularity of its ministers with attempts to establish a personality cult. In point of fact, in a recent online commentary, the sole occupant of the opposition seat in Parliament, Girma Seifu, stated that the government was unnecessarily loosing talented people because it doesn’t like to retain popular ministers. This would be bad for the reputation of EPRDF , for it should never lose sight of the fact that it is the incubator of great leaders who left their footprints in the sand of time.

The continuing saga of Ethiopian illegal immigrants in Saudi detention centres has, undoubtedly, brought out the best in Dr Terdros. He is seen to be caring, to be listening and his public statements are replete with sympathetic and empathetic sound-bites. This coupled with his hourly twits on the blogosphere has made him popular both at home and abroad. No one doubts that his compassion for Ethiopian returnees is genuine, and any reference to it being  a publicity stance is utter nonsense. Critics of Dr Tedros may view his prolonged stay in the lime-light as an attempt to outwit Prime Minister Haile Mariam Desalgn. But this accusation has no leg to stand on in the court of public opinion, for the message that comes out from the Foreign Minister and the Prime Minister are one and the same: “Ethiopia demands due care  and attention to its citizens in Saudi Arabia, and the GoE will not rest until all who wish to return are returned to Ethiopia.”

Both sides should count their blessings: EPRDF for having produced such a hyper-active Minister of Foreign Affairs and Dr Tedros for finding a niche within the EPRDF so that his full potential can be realised.

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