How the legacy of a political leader ought to be viewed

A fairly realistic assessment of the legacies of a departing statesman ought to analytically disaggregate individual and public personalities of the departed

Taye Negussie (PhD)


Following the untimely death of the late Ethiopian prime minster Meles Zenawi, debate has been raging on the legacy of his statesmanship as one of the most influential leaders in recent Ethiopian history who left his notable mark in the configuring of the current Ethiopian state.
The overwhelming views in the ongoing debates mainly focus on his presumed personal and leadership qualities; the performance of the economy; the relative standing of the country in the international forum, and the track record of the government in the arena of democracy during his tenure as head of government.
Based on the nature of their alignment with the government, most of the tones of the commentaries sounded either overly positive or negative in painting the legacy of the former premier. Those few apparently neutral commentaries in their part have been employing disproportionally formalistic statistical indices concerning socio-economic performances which are essentially weak in depicting realities beyond the numeric figures.
A fairly realistic valuation of the legacies of a departing statesman ought to analytically disaggregate the two highly intertwined and yet at the same time different aspects of a political personality: individual personality, and public personality.
What I call the individual personality of a political figure comprises, among others, his individually-held values and ideals, lived-experience, intellectual and emotional intelligences, level of knowledge and wisdom, charisma, commitment in pursuit of truth, technical and ideological sophistication, persuasive skills, love and respect for humanity and nature. These individual qualities do indeed have an immense symbolic significance.
Nevertheless, a much clearer understanding of whether or not a political leader had mined his individual assets for a larger public benefit needs to establish, first and foremost, the level of influence he exerts within his political group; the power and capacity of the members of his political group to enact and  implement principles and strategies proportionate with the leader’s and the group’s ideological and political outlook and, last but not least, the enabling or constraining internal or external environment for putting into action the deeply held-values and ideals.
The Second aspect of a political personality which sheds better light onto the real and long-lasting legacy of a statesman is that of his public personality – the collectively shared values and ideals, political insights and understanding, hopes and vision of a political leader with his ideological compatriots, often united under a single political group or party.
Often this public personality is symbolized and represented as the dominant paradigm firmly upheld by the political personality and his political group or entity.
Invariably, the dominant paradigm is bound to justify and legitimize the ideological and political stances of a political entity; and it is often regarded as far more effective and enduring than any form of material legacy in structuring peoples’ behavior. Thus, it is no wonder that any political entity toils and moils to install its dominant paradigm ostensibly as a cardinal framework readily employable by its followers and the public at large to view through their life-world.
The dominant paradigm of a political entity is an essence of its basic assumption of the outstanding social problems of the society and the hegemonic idea supposedly the best prescription to address the said problem.
The commonest way of institutionalizing one’s dominant paradigm is by implanting it as “public consciousness” or “mass culture” which would significantly shape the thinking framework of the mass and thereby direct their values, outlooks, attitudes, norms and daily practices.
Once a political entity assumes governmental power (through whatsoever means available), it transforms its dominant paradigm into reality by restructuring the form, nature and practices of the government (depending on the circumstances), enacting legislative acts and directives, designing and implementing government policies,  programs, and projects in line with its dominant paradigm.
An illustrative example which best demonstrates the significance of a political personality’s dominant paradigm as his/her overriding and singularly long-lasting legacy is that of the cases of the former US president Ronald Reagan and the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
It is quite evident that these prominent political personalities of the past have continued to influence the economic thinking of policy makers and the daily activities and practices of ordinary citizens as well as the working mechanisms of economic institutions and organizations for the years to come through their pro-rich conservative economic paradigm which came to be known as “Regonomics” and “Thatcherism” respectively.
In the same token, the legacy of the late Ethiopian premier would best be attributed to the dominant paradigm upheld, promoted and disseminated by himself and his political party as well as the regime he served at the helm of the power hierarchy.
The widely circulating views current in the intellectual analysis with regard to the historical legacies of the three successive Ethiopian regimes could roughly be represented as follows.
During the Haile Selasies regime, the dominant paradigm, which Haile Silasie sought to instill in the public’s consciousness is the ideology which attempted to render a feature of “divinity and sanctity” to the monarchical rile by disseminating such self-constructed legend as “Seyume Egziabher”, which literally means the “God-anointed ruler of the land”.
Whereas, the dominant paradigm of the Dergue regime coined in the slogan “revolutionary Ethiopia or death!” could be characterized as that of “uncritical”, “blind” and “undemocratic nationalism”.
As to the current EPRDF regime, its dominant paradigm can be deciphered in the notion of “Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples” which has vigorously attempted to institutionalize self-consciously “ethnicist” sentiment in regional governance, public values, norms, organizations and daily practices.

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