Correction from IDN.
Please note that Meles Zenawi is Prime Minister of Ethiopia – NOT President, as erroneously mentioned in the version of this article posted earlier on March 24.
Global Geopolitics & Political Economy / IDN
By Alemayehu G. Mariam*
SAN BERNARDINO, USA (IDN) – Asked by a local journalist whether the winds of change blowing in North Africa could make a detour to Ethiopia, President Meles Zenawi said that was impossible because he and his party have a five-year “contract” with the Ethiopian people.
He explained: “When the people gave us a five year contract, it was based on the understanding that if the EPDRF party (Zenawi’s party) does not perform the contract to expectations it would be kicked out of power. No need for hassles. The people can judge by withholding their ballots and chase EPDRF out of power. EPDRF knows it and the people know it too.”
Zenawi added: “Therefore, in a situation where the people have this kind of power and have given consent to a government which has been in power for 10 months, they can wait (until the end of the five-year contract) and remove it by denying their ballots. There is no reason or logic why they would change it by other means. That is why a change similar to that in North Africa cannot happen in Ethiopia.”
It is not clear what Zenawi means in his repeated use of the word “contract” to describe the relationship between the people of Ethiopia and his party, and how that “contract” became an ironclad deal for five years. The terms of the “contract” and the circumstances that constitute breach are also unclear. But the word “contract” has special significance for those in the legal profession and students of political theory.
In the civil laws of all modern societies, a contract is a legally enforceable agreement between two or more parties with mutual obligations. There are all sorts of contracts, and certain ones have no validity in law.
For instance, there are “unconscionable contracts” in which one party imposes terms on the other party by duress (such as use of physical threats, economic pressure, misleading information, etc.), undue influence (one party takes unfair advantage of the weaknesses of the other party) or “unconscionable bargaining” (the party in a superior bargaining position denies the subordinate party realistic opportunities to negotiate beneficial terms leaving that party the option of only acquiescing to the deal).
A contract based on an “illusory promise” is invalid because one party has the sole option to live up to the terms of the contract or to avoid the obligations at will. If Zenawi does indeed have a legal “contract” with the people, it must be of the “unconscionable” variety.
A SOCIAL CONTRACT?
Perhaps Zenawi is referring to a “social contract” with the Ethiopian people. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the philosophical anchor of the French Revolution theorized about a “social contract” in which individuals gave up their natural liberty to ensure their self-preservation in civil society. Rousseau penned the memorable phrase, “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.” The “chains” were put on man by other men who seek domination.
Rousseau’s solution to the problem of “man in chains” was to create a community of people who establish a state that expresses their sovereign “general will” by passing laws that benefit them. Rousseau believed that government has a tendency to usurp the power of the people and supported the right of the people to alter their form of government and replace their leaders at will. The question is whether the Ethiopian people are in “chains” or “free” in their “contract” with Zenawi.
John Locke, the philosophical anchor of the American Revolution, also theorized about a “social contract”. He argued that individuals collectively formed society in mutual consent to protect each other’s life, liberty and property by establishing government. He believed the “just powers” of government derive from the consent of the governed.
He wrote: “Freedom of men under government is to have a standing rule to live by, common to every one of that society, and made by the legislative power vested in it; a liberty to follow my own will in all things, when the rule prescribes not, and not to be subject to the inconstant, unknown, arbitrary will of another man.”
Locke’s basic argument is that people entered into a “social contract” to live under the rule of law (that is by application and respect for constitutional principles and legislation passed by the people’s representatives) and avoid the rule of a tyrant. Locke’s “social contract” is revocable at any time by the withdrawal of popular consent. The question is whether Zenawi’s vaunted “contract” with the Ethiopian people is based on the “rule of law” or the “arbitrary will of a man”?
The idea of a “contract” with the people is nothing new. After winning the 1994 elections, Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives claimed to have concluded a “Contract With America” (CWA) aimed at “restoring the bonds of trust between the people and their elected representatives.” They said they would bring an “end of government that is too big, too intrusive, and too easy with the public’s money.” They promised to eliminate deficit spending and reduce fraud, waste and abuse in government.
Over the following decade, “Big Government” continued to grow bigger under the CWA. Republicans went on a spending spree incurring the biggest annual increases in spending over the preceding 40 years. They got entangled in a number of spectacular corruption cases and lobbying scandals. The three “engineers” of the 1994 “Republican Revolution” publicly broke their “bonds with the people”.
In 1998, following Republican losses in the mid-term elections and paying a fine of $300,000 for ethics violations, Newt Gingrich resigned both his Speakership and his congressional seat. Dick Armey served as House majority leader before retiring in 2002. He dumped the Contract With America, joined the DLA Piper lobbying firm and snagged a contract “for a minimum of $50,000 a month” with the Zenawi regime.
Tom Delay, another member of the CWA team took over from Armey but was forced to resign in 2005 after he was charged with criminal money laundering. He was convicted in 2010 and sentenced to three years in prison.
LEASEHOLDS AND LAND GRABS
Zenawi also offered extended legal analysis of the “land grab” problem in Addis Ababa. The question raised by a young reporter was whether developers who held leaseholds in urban land in the capital could freely transfer their interest in the open commercial real estate market regardless of any improvements (buildings) on the land.
Zenawi made the bewildering claim that “developers were grabbing land that does not belong to them in any legal sense and misusing the land lease rights they were given for personal profit and speculation.”
He said such transfers were fueling “land speculation” in the capital with “government officials facilitating such activities or turning a blind eye” to them. He said the “intention” of the law “was to transfer use rights for those who can use it better” but that “the law was open to interpretation.” Zenawi’s analysis is remarkable for its manifest misconstruction of the urban land proclamation and non-sequitur (fallacious argument) explanation.
* This is an abridged version of an article by Alemayehu G. Mariam — a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, CA, USA, which first appeared on March 21, 2011 on http://www.ethiopianreview.com/content/32183. Prof. Mariam is a lawyer specializing in American constitutional law. He is the Senior Editor of the International Journal of Ethiopian Studies, a leading scholarly journal on Ethiopia. (IDN-InDepthNews/24.03.2011)
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