Ben Ali’s “advice” to Meles Zenawi
By Eskinder Nega | January 21, 2011

Ben Ali and Meles Zenawi
Ben Ali (left) and Meles Zenawi (Photomontage)
NOTE: The inspiration for this “imagined conversation” between Tunisia’s exiled President Ben Ali and Ethiopian PM, Meles Zenawi, comes from Prof Al Mariam’s brilliant “Interview” With Birtukan Midekssa; which was written while she was in prison. Like the Professor’s “imagined interview,” this “imagined conversation” is also mostly based -- apart form the intended humor and dramatization -- on credible news stories, legitimate economic reports and researched materials. Hope you will be informed as well as entertained.

Place: Jeddah, Saudi Arabia and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Time: 7:27 PM,
Date: Thursday, January 20th 2011

Startled, Ben Ali instinctively flinched at the buzz of his cell phone. Trebesli, his wife, who is two decades younger than him, looked at him inquisitively as she walked in to the room briskly. He shrugged and picked up the cell phone from the table. Days have passed since anyone had called either one of them.

“Yes?....”he asked suspiciously.

“Who am I speaking to?” inquired a voice reluctantly.

“ I know this voice!” exclaimed Ben with obvious excitement. Trebelsi blushed. It must be Obama--- FINALLY! Where are your friends when you need them? I am sure Michelle will ask to speak with me, thought Trebelsi as she flashed her husband a winning smile.

“ Waaahhhhttttsss uuuupppp, Ben old boy?”

Ben Ali was literally shocked. Few seconds elapsed before he could muster a response.

“Are you already making fun of me?” replied Ben coldly.” I am NOT an American rapper, you know!” he added rather severely.

Intrigued, Trebesli sat next to him. “Is it Obama?” she lip-synched. He shook his head. “Sarkozy?” she pressed eagerly---oh, boy! Has he got some APOLOGY to make! But again, Ben shook his head. “Cameron?” He shook his head and absentmindedly moved his eyes elsewhere. Furious, she stood up and met his eyes. “Who is it?” she implored quietly, waving her hands in exasperation.

“ No! No! No! Don’t get me wrong, Ben. I am trying to cheer an old pal. We are in this together. Protests have erupted in Egypt, Mauritania, Algeria; and, believe it or not, Ben, even in LIBYA. It’s like 1989 all over again. What’s this world coming to? FOOLS are self-immolating everywhere. I am outraged, Ben!” replied the voice over the cell.

“Glad to hear that, Meles,”Ben said, somewhat reassured. “Go light on the cheering part, though. Nothing will change my mood. I am so mad!”

Disappointed, Trebesli sat down. So it’s not Obama. Nor is it Sarkozy. Nor the thousands of people around the world—Tunisians and non-Tunisians--- that WE have done favors for, raged Trebesli on the inside. What a cruel, cruel world! And suddenly, tears were rolling down her cheeks. Luckily, Ben was staring out of the window as he spoke to Meles. Knowing that it breaks his heart to see her cry, she sneaked out of the room. Ben hardly noticed.

“ My Ambassador tells me you are contentedly lodged in an enormous palace. That’s much better than a prison cell in Tunis,” teased Meles with a chuckle.

“Palace?! Palace?!” screamed Ben. A flustered Trebesli run in to the room. Only yesterday, a doctor had cautioned Ben against violent mood swings; raised the possibility of a stroke. “ You should see the pre-conditions they made me sign. It’s a mile long. I tell you, Meles, a prisoner has more rights more than I do. I can’t remember them all. But I think I need the Saudi’s permission to breathe….”he stopped suddenly, too angry to go on. Trebesli sat next to him and squeezed his hand. Ben closed his eyes. Trebesli’s calming effect never fails.

“Give me the word, Meles, and I will coming running to you,” continued Ben, suddenly meek more than provoked.

“Nothing would give me more pleasure,” responded Meles promptly. “But would the Saudi’s allow you to board a plane?”

“I guess not,” replied Ben with resignation. ‘I am virtually a prisoner. NEVER, NEVER end up in my position, Meles.”

“Don’t intend to,” answered Meles firmly. “But what went wrong, Ben? You did everything by the book. We looked up to you.”

“ By the book. Did everything by the book,” mused Ben shaking his head up and down. Concentrated on the economy like everyone said. Tripled per-capita GDP from 1201 dollars in 1986 to 3786 dollars in 2008. Hear that, Meles? TRIPLED! Only in twenty years. What Arab or African government has equaled that? Tell me, Meles, in the name of the almighty Allah, if you know of any?” asked Ben emotionally.

Meles coughed. Move on, he beseeched his friend in his heart.

“Well, do you?” pressed Ben belligerently.

“Not exactly,’ Meles shot back irritably.

“I didn’t think so,” cried Ben triumphantly. Trebelsi’s eyes also glowed with pride. She squeezed his hand once more time and left the room.

“And that is not the end of it. I fought poverty tooth and nail. Reduced the poverty rate by 50 percent in fifteen years. But it’s going up everywhere--even in America. Tell me honestly, Brother Meles, I beg you in the name of Allah to tell me truth, has the Ethiopian poverty rate declined by ten percent—not my fifty percent---in the two decades you have been in power?” yelled Ben, apparently beset by the significance of his record.

“Ten percent?” asked Meles meekly.

“Yes, by Allah, a mere ten percent!”

“I did not call to discuss my record,” Meles complained bitterly.

“I am making a point. No offense intended,” said Ben, backing off.

Meles grunted. But an excited Ben was oblivious to Meles’ feeling.

“The 2010-2011 Global competitiveness Report ranked Tunisia first in Africa. If I remember correctly, Ethiopia was near the bottom. And I am the one who is stuck in veiled Saudi Arabia. Where is the justice in that, Meles? The IMF and World Bank couldn’t have enough of me. One of them, in fact, a world renowned Economist, wished 51 Ben Ali’s for the world---one for each African country. Ha! Ha! Ha!...... Gave the opposition more than fifty seats in Parliament. No offense, Meles, but that is more than the one sat you conceded. And the percentage of Tunisians online? 34%! Who could beat that? Why am I stuck in Saudi Arabia?” roared Ben Ali in a wounded voice.

Meles groaned with palpable pain. How many times have the IMF and the World Bank told him HE was their pet African leader?

“Did you get the message?” asked Ben suddenly.

“What message?” queried a bewildered Meles.

“Lesson number one: the more people eat, the more freedom they demand. Don’t lose sleep over the ten million plus hungry Ethiopians as along as they are not dying, buddy. They will turn against you the moment their bellies are full.”

“And lesson number two?” inquired Meles eagerly.

“Do you know who your true friends are?”

“Of course I do,” responded Meles confidently. “Samora Yonus tops the list…”

“Who is he?” Ben interrupted anxiously.

“My loyal chief of staff,” replied Meles happily.

Ben bolted upright.

“Water, water,” he gasped. Trebelsi came running. “Water, water,” he begged her. Terrified, she handed him the bottled water in her hand. He gulped a mouthful. “I am okay,” he reassured her and waved her off. Though calmed, she left the room halfheartedly.

“Ben, Ben, are you alright?” hollered a genuinely alarmed Meles.

“You almost bumped me off with distress,” said Ben seriously. “Do you know General Rachid Ammar?”

“A jerky Saudi General lording over you?” suggested Meles mischievously.

“No! No! No! Though, you are right about the jerky part. Rachid was my chief of staff. Allah created him. But I molded him in to what he is. No brains, no ambition. Absolutely safe! Perfect way to keep the military under control, I thought. But he betrayed me. Refused to fire on illegal protesters. Said they were unarmed. Wouldn’t listen when I told him they were unconstitutional. That was all it took to undo what I had built for two decades. One man! One imbecile of a man! Everything else was a house of cards after that. The hundreds of thousands of party members in almost every home in the country meant nothing. A ruling political party in Africa is the greatest of all ruses, Meles. Everything hinges on few key commanders for us,” winded down Ben, his voice tinged with regret.

“All true. All true. But you must have forgotten the golden rule,” said Meles, assuming the role of the wise man for a change.

“What golden rule?”

“The Enver Hoxha rule,” said Meles impatiently. Ben should know this.

“Who is Enver Hoxha?” asked Ben.

“He died in office, Ben. That’s all you need to know,” said Meles edgily.

“He escaped the mob?” asked Ben with awe.

“Yep!” replied Meles with pride.

“What was his magic?”

“A loyal chief-of-staff minus a pack of bickering Generals is equal to an exiled or dead President,” answered Meles authoritatively.

Ben Ali gasped.

“ Meles! Meles! Meles! You should have told me this before,” objected Ben.

“This is the ABC of stability. The best Generals are the ones who despise each other; and most importantly, hold each other in utter contempt. The upshot is assured stability. How could you not have known this? Must be the old age,” said Meles with a tone of remorse.

“I am only 75 years,” screamed Ben.

“75 years young,” shot back Meles mockingly.

“I had ten good more years in front of me,” said Ben, with tears filling his eyes.

“Any more words of wisdom for me?” asked Meles.

“One more. You could call it golden rule number two,” said Ben mysteriously.

“I am all ears, Ben,” said Meles, ready to jot down notes.

“Don’t trust Swiss banks!” screeched Ben uncontrollably.

Meles was outraged.

“But they are every exiled President’s best friends. Everyone knows that. What would the world be like without them?” Meles objected sternly.

“Not anymore. I would understand if the accounts in my name were blocked. But they had to block the accounts of every member of my extended family! It’s now a crime to be related to me! Guilty until proven innocent, is what these banks are saying. Good old banking morals don’t hold water anymore. It’s a scandal, Meles. Allah save you from my fate.”

“Amen. You must be starving now,” said a saddened Meles. “Perhaps I could help.”

“No! No! No! Fortunately, Trebelsi had the foresight to make a large withdrawal of solid gold from the Tunisian National Bank before we left,” answered Ben. “I tell you, Meles, she is a genius, a gift from Allah to me. No one has ever believed me. But I know what I know. I would be on Saudi welfare if not for her,” said Ben with tears filling his eyes for the second time.

Both men laughed happily, and thanked their God for their faultless wives.

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The writer, prominent Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega, has been in and out of prison several times while he was editor of one of several newspapers shut down during the 2005 crackdown. After nearly five years of tug-of-war with the 'system,' Eskinder, his award-winning wife Serkalem Fassil, and other colleagues have yet to win government permission to return to their jobs in the publishing industry. Email: - An African-American news and views website.
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