Ethiopia Faces Dangers but Also Opportunities in Meles Succession

Despite tensions in the ruling party over choosing a replacement, the passing of a man who ruled for a generation may produce a more responsive government

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CARL DE SOUZA—AFP/Getty Images

The coffin of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi arrives at Holy Trinity church for burial in Addis Ababa on September 2, 2012. Meles Zenawi died on August 20, 2012. His funeral marks the end of a 21 year rule of the country.

Nibret Gelese spent years saving up to move from his home town Mekele, in the north of Ethiopia, and make a newlife in Addis Ababa. “Everyone said it was the place to be, the place to get rich,” he tells TIME shutting the rusty door to his small phone shop. “Now I’m not sure what to expect, everyone is pretty scared about what might happen without Meles.” Nibret’s anxiety over life without Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who died August 20 from an undisclosed illness after ruling Ethiopia for 21 years, is echoed across the sprawling capital. “Meles was our hero, he kept the bad people in government under control, and developed our county enormously,” says a taxi driver.

Meles had dropped out of medical school to fight in the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), part of the alliance that in 1991 overthrew the communist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. Since then, Meles has been praised for his vision of an ‘Ethiopian Renaissance’ and for policies that helped alleviate a great deal of Ethiopia’s poverty. Many fear that progress and stability won’t be sustained without his leadership.

(MORE: The Strongman Who May Be Missed: Meles Zenawi, 1955-2012)

Adding to the uncertainty is the fact that the appointment of a successor to Meles at the head of the rulingparty was recently delayed. Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn had been appointed acting leader on August 21, but leaders in the Ethiopian People Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) asked for more time to mourn before confirming the succession. “They should have just appointed Hailemariam straight away,” an official from the opposition Ethiopians Democratic Party (EDP) told TIME, speaking on condition of anonymity. “[The delay] is only increasing fears that there will be damaging disputes between the ruling members as to who should be the next leader. The longer this goes on, the more the country will suffer”

On Thursday the EPRDF dismissedfears of a power vacuum, and claimed to simply be following the party’s rules for choosing a new leader. “There is no power struggle, there is no power vacuum, it is not true,” government spokesman Dina Mufti told TIME. “Hailemariam Desalegn is now acting minister, so there is no need to rush the procedure and we will wait for a collective democratic decision from the leadership”. A decision had been expected earlier this week, but has now been delayed until after Ethiopia’s New Year next Tuesday, to allow for wider participation in the party’s congress.

Hailemariam Desalegn, originally an civil engineer, had been a trusted aide to Meles, who it was widely believed was grooming Hailemariam to succeed him. The move would have marked a breakwith tradition, since the country’s political elite under Meles has been dominated by ethnic Tigrayans whereas Hailemariam is Woylata and was not part of the TPLF. Also, Hailemariam is a Protestant rather than an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian like Meles and most of the party elite. While ethnic leaders representing most ethnic groups have been brought into the EPRDF, analysts say there is a potential for social tension if the party remains dominated by Tigrayans, who comprise 6.1% of the total population. Some believe Meles chose Hailemariam to avoid the risk of reproducing Tigrayan domination, and also in response to pressure from international donors to diversify the leadership of the EPRDF. With Meles gone, however, local commentators speculate that a Tigrayan elite within the ruling party may seek to maintain their dominance by blocking Hailemariam from taking over.

(MORE: Q&A with Meles Zenawi)

Other observers dismiss fears of a power struggle. “This is completely overlooking the strength of the EPRDF institutions, which are stronger than most are willing to admit,” explains Dr. Solomon Dersso from the Institute for Security Studies in Addis Ababa. “While there could be divisions and tensions, normal in such an organization, I think the point has been exaggerated a great deal. From talking with close observers in the party paradigm, it doesn’t seem like there is any contestation of who will be the leader.”

Dersso notes the fact that Hailemariam has held such authoritative positions as deputy prime minister and foreign minister. “He is able to control these important institutions and easily continue on the work of Meles. As a result the security forces are also likely to carry on as they were”.

But for opposition parties, human rights groups and democracy activists, continuity of the status quo will be a disappointment. “It is a difficult time for the EPRDF but it is sure that Hailemariam will be elected as the prime minister,” says Dr Negaso Gidada Solon, leader of opposition party the Unity for Democracy and Justice Party(UJD) adding that he believes deputy foreign minister and former TPLD fighter Berhane Gebre-Christos will assert a great deal of power behind the scenes.”They have been swearing to continue to the policies of Meles, as a result economic, social and political problems will get worse unless EPRDF comes to its senses and creates a democratic political opening.”

(PHOTOS: Ethiopia’s Harvest of Hunger)

While Meles was praised for implementing a public sector-driven development model, human rights groups have complained of increasingly repressive rule. While elections have been held every five years, with the next planned for 2015, Dr Gidada claims there is is no space for political opposition to compete and says his party is constantly harassed and restricted from their political activities.

According to Ethiopian expert Kjetil Tronvoll based in Norway, Meles had managed to persuade donors that his authoritarian rule was necessary for stability and development. “One implication of Meles death is that Ethiopia will no longer be a one man rule, but will become more pluralistic,” Trovoll told TIME. “If, as a result of this pluralism development begins to take longer to implement then internationaldonors might assert more pressure on the EPRDF.”

Dersso sees signs of the rulingparty changing its approach after Meles. “If Desalegn’s first speech is anything to go by, he talked about opposition politicians, like Meles neverdid, it seems he is taking a reconciliatory approach”.

Despite the fear on the streets of what the future holds after the passing of the only leader many Ethiopians have known, Meles’ death could bring into being a more pluralistic EPRDF, requiring the next leader to work harder to appease the nation than Meles ever needed to. Says Tronvoll: “Meles’ shoes are just too big to fill.”

(MORE: The Pragmatism of Meles Zenawi)

24 comments
Trut2012
Trut2012

I live in Ethiopia. I am a civil servant. I can say,I am  highly educated with a PhD degree. Some 21 years back when I was a Bachelor holder, my salary was around 500 Birr which was about 250 USD then. Now, with lots of experience and a PhD, I make 3500,- Birr permonth after 35% income tax deduction, which is a mere 175 USD.  You tell me if you call this development.

The so called development under Melese's rule is a cosmotic change that is taking place by donors money. Please tell me any major manufacturing industry that is set-up under Melese's rule tha brought millions of jobs and hard currency to the economy. Some of the aid and loan dollars that come from china and some western countries end up making some roads and new buildings in Addis Ababa, although most of it is embezzeled and stolen by the ruling elite. The minority that is benefiting from these donar money are those involved in construction businesses and the high government officials. There is rampant corruption and extremely sub-standard jobs done at almost all levels. There is no proper healthcare system. Although there is expansion in access to education, the education is sub-standard and the graduates are of extremely of poor quality. The whole education system is in big trouble. The Ethiopian economy is not bringing a real change in the standard of living of the majority of people. The majority of ppl are finding it extremely difficult to get by. 

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Commoner18
Commoner18

StPaul78, if Eritrea is another autonomous country, Assab Port belongs in there and whether Eritrea needed the port or not is another matter: as an Ethiopian I do not and cannot have a say on that. Ethiopia being one of the poorest countries in the whole world, don't you think there's an improvement in its infrastructure although we should continue to question and ask for more from our leaders.

selam14
selam14

 I agree Commoner18, Emperor Haile Selasie and Mengistu spent almost half a century fighting Eritrea. What makes you think Eritrea would just give up Assab without a fight.  Do you want to see another 50 years of fighting. I think Meles did the best thing under the situation he was faced with, and that is give the choice to the Eritrean people. Let them vote and if they want to leave they can. This is not a problem Meles created, rather it has been a problem since Italy attempted to colonize us. It breaks my heart to see the new map of Ethiopia and see no coastline, however, I"d rather avoid another war and focus on building up the country.

Surafeal
Surafeal

I think we need to judge Meles and his ruling party contexually. When he came to power the country was on the brink of collapse both economically and politically. Almost two-third of the population was under the poverty line and there was literally no economy to depend on and thus Meles had to start from the scratch. The previous military junta's failed cultural and linguistic hegemony and totalitarinism  has also blown the country so bad that people thought it was the end of Ethiopia when the different ethiopian nationalities started making use of their languages at school as well as  in the judiciary  other than the official language amharic. Rewind back few centuries to the Zemene Mesafinit era( reign of kings), one would realize that there actually existed autonomous regional states with their own kings, it is just that there was king of kings centralizing all of them. Thus what Meles did is promoting unity within diveristy. De'javu!

Meles once said the worst form of human rights violation is poverty. He got me there! For those of us who have grown out of poverty understand what it feels to be poor and hungry. It is just next to death, nothing more nothing less.

Aman12
Aman12

There is one thing, the Ethiopian problem is mainly as a result of past monarch rulers. Those monarch planted one race is better over the other, one race is king while the other is servant. Even considering some races below animals. Later on, those races had a military rule dictators who mascare many Ethiopian in the name of RED TEROR! So, those people develop a sense of uniqueness or the only rulers over the other mass population of the country. When EPRDF came to power, regardless of race every one is equal, in which this was a head ach for the former privileged  few to accept and thus many of the red terror players migrate to the west, where they are trying to recover their earlier privileges regardless the majority poor´s interest. It is not because TPLF is in power but also for the currently potential PM, they blogging  and speaking with their medias (ESAT) so many negative. So, they don´t have any mentality to accept for power outside of themselves. Those people had given them the chance to participate peaceful in a democratic maner in Ethiopia, but the refused and went to the west with all their families. Now they are working hard to destabilize the nation with any one has the potential to down grade Ethiopian progress or any Ethiopian enemy. They are ver few in number but have the chances to manipulate some figure pople over the west to get heard their interests. They have been calling for arab spring (though we got lessons  from Libya and Syria) with the poor´s blood while themselves and their children live in confort. Why not the Ethiopians start such spring if they where not in relative better life and bright future? Was EPRDF more powerful than Gaddafi or Mubarak, to prevent such revolutions? Not at all the people of Ethiopia know what is better for them not for former few elite. What have you done yourself for the nation rather down play with all achievements.  You waste you life eating the west tax payers as welfares and social...blabla....and blogging??? Please get mature all Ethiopian opponents living in the west, learn form the less educated Ethiopian people in Ethiopia. May God bless the world with peace! Amen

Gashawal
Gashawal

Every dictator share the same thing; they make the issue of succession very complex so that they will stay in power uncontested. Zenawi is best known for working for the interest of the West than his own people. 

"Miraculous  economic growth" with out freedom? C'mon, who's gonna challenge the numbers in the absence of freedom of speech?!

Zenawi is gone, now the EPRDF is a party of equals. Succession ain't gonna be easy. I wish they could take this opportunity to reconcile with the people!

Gashawal
Gashawal

Every dictator share the same thing; they make the issue of succession very complex so that they will stay in power uncontested. Zenawi is best known for working for the interest of the West than his own people. 

"Miraculous  economic growth" with out freedom? C'mon, who's gonna challenge the numbers in the absence of freedom of speech?!

Zenawi is gone, now the EPRDF is a party of equals. Succession ain't gonna be easy. I wish they could take this opportunity to reconcile with the people!

ettm
ettm

Dear William: 

I notice all foreign reporters care about is that absent Meles their regional interest is at stake. The fact is that economic and human freedoms of a whole nation have been trampled on for 21 years without their consent by Meles' ethnic party. You need to have at least checked Pew data that 77% of Ethiopians prefer democracy over a strong leader and 64% are dissatisfied with the direction the country is going. What you hear now is a noise, really, of insecure members of Meles' ruling minority core wanting to retain power under the pretense of extending Meles' "growth vision." If things did not turn out in favor of the ruling TPLF or if they sensed power slipping they will be the ones creating instability to then jump in as mediators; after all, they are armed and have methodically disarmed non-Tigrayans - even those in the military! It was wise of you to have recorded the type of vision Meles and the TPLF provided as "a collective democratic decision." In other words, no dissent is welcome. Opening space to all Ethiopians to participate in their own nation's affairs will automatically deprive TPLF of its dominance [comprising 4.5 millions of 84 millions]. Private press is not allowed and accountability and transparency do not exist; journalists are routinely sent to jail on charges of terrorism; courts receive directives from the politburo. Just last month the editor of Feteh was sent to jail for 6 days while attending his own court appearance for reporting on the ill-health of the now deceased Meles and his paper banned just like that! Will: see if you can write what you will and not be kicked out if not arrested [remember VOA's Heinlein]. You think you could go onto the streets or into rural areas and ask public opinion? Only check your sources [the government is running a ring of sources and experts all over the world - Nigeria, South Africa, the Middle East, etc - under cover of "peace and security" or "investments and markets, " etc. I know you may not have the budget or even the desire but it is worth giving it a thought. Just remember this. Your reporting could make life hell for millions and get some killed or tortured OR shed light on their plight so the publics [not political leaders] in your part of the world hear the shackles of the gagged prisoner and the evicted villager.Meles was indeed a brilliant man. But his type of leadership could only survive on nurturing fear and violence. Don't you see how he managed to make himself indispensable to the detriment of the nation? May I suggest you take up the following for your next assignment on Ethiopia? 1/ What happened to the nearly $12 billion illicitly transferred to foreign banks [according to 2011 UN report]? 2/ Why was not tens of millions aid money raised in the name of hungry Tigrayans not yet accounted for?  3/ Why was the report into the killings of 197 peaceful demonstrators following the stolen 2005 election swept under the carpet; after all, it was the government who set up the Commission of Inquiry. What about the murder of 435 in the Gambella region? Thanks.

Steven Ronald Akon
Steven Ronald Akon

Based on the complex nature of the countries problems that gripped her for thousands of years, with many ethnic, religious within and with neighbors and economic backwardness it is possible to argue that PM has done miracles. Undeniable impressive economic growth and an acceptable political system an ethnically divided country deserves. If Ethiopians can keep and build on what he pioneered soon Ethiopia can be a model democratic and economically sound country. I am not comfortable with the delay to assign a successor, it seems there are forces at work to divert the PM Meles plan which I do believe he left behind a clear path of succession.

stpaul78
stpaul78

I wish you gave it a more comprehensive view of his performance. Ethiopia is as poor as ever. A few hundred dollars increase in per capita income over 20 years hasn't made much of a difference. Under his leadership, and surprisingly his own urging, probably the first ever case in the history of this world, it lost a vital port, which made her a landlocked country. His party engaged in a wide range of businesses that sucked up all opportunities from other legit players, simultaneously playing referee and player. All so called independent actors look at this, not only give him a pass, but praise it to no end. Stunning! Absolutely shocking. Hope kids aren't watching this. 

Zelalemawi --
Zelalemawi --

when was the last time you visited Ethiopia, I mean not on the cyber world...physically? if you stay in the "cyber Ethiopia", you might be right and you can not grasp the change on the ground. I am frequently travelling to Ethiopia... the Ethiopia I know 21years ago is very poor in infrastructure, education and health. The Ethiopia we have after 21 years improved dramatically in those areas I mentioned. Do you know that infant mortality reduced by 40% in Ethiopia? do you think this is a mere EPRDF propaganda... go and see for yourself.

stpaul78
stpaul78

Zelalemawi, I appreciate the reply to my comment here. Yes, I have seen the infrastructure improvements, and I will take your word on the mortality stat. Certainly, PM Meles's government and the donors do deserve credit for that.

My earlier point was, looking at the big picture, access to the sea is extremely critical for a nation like ours. He gave that up willingly. The amazing part is, as I said earlier, he argued for return, a port that Eriterians' didn't need, without anything in return. He just gave it up. Just incredible. 

When I hire you as a lawyer as a one would reasonably consider a leader to be as such when elected or happen to find him/herself in power, you're suppose to stand for my interests, no matter what. You have to do what is good for me. Here however, PM Melese obsessively argued, as we all witnessed on government media, for the return of that piece of land [along with the rest], single vital gateway to the sea for Ethiopia. That was a critical strategic loss. Roads can be built any time, but this was entirely different. It may end up taking blood, tears and sweat to get it back - if ever. Further, look at how he partitioned the land along ethnic lines. Again, most reasonable people would think that isn't a good thing. At least here, one could argue that, he did it to give voice to various minority groups. Though the objective was good, the way it was done was flawed.  We have to give him credit for his work on the Grand Dam project, however. I loved the interview he gave a while back to one Egyptian journalist. He spoke for the entire country, and for once, acted as a true leader.Again, I appreciate your response, Zelalemawi. You're perfectly entitled to your views. I just happen to disagree.Selam Hune. 

Yehualashet Abraham
Yehualashet Abraham

Yea, Incredible indeed! I used to feel ashamed of my father and all the elderly people who just watched Meles when he made Ethiopia landlocked. Now I am 27, I am wondering if my child will feel ashamed of me for not playing my part to let Ethiopia regain its port. I still don't understand why EPRDF acts as if the "E" in their party name stands for Eritrea.

2012sep8
2012sep8

Dear Friend, Please donot fix to one word Port port..., I am not saying port is not important or negotation was not good. Please see things wider  every kebelle in ethiopia has primary school access, every kebelle has health post, every woreda has road access,every village has an access to mobile phones or wire-less access, look the many hydro electric powers built, many urban poor-middle status people get the opprtunity of residence (condominium), agricultuarl production has increased per hectaor .... hw do you explain  develpment out these. Dear brother am not saying the government is perfect but please be rational and sothat people can accept your idea if you are a politican.

Natnail F. Aberra
Natnail F. Aberra

The reason for the succession of MZ to be vague is intentional. There wasn't any reason to 'succeed him'. That is what dictators are like. Their survival is always dependent on the 'lack' of any other leader who can take over without any chaos. They will do anything to get rid off anyone seen as a potential successor. That is what Meles precisely did, even on leaders from with in his own party. 

I like to coin this back and see it as an opportunity, as one of the few good thing he did perhaps, he didn't leave us with one strong man like he was - who will grow to be another dictator. I think we will have a collective leadership as anyone of the elite in the incumbent lack a comprehensive power base he had. Something similar with what happened in China after Mao died.

Zelalemawi --
Zelalemawi --

@twitter-258252437:disqus  said "The reason for the succession of MZ to be vague is intentional"..... 

how do you know? r u an insider of EPRDF? mere speculation is not a fact? keep your conspiracy theory for yourself until you have facts.

Natnail F. Aberra
Natnail F. Aberra

Well, you are right that it is a personal take that I think his succession was left vague. But if it is the only thing troubling you in my comment, I guess I don't need to be an EPRDF insider to talk about it. And to be frank, his succession was as vague to other EPRDF members (Insiders) as it was to me, or any other ordinary citizen.

Zelalemawi --
Zelalemawi --

Prime Minister Meles tried to advance Ethiopia economically. This is not very easy as poverty is deep-rooted  in Ethiopia. With the leadership of Meles Zenawi, amazing changes recorded in the country in a very short time. That is a credit for Meles.

On the succession I think the statement of Dr. Solomon can explain the reality..."Other observers dismiss fears of a power struggle. “This is completely overlooking the strength of the EPRDF institutions, which are stronger than most are willing to admit,” explains Dr. Solomon"... I can not agree more... 

Every one:- international analysis, Ethiopian politicians and others alike completely mis-understood the strength of EPRDF institutional capacity. Many under-estimated EPRDF... Those people drumming the demise of EPRDF and Ethiopia at large due to the death of PM Meles Zenawi... they  do not know anything about EPRDF and Ethiopia...

Gashaw
Gashaw

 You seem very obsessed with EPDRF or TLPF whatever.... their strength doesn't have anything to do with Ethiopian people. ya, we know their manipulation to keep their power is "outstanding" but for us , the people, it's more suffering.

Zelalemawi --
Zelalemawi --

I love my country and its people, if you call this obsession be it. 

To whom their strength belongs do you think... to Somalia... qiqiqi.... Don't you know the EPRDF people are Ethiopians? for you the people... which people you are talking about the DV generation diaspora? qiqiqi... I can tell you these... most of you do not know Ethiopia? When was the last time you visited Ethiopia? since you left the country you locked yourself in the "cyber Ethiopia"... I do not think you know Ethiopia as I do. I do believe Meles did what he can... did he made mistakes...yes! There are rooms for improvement... No Question about it! But, his leadership changed Ethiopia's image for ever... for those people who are ok with the dark status-quo ... the change is painful.  

Zemen2
Zemen2

It will be completely ridiculous if the party changes it mind on Hailemariam and instead inserted a narrow minded TPLF guy. I said narrow because TPLF believes in dominating a country where there are so many majority groups, you can't get more narrow than that!. As it stands, Haile is the hope of the country and the people.  It should not stop in him getting power though, he should aspire for a bigger democratic institutions and purge all those that are inserted in every government ministry through TPLF's nepotism in all the years of dictator Meles' rule.

helawie
helawie

 hi what you posted here is the TPLF members are narrow minded.shame on you i donnot think you are  level headed man rather you are ever closed minded becouse you did not try to say some thing about the the legacy of TPLF as well as meles.who did bring hailemariam from forien to help his turn in developing ethiopia ''MELES the great ever.''

zeinab1
zeinab1

Of course Meles's shoes are hard to fill and the EPRDF as we know it is no where to be found from now on. Meles had been surrounded by group of people whom he put at each other's throats and these people are now vying for control of the leadership out of power mongering as well as fearing that their rival may eliminate them once he gets to power. So it is both thirst for power and survival instincts running amok.