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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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)