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As Ethiopia looks beyond strongman Meles, fears of instability (+video)

Ethiopia was an economic success story under Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who died Monday. His two-decade authoritarian grip may complicate a peaceful political transition.

By William DavisonCorrespondent / August 22, 2012

Thousands of Ethiopians gather in a street to mourn as the body of Meles Zenawi arrived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Wednesday, Aug. 22.

Elias Asmare/AP

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Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

The death this week of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has raised concerns about whether the imposing but brittle system he devised and dominated will unravel following his departure, leading to turmoil in America's major ally in the Horn of Africa.

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Thousands of mourners gather as the body of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi arrives in the capital.

Although Ethiopia has been peaceful during the two decades of his rule, especially when compared with neighboring Sudan and Somalia, critics suggest that Mr. Meles's autocratic style means the stress-test of political transition could destabilize one of the continent's economic success stories. 

"The successor issue will be the true test of the coherence of [Meles's party] during peacetime," says Kjetil Tronvoll, an Ethiopia expert at the International Law and Policy Institute in Oslo, Norway. Avoidance of a power struggle will indicate the "party's maturity and its capacity and capability to rule Ethiopia for years to come." 

Meles, who was 57 and died after illness, led the country after allied rebel groups overthrew a Marxist military junta in 1991. His Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), which spearheaded the insurgency, then dominated politics as the core of a four-party multiethnic ruling coalition.

Regarded as shrewd even by his most vitriolic critics, Meles positioned the country expertly, allowing it to develop according to his unique prescriptions, while being supported by diverse allies. His commitment to development and ability to act as regional peacekeeper – most notably in Somalia, where Ethiopian troops are part of the US-backed alliance battling radical Islamists al-Shabab – meant that around $3 billion of Western aid poured in for food aid, health facilities, and schools every year, while Chinese loans paid for infrastructure such as hydropower dams and a railway network.

The result was almost a decade of economic growth said to be more than 10 percent, improving poverty and health indicators, and shelter from criticism for a ruthless approach to domestic politics.

Under Meles, opposition to the Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) – which sees itself as a vanguard party leading the transformation of Ethiopia from its poverty-stricken history into a middle-income nation – was decimated. After 2010 elections, one opposition representative remained in a parliament of 547 lawmakers. Dissenting voices from the media and civil society were never encouraged, rarely tolerated, and sometimes punished with lengthy jail terms.

The next leader of the EPRDF and the country will be Hailemariam Desalegn, the former deputy of Meles who was promoted to acting prime minister. The EPRDF is made up of parties representing Tigrayans, a collection of southern groups, the historically-dominant Amharas, and the populous Oromos, who make up at least one-third of a population of 94 million.

Analysts view Hailemariam, who represents the southern bloc, as a loyal, competent administrator for Tigrayan powerbrokers. He is also not seen as threatening, as he does not have the capability to build the extensive political network an Oromo or Amhara leader might have.

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