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Ethiopia surprises itself with peaceful transition after Meles

Fears that unrest would follow the death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in August may prove unfounded in Ethiopia, a Western ally in the troubled Horn of Africa.

By William DavisonCorrespondent / October 17, 2012

New Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn (l.) takes the oath of office during the swearing-in ceremony in Addis Ababa last month.

Tiksa Negeri/Reuters

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Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

When Ethiopia's leader of 21 years, Meles Zenawi, died in August, citizens were on edge with memories of violent transfers of power. 

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"A lot of people expected conflict after his death was announced," says a top young civil servant about Prime Minister Meles's secrecy-shrouded death. His mother asked him to remain at home to stay safe as "the head of government had died, and this was Africa – and particularly Ethiopia, which has no history of peaceful transitions."

Yet the appointment of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn by Parliament last month was conducted without arms, marking a democratic milestone and relative stability for a key partner of the West in the volatile Horn of Africa

"[T]he country only has history of about 20 years of democracy," says a senior ruling party and government official, privately. And for the past month, "at this critical time without the highest government post, everything was peaceful."

The peaceful transition contrasts sharply with the country's recent past. In 1991, military dictator Mengistu Hailemariam fled to Zimbabwe as rebels led by Meles's Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) advanced on the capital, Addis Ababa, after a 17-year insurgency. Mr. Mengistu himself rose to power after a coup against the feudal regime of Haile Selassie in 1974. A year later, the emperor was killed, and soon murderous purges and military offensives engulfed the country.

The country still has its tensions, however. 

Mr. Hailemariam, the new prime minister, leads a historically weak, multiethnic southern bloc in the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, which is made up of three other ethnic groupings: the Tigray, Amhara, and Oromo, who are the most populous. Meles's TPLF has dominated the EPRDF since he rose to power in 1991.

The International Crisis Group viewed the end of Meles's autocratic rule within the "virtually" one-party system of the TPLF as destabilizing. Without its cornerstone, centrifugal forces will be unleashed, the security analysts said.

Transition aided by plan

The promotion of Hailemariam represents the implementation of a transition plan hatched by the late prime minister in 2010, when he was chosen as Meles's deputy. The idea was to replace – by elections in 2015 – all leaders, including Meles, who assumed office after participating in a rebellion.

Those who believe strife will occur don't understand that the EPRDF seeks power to serve the public, not to gain "privilege," says Bereket Simon, Communications minister and a longtime ally of Meles. There is no reason for internal jostling as "we don't lack power from any position," the former fighter adds. Hailemariam's ascent, alongside that of Demeke Mekonnen, his new deputy, the leader of the Amhara National Democratic Movement, and Education minister, is meritocratic and not an example of tribal politics, says the senior EPRDF member who requested anonymity.

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