After Meles: Trust Institutions, Not Individuals

Ezekiel Gebissa | October 8, 2012

(The Gulele Post) — Violent political transitions are a permanent fixture of the Ethiopian political landscape. The long good-bye of Menelik II a hundred years ago led to a protracted and tumultuous transition of power to his grandson, the young Iyasu. Power was transferred from Iyasu to Haile Sellassie by a palace coup d’état, to Mengistu Hailemariam by a popular revolt, and to Meles Zenawi through a triumph of guerrilla forces. Each transition was preceded by political tremors such as purges, palace putsches, assassinations and mutinies. The tremors often signified political decay and simmering popular dissatisfaction, but the incumbent leaders generally ignored these signs and remained in power long after their authority had lost legitimacy. Their refusal to step aside deepened popular discontent which in turn increased the potential for yet another violent transition. When the inevitable collapse occurred, power went to the stealthy schemer who recognized the direction of events and hung around the palace to take over power before other contenders.

Against this historical backdrop, the events of the last two months are momentous. Ethiopia held a state funeral for a deceased leader for the first time in nearly a century. Power has now passed from a supercilious autocrat to a reportedly mild-mannered technocrat. What has occurred is certainly not a peaceful transfer of power to the opposition, which is currently the accepted test of a successful democracy. The passing of power from one leader to another even within the dominant party is nonetheless historically significant as a conjuncture that offers an unexpected opportunity for a new beginning.

Unexpected Opportunity

In 1991, the new rulers of Ethiopia promised to end centuries of autocratic rule and put Ethiopia on a path toward a democratic transition. That glimmer of hope for a peaceful transition dimmed over the 1990s as the EPDRF gradually eliminated one real opposition group after another. In 2005, the promise of democratization was dealt a severe blow when the government resorted to killing peaceful protestors rather than share power with the opposition that made significant electoral gains in the national elections that year. The hope for democracy died in the summer of 2006 when the late Meles Zenawi declared the goal of Ethiopia’s democratization was to pursue a so-called ‘dominant party democracy,’ a system in which political competition would be allowed to take place, but only to confirm the ruling party in power.

In other words, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) would remain in power until Ethiopia had achieved sustained economic growth and emerged out of poverty. Until such a time, according to the prime minister, the dominant party will go on to elections to protect the development project from the influence of “rent-seekers” and elite patronage. The late prime minister’s political theory explains why the party declared that it had prevailed in the 2005 and in the 2008 local government elections. In 2005, any challenge to the legitimacy of the party’s electoral “victory” was met with a ruthless crackdown and a series of legislation that severely constricted the he political space in the country and paved the way for 2010 election results that can only be achieved under totalitarian regimes.

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