Ethiopia’s prime minister: The man who tried to make dictatorship acceptable
What will follow one of Africa’s most successful strongmen?
Aug 25th 2012 | NAIROBI
THE death of Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s prime minister, on August 20th reveals much about the country he created. Details of his ill health remained a secret until the end. A short broadcast on state television, late by a day, informed Ethiopians that their “visionary leader” of the past 21 years was gone. He died of an unspecified “sudden infection” somewhere abroad. No further information was given. In the two months since the prime minister’s last public appearance the only Ethiopian newspaper that reported his illness was pulped, its office closed, and its editor arrested. Further details of Mr Meles’s death surfaced only when an EU official confirmed that he died in a Brussels hospital.
A towering figure on Africa’s political scene, he leaves much uncertainty in his wake. Ethiopia, where power has changed hands only three times since the second world war, always by force, now faces a tricky transition period. Mr Meles’s chosen successor is a placeholder at best. Most Ethiopians, whatever they thought of their prime minister, assumed he would be around to manage the succession. Instead he disappeared as unexpectedly as he had arrived. He was a young medical student in the 1970s when he joined the fight against the Derg, the Marxist junta that then ruled Ethiopia. He went into the bush as Legesse Zenawi and emerged as “Meles”—a nom de guerre he had taken in tribute to a murdered comrade.
Who exactly was he? As leader of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, an ethnic militia from the country’s north, he presented himself to his countrymen as a severe, ruthless revolutionary; yet Westerners who spoke to him in his mountain hideouts found a clever, understated man who laid out, in precise English, plans to reform a feudal state. In 1991, after the fall of the last Derg leader, Mengistu Haile Mariam, the 36-year-old Mr Meles (pictured above) took power, becoming Africa’s youngest leader. He had moral authority as a survivor of various famines. Western governments and publics, who became aware of Ethiopian hunger through the Band Aid and Live Aid charity concerts, gave freely. Mr Meles was often able to dictate terms under which donors could operate in Ethiopia and turned his country into Africa’s biggest aid recipient.
Where others wasted development aid, Ethiopia put it to work. Over the past decade GDP has grown by 10.6% a year, according to the World Bank, double the average in the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. The share of Ethiopians living in extreme poverty—those on less than 60 cents a day—has fallen from 45% when Mr Meles took power to just under 30%. Lacking large-scale natural resources, the government has boosted manufacturing and agriculture. Exports have risen sharply. A string of hydroelectric dams now under construction is expected to give the economy a further boost in the coming years.
The flipside of the Meles record is authoritarianism. Before his departure he ensured that meaningful opposition was “already dead”, says Zerihun Tesfaye, a human-rights activist. The ruling party controls all but one of the seats in parliament, after claiming 99.6% of the vote in the 2010 elections. It abandoned a brief flirtation with more open politics after a vote five years previously, when the opposition did better than expected. The regime subsequently rewired the state from the village up, dismantling independent organisations from teachers’ unions to human-rights groups and binding foreign-financed programmes with tight new rules. Opposition parties were banned and their leaders jailed or driven into exile; the press was muzzled.
Internationally, Mr Meles made friends with America, allowing it to base unarmed drones at a remote airfield. He also liked to act as a regional policeman. His troops repeatedly entered neighbouring Somalia (they are slowly handing over conquered territory to an African Union peacekeeping force). Hostilities have at times flared along the border with Eritrea. Mr Meles cowed his smaller neighbour and persuaded the world to see it as a rogue state. This in turn helped him restrain nationalists at home. In his absence, hardliners on both sides may reach for arms once again.
The nature of power in Mr Meles’s Ethiopia has remained surprisingly opaque. On the surface, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front is a broad grouping encompassing all of the country’s ethnic factions. Like the liberal constitution, it is largely a sham. Real power rests with an inner circle of Mr Meles’s comrades. They all come from his home area, Tigray, which accounts for only 7% of Ethiopia’s 82m people. His acting successor is an exception. Haile Mariam Desalegn, the foreign minister, is from the south. His prominence raises hopes that the long dominance of the Habesha, the Christian highlanders of the Amhara and Tigray regions, may be diluted. But few think he has enough standing to exert real control.
Power will be wielded by Tigrayans such as Getachew Assefa, the head of the intelligence service; Abay Tsehaye, the director-general of the Ethiopian sugar corporation; and Mr Meles’s widow, Azeb Mesfin. An MP, she heads a sprawling conglomerate known as EFFORT, which began as a reconstruction fund for Tigray but now has a host of investments. It is unclear whether any of the Tigrayans will seek the leadership of the ruling party or be content to wield control from the sidelines. A struggle among this elite would be a big threat to stability.