Meles Zenawi “leaves much uncertainty in his wake,” the Economist notes.
“Ethiopia, where power has changed hands only three times since the second world war, always by force, now faces a tricky transition period,” while the manner of his “reveals much about the country he created,” it suggests:
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.
A fervent admirer of the China’s model of developmental authoritarianism, Meles’s legacy demonstrates the “brittleness” of political rule based on the Beijing blend of repression, performance-based legitimacy and the denial of ethnic minority rights.
“Ethiopia’s political system and society have grown increasingly unstable largely because the TPLF [the ruling party] has become increasingly repressive, while failing to implement the policy of ethnic federalism it devised over twenty years ago to accommodate the land’s varied ethnic identities,” according to the International Crisis Group’s analysis of ‘Ethiopia After Meles’:
The result has been greater political centralization, with concomitant ethnicisation of grievances. The closure of political space has removed any legitimate means for people to channel those grievances. The government has encroached on social expression and curbed journalists, non-governmental organizations and religious freedoms. The cumulative effect is growing popular discontent, as well as radicalization along religious and ethnic lines.
“Meles adroitly navigated a number of internal crises and kept TPLF factions under his tight control,” says Emilio Manfredi, the Brussels-based think-tank’s Ethiopia Analyst. “Without him, however, the weaknesses of the regime he built will be more starkly exposed.”
The ICG analysis echoes the insight of one of Ethiopia’s leading exiled opposition figures.
The dearth of information about Meles’s ill-health prior to his death showed “just how fragile our political institutions are,” said Birtukan Mideksa (left), a former judge and opposition leader who was twice imprisoned by the former autocrat.
“But when I heard the news, I also felt sad because I wanted him to leave a better legacy. Unfortunately he didn’t use the opportunities he had to lead the country into more inclusive and democratic and political systems.”
Nevertheless, under Meles, “where others wasted development aid, Ethiopia put it to work,” the Economist notes:
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.
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 organizations from teachers’ unions to human-rights groups and binding foreign-financed programmers with tight new rules.
According to the UK-based Maplecroft risk analysts, there is “no immediate likelihood that repressive security measures will be relaxed, since the regime is likely to be concerned that Meles’s death will encourage their long-suppressed opponents to mount an ‘Arab Spring’-style revolt, and more importantly because of the fear that competing factions … could mobilize their ethnic powerbases in an attempt to bolster their influence in the federal government.”
Nevertheless, it is likely that “the new government will be more fragile, the security forces more influential and internal stability endangered,” the Crisis Group analysis suggests:
The regional implications are huge. Greater instability would threaten Ethiopia’s military interventions in Somalia and Sudan, exacerbate tensions with Eritrea and, more broadly, put in question its role as a key Western counter-terrorism ally in the Horn of Africa. If religious or ethnic radicalization grows, the shockwaves could be felt across borders, with militants linking up with armed Islamist groups elsewhere.
The international community, particularly Ethiopia’s main allies, the U.S., UK and EU, should seek to influence the new transition by making political, military and development assistance dependent on an end to repression, the opening of political space and democratic reforms. They should encourage the new leadership to draw up a clear roadmap for an all-inclusive, peaceful transition, with free and fair elections held within a limited timeframe. They should also help members of the Ethiopian opposition to return from abroad so they can better represent their constituencies, both in the country and in the diaspora.
“The international community mostly turned a blind eye to Meles’s authoritarian actions and growing dissent in the country,” says EJ Hogendoorn, the Crisis Group’s Horn of Africa Project Director. “Now it must push the ruling party to revive the rights and freedoms enshrined in the constitution and promote inclusive reforms as the only way to ensure Ethiopia’s internal security and durable development and the region’s fragile stability.”