Rumors about the reported ill-health of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi are prompting speculation that an emerging leadership crisis could create a democratic opportunity.
A government spokesman told the BBC that Zenawi is in “a good condition and recuperating”, but declined to specify Meles’ whereabouts or provide details of his illness.
Meles has promoted younger technocrats who could emerge as potential successors, The Economist observes:
But power has still rested with a clutch of Mr Meles’s comrades from his home area of Tigray in northern Ethiopia, many of them once members of a Marxist-Leninist group that used to admire Albania’s long-serving Communist leader, the late Enver Hoxha. This hard core, including the army’s chief of staff, General Samora Younis, retains a “paranoid and secretive leadership style”, according to a former American ambassador to Ethiopia, David Shinn. Were Mr Meles to leave in a hurry, relations between the young modernisers and the powerful old guard might fray.
Questions remain whether opposition voices can take advantage of the uncertainty, as “the fractious nature of Ethiopian politics is a source of concern in the West,” reports suggest:
[I]nternational organisations that have long attempted to reconcile hostile Ethiopian communities tried in February to work out a power sharing deal, but it did not materialise owing to a power struggle in the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Front (EPDRF). The talks, known as Ginbot-7 were intended to bring the separatist Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and Unity for Democracy and Justice Party (UDJ) led by prodemocracy campaigner and former political detainee Birtukan Midekssa, now exiled in the US.
When the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, the current governing party, came to power in 1991, Midekssa recently noted, it disguised its Marxist-Leninist orientation and adopted a narrative of freedom, equality and justice.
“In a way, it was kind of political renaissance,” she said in an interview with the Bush Center (above). “But it didn’t last long….. After introducing all these things, all ideas of political pluralism …. the government, the ruling party, resorted to repression – repressing the political parties, persecuting the journalists.”
The recipient of a recent award from the labor-linked A. Philip Randolph Institute, Midekssa is widely known as “Ethiopia’s Aung San Suu Kyi,” and she confirms that the Burmese democracy icon “inspires me.”
“She’s very consistent and persistent…. But more than that, the fact that she never showed malice and never showed some hatred towards her abusers fascinates me,” she says. So her life is very inspirational for me.”
(Midekksa reviews a new biography on Suu Kyi in the latest issue of the Journal of Democracy.)
During her time in Washington as a Reagan-Fascell Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, Midekssa has championed the case of Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega, recently jailed on spurious terrorism charges.
“Although Nega found a few champions on Capitol Hill, notably Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), his high-profile case remains a source of tension and embarrassment to the Obama administration,” the Washington Post’s Pamela Constable reports:
The Meles government, despite its increasingly harsh treatment of domestic opponents, is a rare, reliable U.S. ally in a chaotic and impoverished region beset by ethnic strife and threatened by radical Islamic militancy…..The regime in Addis Ababa has provided soldiers for international peacekeeping efforts. It recently agreed to host a base for unmanned U.S. drones. Ethiopia has received more than$2 billion in U.S. aid since 2010 and major project investment from the World Bank and other international agencies, in part because of its promising economic policies and in part to stave off famine.
Last month, the State Department issued a statement saying it was “deeply concerned” about the convictions and sentences of Nega and his co-defendants, including an exiled opposition leader who was condemned to life in prison. The statement called on the Meles government to “stop stifling freedom of expression” and to release those imprisoned for exercising their rights. There was no public suggestion, however, of economic sanctions or other tangible form of disapproval.
“It’s very frustrating,” [Amnesty International’s Ilona] Kelly said. “The big concern in Washington now is about security and food aid. These are legitimate concerns, but it creates an environment that puts human rights on the back burner.
“Civil society is being decimated in Ethiopia, but the administration is turning a blind eye.”
Birtukan’s recent interview with the George W. Bush Presidential Center is available on the Center’s Freedom Collection blog here.