After Meles: Implications for Ethiopia’s Development

By Handino, M., Lind, J. and Mesfin, B.
IDS Rapid Response BriefingThe death of Meles Zenawi in August 2012 has raised a number of questions aboutEthiopia’s political stability and development trajectory. Meles built up a complex web of relationships that conjoined domestic political forces with foreign investors, leading the country towards impressive rates of growth and substantial achievement of some development indicators.

Under his rule Ethiopia’s national image began a slow transformation from famine-plagued nation to a fast-growing country which was at the heart of a new global realpolitik in Africa. The challenge now is whether Ethiopia’s institutions, dominated at all levels by a single party, can transition to greater pluralism and, if so, will this enable the country to approach middle-income status by 2025 – a much-vaunted goal of the late Prime Minister.


Meles Zenawi passed away on 21 August 2012, 21 years after the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front’s (TPLF) victory over the regime of Megistu Haile Mariam. He subsequently became Prime Minister in 1995, leading the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition in which the TPLF was and remains the dominant force.

Meles avidly promoted a ‘developmental statist’ vision. He admired China’s economic growth ‘miracle’ and sought to replicate the same within Ethiopia. To his detractors the result became ‘developmental authoritarianism’ with basic human rights ignored and civil society development openly thwarted.

Foreign donors, though critical of his policies, remained relatively quiescent as Meles provided a bulwark against militant Islam in Somalia and was a powerful voice for Africa on issues including climate change. His astute geopolitical game-playing used Western strategic concerns to balance pressures for greater ‘glasnost’ at home. Debate now focuses on how Ethiopia’s complex and still volatile political and social mix will shape up without the vision, guidance and singular authority of Meles Zenawi.

Will the country continue to post sustained economic growth and achieve a remarkable transformation to middle-income status by 2025 or will there be a resurgence of ethnic regional violence against central authority and the continued dominance of the EPRDF?

Politics of transition: Searching for new purpose

An immediate focus is on the internal party political machine. Meles shrewdly manipulated rivalries between and within the EPRDF’s four parties while concentrating state power around himself. Post-Meles, new actors within the EPRDF may seek to exploit the perceived advantage of a leadership vacuum to advance ethnic and other political causes and strengthen their political constituencies, particularly at the regional level.

Meles’ successor, Hailemariam Dessalegn is from Wolaita – a part of the Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Region (SNNPR). He is not a member of the TPLF and is seen as a non-divisive figure for that reason. At the same time he is regarded by many as weak precisely through lack of association with Tigray and the TPLF. Whilst this may suggest that the real power remains hidden behind him, there is also a possibility that through his regional affiliation a more pluralistic ethnic make-up within the governing system could emerge, reducing the orthodoxy of rule from the ‘North’.

While Hailemariam’s appointment has been welcomed by Southerners within Ethiopia, representation of SNNPR in the military and federal command structure is minimal or absent altogether. The TPLF maintains control over the National Intelligence and Security Services, as well as the all-powerful federal police, who have the capacity to crush political protest.

Although internal TPLF discussions around the succession are hermetically sealed from the wider public, it is widely thought to have been only half-backed by TPLF stalwarts. Many senior party members regard themselves as the only legitimate leaders of the country by virtue of the overthrow of Mengistu. They are not willing to share power, which is at the crux of the future political faultline.

Continued Tigrayan domination of key security establishments was emphasised by the promotion to the ranks of brigadier general and major general of 22 Tigrayans out of a list of 37 a week before the selection of a new party chairman. This raises questions about how far any new Prime Minister can reshape the political landscape and has led to open speculation that Hailemariam’s appointment is a calculated political move by and for the TPLF, allowing them to maintain de facto political authority behind a cloak of ethnic pluralism.

Meles’ death exposes the dangers of a state built around one man, but he also leaves behind a formidable political machine. For Hailemariam the challenge is whether and how he can manage the machine. Members of competing elites may fight for control of this machine and ethnic movements on the periphery could be emboldened to exploit a perceived power vacuum. Eritrea might also sense an opportunity to destabilise its neighbour. The question is whether perceived economic development and prosperity will willingly be traded for political instability – even by those at loggerheads with the central state.


External pressures on Ethiopia are relentless, shaped by wider global confrontations including the so-called ‘War on Terror’, a massive strategic push by China into Africa, and the ‘winds of change’ blowing in from authoritarian states to the north, where calls for democracy are leading to a resurgence of Islamist parties. Without the steadying hand of a practised and seasoned global player, Ethiopia’s presence and capacity for global influence may well have diminished.

China’s largesse is visible across the dramatic skyline that is the African Union’s new headquarters in Addis Ababa, a deal Meles brokered. However, there is already scepticism in some circles about the quality of Chinese investment (versus the quantity), and the implications of over-reliance. Ethiopia has also reached out to other non-conventional donors such as Turkey, Brazil and India but has also opened its doors to U.S. geostrategic interests, through positioning drones at Arba Minch, which enables greater U.S. geostrategic reach in and around Somalia.

In the immediate neighbourhood, Meles was also careful to cultivate relations with both old and new Sudan(s), and with Kenya and Djibouti, not least because of continued dependence on existing and potential future port facilities in these two countries.

Ethiopia’s bilateral ties with Egypt are strained, in part due to the championing by Meles of a caucus of upstream states on the Nile which has signed the Nile Cooperation Framework, whilst Cairo and Khartoum had demurred. Ethiopia’s Grand Millennium Dam project on the Blue Nile is also a source of some tension.

A wider concern is that Egypt’s foreign relations in the Greater Horn of Africa under President Mohammed Morsi will adopt a more Islamist approach, aligning interests in Sudan, Somalia and Egypt with Muslim communities in Ethiopia. There are many in the Ethiopian establishment who fear a Muslim Brotherhood-led Egypt is capable of exploiting simmering tensions between Ethiopia’s government and its large Muslim population (officially about 30 per cent of the population).

The Ethiopian military has played a significant regional role in Somalia, Sudan, Rwanda, Burundi and Liberia. Ethiopia’s regional role has increased particularly after forging a strong alliance with the U.S. in the ‘War on Terror’ and currently the Ethiopian military controls a number of key strategic areas in south-central Somalia. Ethiopia has for many years been deeply involved in Somalia and will continue to be the most important foreign country determining the future of various processes to strengthen the country’s security and governance.

A contingent of Ethiopians troops is also based near the troubled border of Abyei between the Sudan and the Republic of South Sudan under a United Nations mandate. This is testament to the respect Meles commanded in both Khartoum and Juba, navigating the complex politics of peace negotiations between the two countries and supporting African Union negotiations under Thabo Mbeki, which culminated in a partial agreement in late September to create a demilitarised zone and resume oil exports.

Meles championed regional economic integration and was deeply engaged in the Lamu-South Sudan-Ethiopia Transport project (LAPSSET) as well as several hydroelectric schemes under which Ethiopia sought to position itself as a regional energy exporter. Work was completed in March 2012 on a new 296km transmission line between Ethiopia and Sudan and Ethiopia will provide Sudan with up to 100mw of power.

Electricity is also being exported to Djibouti and there are hopes to export to Kenya as well. While Meles’ death creates new complications in existing relations, it will not upset these processes, which are likely to intensify and strengthen the economy in the long term, steering the trade sector away from an over-dependence on agricultural exports.

Source: Indepth Africa


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