Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s long-standing Prime Minister, passed away on August 20th this year. After 21 years in power, his sudden death has left much uncertainty in Africa’s second most populous country. Hailemariam Desalegn, most recently Ethiopia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, was sworn in as Prime Minister on September 21st. The country has experienced a decade of rapid economic growth under Meles. But growing political instability and ethnic tensions leave many questions unanswered regarding the country’s future.
Since the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974, Ethiopia has been dominated by two leaders, Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam and Meles Zenawi. Mengistu, head of the communist Derg, reigned during a particularly bloody time in Ethiopia’s history. Tens of thousands were imprisoned and executed by the government. The Derg was eventually overthrown in 1991 by what is today’s governing alliance, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), under the leadership of Meles.
The EPRDF, at least in name, represents Ethiopia’s mosaic of ethnicities. There are eight major ethnic groups, with the Oromo and Amhara constituting the majority at 34% and 27% respectively. However, the party is mainly controlled by the Tigre ethnic group (6% of the total population) to which Meles belonged.
In practice, Ethiopia under Meles has been a one-party state. The Ethiopian people were given more political rights under Meles than previous governments. Yet human rights abuses are still commonplace. Journalists are routinely jailed and previous elections have been criticized by, amongst others, the US and EU for favoring the ruling party. In connection to the 2005 election at least 193 protesters are said to have lost their lives amidst accusations of vote-rigging, and tens of thousands of people were arrested.
While criticized by human rights groups, Meles was applauded by development experts. As a key African ally of the West in the fight against terrorism, Ethiopia became the destination of close to US$4 billion in 2010, making it the world’s 3rd largest recipient of foreign aid. Public infrastructure has improved and the country has diversified its economy into profitable sectors such as flower farming and bio-fuel. Put to good use, the aid has made a sclerotic economy one of the fastest growing in Africa. With an average annual increase in GDP of 10.6% during the last decade, 15% of the population has been lifted out of extreme poverty.
That is not to say that the economic boom has been problem-free. Both inflation and inequality are on the rise, and social mobility has not increased.
With his ambitions not limited to domestic policy, Meles has also raised Ethiopia’s regional standing. He has, with Western approval, sent soldiers into Somalia to combat the Al-Shabab militia. Ethiopia has also participated in African Union peacekeeping missions to Sudan.
One of Ethiopia’s greatest foreign policy challenges is managing its incendiary relationship with neighboring Eritrea. The two countries fought a border war between 1998 and 2000 which resulted in the death of over 70 000 people. As cross-border raids launched by Ethiopia earlier this March demonstrate, fears of further conflict may be warranted. However, the balance of power favors Ethiopia to an extent that makes an Eritrean retaliation unlikely.
It is unclear where power resides in today’s Ethiopia. Meles built a highly centralized state over which he had firm control. The Economist called Meles “one of Africa’s most successful strongmen”, and his death leaves big shoes to fill. Power is notoriously opaque in Addis Ababa and the current Prime Minister, Hailemariam (from the Wolotoya ethnic group), is considered by some to be no more than a figurehead. Instead, it is claimed that it is with Tigrayans such as Meles’ widow Azeb Mesfin and health minister Dr Tewodros Adhanom real power lies.
The political uncertainty may have long-ranging effects. Domestic and regional implications are to be expected according to a recent report by the International Crisis Group. As Ethiopia is an ethnically and religiously heterogeneous country, unfulfilled promises of federalism and religious discontent are sure to weaken the government and cause instability, as is uneven economic development and corruption. Ensuing domestic instability could also lead to Ethiopia being unable to uphold its peacekeeping commitments.
Some have adopted a positive outlook and see a weakened government as a possible democratic opening. As Carl Bildt, the Swedish Minister of Foreign Affairs, recently posted on his blog “…Ethiopia undoubtedly has considerable future potential”. But the outcome is not guaranteed, and it is therefore wise to observe developments in one of Africa’s most important countries.