Ethiopia: Meles rules from beyond the grave, but for how long?

By IndepthAfrica
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Nov 28th, 2012
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Meles Zenawi (President of Ethiopia) at the World Economic Forum on Africa held in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, May 6, 2010.

René Lefort

The trade-off offered by authoritarianism to its client-constituents is security and high growth rates. After Meles challenges may force change, or build the case domestically for a new strong man.

Meles Zenawi, the former Prime Minister of Ethiopia, has been dead for around three months. But the “Melesmania” personality cult, though discreet in his lifetime, shows no sign of fading. From giant portraits in the streets to stickers on the windscreens of almost any vehicle, a smiling Meles is still everywhere.

The sudden death of Meles shook the whole of Ethiopia. The shock quickly gave way to fear of an unknown and threatening future.

The regime did everything to exploit this fear for its own benefit. It has issued continuous calls for the nation to unite around the memory of the dead leader and, above all, around the project he designed and imposed with an iron hand. The new Prime Minister, Hailemariam Selassie, endlessly repeats that he will pursue “Meles’s legacy without any change”. He has replaced not a single cabinet minister. It could be said that the regime is running on autopilot, with the Meles software driving the leadership computer. Plunged into disarray, the governing team is hanging on to this software like a lifebelt. Why?

The making of Melesmania

Until the crisis of 2001, the handful of leaders of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the dominant force in the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) in power since 1991,[1] worked in a remarkably collective way.  Within this group Meles was – and not always – the primus inter pares, surrounded by strong, clever and articulate figures united by a radical Marxism. The crisis culminated in the expulsion of most of these figures, in a massive purge and finally in a threefold power shift.

The first shift saw Meles emerge as the unchallenged supremo, moving quickly to clip the wings of the few leaders who seemed to be acquiring a solid political base. He promoted only those whose loyalty he considered unshakeable, whose positions depended entirely on his goodwill, people like Hailemariam Dessalegn. Radiating outwards from a first circle of “advisers”, almost all Tigrayan, all the lines of real power penetrated down to the base of the State apparatus, whether federal or regional,[2]  to the Party and to whole sectors of the economy.

Although the government reflected the country’s ethnic diversity, most ministers had authority only in name. Parliament, as it had since 1991, remained a rubberstamp chamber. No institution was able to escape this dominance and achieve autonomy. Moreover, this personal power was also intellectual. The one politically correct doctrine (“revolutionary democracy” and the “developmental state”) was devised and imposed on the country by Meles and Meles alone. This monopoly prevented the emergence of any other body of ideas and, inevitably, of any alternative line of thinking.

The army and security services were represented within this central authority, which held sway over them. Later, although Meles Zenawi maintained a grip on the security forces, the army gradually became “bunkerized”, a sort of state within the State. Meles himself had to acknowledge the autonomy of the military command, by agreeing a kind of pact: I will grant you substantial autonomy, and in particular turn a blind eye to your wheeling and dealing; you support me, especially since if I fall, you fall with me. Hence, no doubt, the remarked upon reticence of the army during the recent period of succession, as if it felt so powerful that its fortress would remain impregnable, away from the turbulent currents within the new governing team. Hence, also, the procedure followed in announcing, on September 12, the appointment of 37 new generals – including at least 23 from Tigray – a reminder that no one, not even Hailamariam Dessalegn, can interfere in the affairs of the military.

The third change concerned the TPLF and, concomitantly, the EPRDF. It was contradictory. On the one hand, the tentacles of the single party penetrate to every level of the administration: it has consumed the State from the inside. Its agenda takes absolute precedence. The TPLF holds the key positions in the nationalised companies and the web of “private” firms that in reality it controls, the so-called “parastatal companies”. Overall, this structure accounts for two thirds of the modern economy, excluding traditional agriculture. With its 5 million members – 300,000 in 2001 – the Party controls and directs the population as never before, right down to the smallest echelon of five or six households. On the other hand, the Party has been marginalised as a political institution and therefore left lifeless, if not brainless. The TPLF, not to mention the three other satellite parties, were reduced to mere instruments for the exercise of Meles’ personal power, an essential institution but nevertheless no more than an instrument.

This extreme concentration of multifarious powers in the hands of Meles Zenawi is one of the darkest aspects of his legacy: his death leaves a profound and multifaceted vacuum. Conversely, however, it also opens up an exceptional opportunity for change. First, politics and power, like nature, abhor a vacuum. Second, the Meles “model” is running out of steam. It will inevitably have to be refashioned.

Challenging the regime to change

Contestation from the Muslim opposition poses the most immediate challenge, perhaps the most serious for the regime since 1991. In order to counter what it sees as the rise of radical Islam, it is seeking to impose a “moderate” but completely marginal Islamic doctrine and to back its affiliates within the Islamic Affairs Supreme Council. Thirty-five percent of the population is officially Muslim[3] – the real figure is probably higher – along with around half of the Oromos, who also have strong aspirations to autonomy. Muslims, the vast majority of whom reject extremism of any kind, are calling – peacefully – for nothing more than the right to decide their religious affairs for themselves. The government is responding by repression. The stakes are huge: protest continues; so far, the government has never been ready to lose control of a large “civil society” organisation.

For a whole section of opinion, in particular within the diaspora, the major challenge that the regime will need to tackle and which will inevitably demand change is “the widespread democratic aspiration of Ethiopians”. But the scope and nature of this aspiration is open to question. The traditional and historical culture, which permeates the overwhelming majority of Ethiopian society, is still hierarchical and authoritarian. It is in perfect harmony with the “communist engineering” that moulded the TPLF from its inception and still shapes the ruling power.

With very few exceptions, the demand for a “strong leader”, who guarantees “peace and security”, is a national constant. Weak leadership opens the door to power struggles, which inevitably leads to “disorder” and the suffering that arises from it. Even the emerging middle class, usually seen as the spearhead of opposition to authoritarian regimes, largely shares this view. Whatever its criticisms of the regime, it desires stability above all. It largely believes that the country is too divided to undergo profound change without the risk of tragic turmoil.

Nevertheless, the aspiration for change is undeniable, though within certain limits. These relate first to inflation, which in September hit a peak of 40% overall, and 50% for food.[4] More profoundly, in this urban middle class and in the emerging group of “kulaks” in the countryside, this aspiration centres around what might be called personal professional empowerment, in other words: “let us go about our business as we want”, without the constant intervention and intrusion of the authorities, without having to swear fealty to the Party, without arbitrariness exacerbated by erratic and opaque regulations.

However, this change is not simply a matter of aspiration. Although the “developmental state”, in its current form, has brought remarkable progress, it has reached its limits. The first question concerns the reality of its achievements, notably the famous “double digit growth” since 2004, which the authorities constantly extol.[5] In fact, this figure is the product of a vicious circle. The government sets absurdly ambitious targets. The work of every public servant is assessed against those targets. Their careers depend on it. And of course, they claim to have achieved them. Then the targets are raised again. Once again, they claim to have met them. The lie becomes institutionalised. The gap between basic national realities and the image that the authorities perceive and communicate, from summit to base, has become so great that it could be said that Ethiopia has turn out to be not so much a Potemkin village, as a Potemkin country. Sooner or later, the authorities will have to deal with the shockwave that results when the truth inevitably comes out.[6]

Another shock will arise from the unsustainability of the funding of the developmental state. The government will no longer be able to invest enough to maintain growth at the same high levels as in recent years, unless it continues to print money, further fuelling inflation, or alternatively runs a continuing trade deficit, exacerbating its foreign currency crisis. But apart from stability, high growth is all the regime can offer in return for its authoritarianism. This is particularly true for the middle classes, which the regime wants as its constituency.

This is all the more significant because in the last generation the land has reached saturation point. Smallholder agriculture (employing four fifths of the workforce) is absolutely unable to absorb the 2 to 2.5 million young people who enter the labour market every year. Only massive private investment, mainly from abroad, can take up the slack.[7] However, this investment is slow to come because the Ethiopian-style developmental state distorts and inhibits normal market mechanisms too much for investors to be able to enjoy the entrepreneurial freedom they find elsewhere.[8]

Finally, the future of the Ethiopian-style developmental state is interlocked with the “national question”, whether in regard to the unresolved legacy of the conquest and submission of the borders of the Abyssinian empire at the turn of the 20th century, or to the unequal distribution of powers and assets in favour of the Tigrayans. The Ogaden National Liberation Front continues its armed struggle. The Oromo Liberation Front, although militarily a spent force, retains a large following.

After long containment, centrifugal forces are intensifying. The Oromo and Amhara elites in particular want a fairer balance. Two recent examples give a flavour of the tensions. The Oromo party does not want the chairman that the leadership wants to impose on it, but cannot impose the chairman that it wants. This deadlock was unthinkable when it was under Meles’ orders. Regions are beginning to demand a more tangible application of the federal system, in other words the beginnings of genuine autonomy, starting with… Tigray. However, in its current form, the ultra-centralism of the interwoven developmental state and revolutionary democracy is incompatible with authentic federalism.

To reshape either would threaten the very essence of power in Ethiopia, and its immemorial imperative: to control. This entails maintaining a constant and intrusive hold over the whole of society, with a single, ultimate and supreme goal: to retain power.

End of the “Meles line”? Four scenarios

However, the writing is on the wall. The “Meles line” will not always have an answer for everything. Forthcoming events will demand change, even the partial rejection of that line. An accumulation of tensions and conflicts, kept in check by Meles’ iron grip, will inevitably emerge. The floodgates are beginning to open. Never before, for example, has a major newspaper, whose survival depends on continuous self-censorship, dared to go so far in its criticism of the EPRDF. Beginning with a statement of fact – that the Front does not have “a popular base and support” – The Reporter then calls on the party “to clean up its house” because “it is riddled with corruption from top to bottom!”. A change of direction and a reshuffling of the cards seem inevitable. In my view, there are four possible ways these changes could go.

In one scenario, the current leaders, who largely equate to the dominant oligarchy, cling to their positions and privileges. Economic, social and political tensions rise. They respond with more repression, for which all the necessary instruments are in place. However, this does seem a likely scenario. According to confidences shared with people close to them, most are convinced that Meles’ death signals the end of an era and that the status quo is untenable.

A second possibility that cannot be completely ruled out, despite the leaden weight that bears down on society and the intense fear it arouses, is a popular, spontaneous and unforeseeable explosion, triggered by a minor incident, spreading like wildfire, fuelled by social and, in particular, ethnic tensions. The regime would spare no effort to suppress it, but could ultimately be overwhelmed by events.

In the developmental state, government revenues are certainly centralised at the top, but then largely redistributed to implement a long-term development plan, although this redistribution is becoming increasingly limited as corruption rises. Meles was the final guarantor of this redistributive process. Who, what political force, what counterbalancing element could protect Ethiopia from the predatory evolution observed in so many developing countries, in particular those where a “revolutionary elite” holds all the levers of power (in black Africa, for example, Angola or Mozambique)? In this third scenario, these revenues would continue to be centralised but would remain mostly with the central oligarchy, the residue being redistributed through a structure of cronyism. Growth could continue at a sufficient level for the oligarchic regime to survive, but “development” would fall by the wayside.

In the fourth scenario, this party/state control would be relaxed, obviously not to the point of genuine democratisation, but through some liberalisation in the economic sphere. More or less the Chinese “model”. Circumstances and events favour this scenario. Meles’ death has led to a fragmentation of power centres, which are weakly structured and cancel each other out, because none at this stage is in a position to take a lead. For example, no agreement could be reached on filling the only vacant cabinet post, that of Minister of Foreign Affairs. And for weeks no one was able to force Azeb Mesfin, wife of the late prime minister, to leave the National Palace, where she no longer had any reason to remain.

Contest at the top

The TPLF’s current leadership no longer has the intellectual capacity or sufficiently strong personalities to become what historically it was, at least in the short term: the epicentre of power, exercising full political hegemony. It has also been weakened by its many divisions. Divisions between “hardliners”, holding fast to their historic dominance, and “moderates”, for whom a relaxation is unavoidable; between Tigreans in Tigray and those outside; between generations, the “old timers” and the “fortysomethings”. The former include many who, sidelined by Meles in the name of generational change, want to get back into the game. However, they are old, and even in many cases physically enfeebled. The second group, recently promoted by Meles, and much less political than technocratic, individualistic, opportunistic and even – according to their detractors – cynical, have no intention of giving ground.

Two major factions can also be identified: one that the major losers of 2001 want to build (including Siye Abraha and Gebru Asrat,[9] who are still very popular with rank-and-file members of the Front), the other centred around its patriarch, Shebat Nega, a master schemer and long-time mentor of Meles before the latter marginalised him.

And finally, there is the enigma Azeb Mesfin. Fiery and unpredictable, she was the main troublemaker in the succession process, the leading figure in the minority that opposed the appointment of Hailemariam Dessalegn. She holds a strong hand, including an intimate understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of all the players, close links with the security services, leadership of the TPLF’s economic conglomerate and supporters amongst cadres of the Front, those who would have the most to lose if the cards were reshuffled.

A few other names stand out from the pack. The intelligent and highly respected Arkebe Enquay won more votes than Meles at the 2008 TPLF conference, but lost out in 2010. Debretsion Gebremichael is seen as the Front’s rising star. This young engineering graduate, a senior figure in the security services, has a reputation as a hardliner. His sudden promotion to number two in the Front is all the more significant in that the titular number one, Abay Wolde, is widely perceived as something of a cipher. And then finally, there are a pair of Amhara party bosses, Addissu Leguesse, its former chairman, and the ever-present Berket Simon, who was also very close to Meles.

However, understanding the game being played out at the top is exceptionally difficult, and not only because of the wall of secrecy around it. A political analysis provides only a small part of the picture. Much more important now are each player’s economic positions – since most of the leaders also have their own businesses – the very close family ties within the Tigrayan elite, geographical origins, personal friendships and enmities. The web these form is virtually impossible to untangle.

Nonetheless, three dominant poles seem to be emerging: the brainless but still tentacular TPLF, and the security services with their osmotic relations with certain leaders of the Front; the army, closely intertwined with the TPLF, though more ethnically than institutionally; and finally, the new Prime Minister.

Hailemarian Dessalegn has taken great care to stress his desire “to work on the basis of collective leadership”. In fact, within the small fringe of public opinion that has a view on the matter, he is seen almost unanimously as a transitional prime minister, a sort of regent accountable to what might be described as a “regency committee” comprising, according to sources, four to six members, all from the old guard and all but one from Tigray. The view is that Hailemariam’s interim mandate will end once the TPLF has finally designated the real successor. For the Front’s supremacy is still perceived as irrevocable and the history of Ethiopia as immutable: “collective leaderships” are temporary and unfailingly end with the ascent of a new “strong leader”.

A renewal of the authoritarian compact?

At 47, Dessalegn has stated that he wants to remain in post at least until the 2015 selections, and even that he may seek re-election. He is said to be intelligent, open, unshakeable in his principles, possessed of great natural authority. He appears as a Meles clone in terms of policy. But no one knows if he would be able to go his own way, develop his own doctrine, be his own man. He belongs to none of the three big ethnic groups. He is a Protestant. No Ethiopian leader has ever had to overcome these two handicaps. Could Medvedev step into Putin’s shoes?

His trump card is his twofold legitimacy. The first legitimacy he owes to Meles. Even his putative rivals, particularly within the TPLF, cannot at this stage contest this without undermining other aspects of the “great leader’s” legacy. It is doubtful that they would do so as long as Meles’ long shadow lies across the political stage. In addition, it is this legacy that continues to bind and guide the current leadership. And finally, it is this that they need to use to legitimise the maintenance of their current positions.

The second source of legitimacy is more deep-rooted and lasting. “The ruling king is my king”, as the saying goes. The whole country is impregnated with an ancestral sense of hierarchy, of submission to established authority. The aspiration for an incontestable and uncontested leader is strong. Hailemariam Dessalegn is now simultaneously executive leader and chair of what is essentially the single party, and therefore, at least in name, also heads the TPLF, the army and the security services. In this capacity, he has his hands on virtually all the institutional levers of power. These levers are not only intrinsic; their strength is also significantly increased by this ancestral sense of hierarchy. Finally, he stands at the summit of the infrastructure of absolute power passed on intact by Meles.

The forces facing him, for the moment at least, are disunited, scattered and disparate. There is no tangible, structured counterforce, underpinned by a strong base and possessing a strategy commensurate with the challenges. The army is in its bunker, but there is no reason why he should not find the same modus vivendi with it as Meles, especially as there is no sign of a Bonaparte waiting in the wings.

Finally, Hailemariam Dessalegn has the time to patiently forge his own position, if he has the capacity. There does not seem to be any single figure strong enough to open hostilities in the near future, or adventurous enough to take the country into the unknown.


[1] Its four components each represents a major ethnic group: Tigrayan (6% of the population), Oromo (37%), Amhara (23%) and the mosaic of Southern peoples (20%). The Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front was the spearhead and major winner of the victory over the Derg military junta in 1991.

[2] Ethiopia is a federal republic.

[3] Compared with 41% Orthodox Christians and 20% Protestants.

[4] In a two-year period, civil servants lost around half their purchasing power. Peasants, half of whom are net buyers of food, often claim that “inflation is worse than prison”.

[5] Although, officially, the annual growth rate has been more than 10% since 2004, in reality it has been considerably less, probably some 6% to 7%. It continues to fall. “Even before the onset of the 2008 crisis, Ethiopia’s economy was already slowing down” (World Bank Report N°71884-ET, August 29, 2012).

[6] International organisations like the IMF, and large donor countries, have finally begun to doubt the official statistics, including those for growth rate and agricultural production. According to assessments by certain large international development institutions, official grain production is overstated by some 30%.

[7] Foreign direct investment is amongst the lowest in Sub-Saharan Africa per head of population.

[8]Despite some positive developments in industry and service sectors, Ethiopia has been a difficult place to do business”, World Bank Report N°71884-ET, August 29, 2012.

[9] Siye Abraha was one of the founders of the Front and its leading military figure. Gebru Asrat, a historic leader of the TPLF, was the president of the Tigray region at the time of his expulsion.

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