Inside Story

Life after Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi

He was praised for bringing economic growth to one of Africa’s poorest nations, but was it at the cost of democracy?

Meles Zenawi, the Ethiopian prime minister, died on Monday at the age of 57 after more than two decades in power.

While thousands lined the streets of the capital, Addis Ababa, to pay their respects to a politician they saw as a visionary and fearless leader – there are others who regarded him in a less favourable light.

Zenawi was a close ally of the West and the US in particular – Ethiopia received nearly $4bn in foreign aid last year and a total of $6.23bn from the US alone over the past decade.

I’m optimistic that there will not be a leadership crisis. There is a little bit of ambiguity in the constitution that allows for a leadership change … he has made plans for some kind of a reasonable, stable succession and I believe that will take place.

– David Shinn, a former US envoy to Ethiopia

Although a carefully groomed successor is due to take over some fear that in the absence of Zenawi’s particular skills the country could begin to fragment.

Under his leadership, Ethiopia carved out a major role for itself in Africa and beyond – mediating in conflicts and assuming a lead position within the African Union. It is a role, analysts now say, Ethiopia will find difficult to fulfill.

The Ethiopian parliament has been recalled from recess to swear-in Zenawi’s successor, Hailemariam Desalegn, the deputy prime minister, who will most likely lead Ethiopia until 2015, when the current term of the ruling party comes to an end.

Zenawi has been praised for bringing development and economic growth to one of Africa’s poorest nations but his critics say that came at the cost of respect for democracy and human rights.

Ethiopia is ranked 174th out of 187 countries in the UN Development Programme’s 2011 Index, which measures life expectancy, education and living standards.

It is not clear if Hailemariam will have the full authority of the prime minister, he’s trying to fit into a big shoe that was left by a man who ruled the country for 21 years as an authoritarian, as a very skilled politician …. Hailemariam lacks the experience and the political base.

– Jawar Mohammed, a researcher at Colombia University

His economic policies – which mixed a large state role with private investment – helped the country achieve economic growth rates of as much as 12.6 per cent – the fastest growing non-oil exporting country in sub-Saharan Africa.

Despite this, the average annual income is only about $3 a day.

The country also remains heavily dependent on agriculture, which accounts for 85 per cent of employment.

Human rights groups have condemned a system in which political opposition and the media have been stifled. That repression was codified in 2009 by legislation that led to dozens of opposition figures being arrested and numerous journalists charged.

Opposition members also accused Zenawi of rigging the 2005 election. In subsequent demonstrations at least 200 people were killed by the army and police force. And leaders of the opposition group that contested the election were sentenced to life imprisonment on treason charges.

So, will there be a leadership crisis in Ethiopia after Zenawi’s death?

To discuss this Inside Story, with presenter Mike Hanna, is joined by guests: David Shinn, a former US ambassador to Ethiopia between 1996 and 1999; Jawar Mohammed, a researcher at Colombia University and a political commentator on Ethiopian affairs; and Farah Abdul Samed, a specialist on the Horn of Africa at Chatham House.

“Meles achieved a culture of Ethiopians and the transformation of the concept of Ethiopianism itself and the way he transformed equal ethnic nationalities, which [no one] dreamed of living together.”

Farah Abdul Samed, a Horn of Africa specialist at Chatham House