Ethiopia after Meles

Does the Ethiopian state rest on the shoulders of a single man? His illness and recent disappearance from the public eye give some urgency to the question says René Lefort.

Meles Zenawi at the World Economic Forum 2010

World Economic Forum/Flickr Creative Commons. Some rights reserved

When Meles Zenawi, the omnipotent Prime Minister of Ethiopia, last appeared in public on 19 June, he looked pale, thin and gaunt.

It took the government a month to break the silence. Meles Zenawi is “recovering health-wise,” and, above all, “he's not staying out of duties as Prime Minister”.[1] On 1 August, a senior spokesman issued another statement about the elusive PM: “there is no change and there will be no change in the near future.”[2] But what next? And what illness was he suffering from? Silence. Where is he? It depends whom you ask. With no sign of Meles either in person or indirectly, these statements are becoming less convincing as the days go by.   

The often outrageous, even delirious counter-information, especially on internet sites run by government opponents living abroad, is no more convincing either. According to some of them, Meles is already dead, and a raging battle has started for his succession. 

Yet, these hypotheses are not entirely out of the realm of possibility, especially given the history of Ethiopia, where secrecy is a cardinal virtue. Menelik, the founder of modern imperial Ethiopia, continued to "reign" for three years after he was incapacitated by a stroke. His successor finally took power once the Shakespearian internal power struggles were over inside the Palace. Haïle Selassie was deposed in 1974 by a military junta, led by Mengistu Haile Mariam, who had him suffocated to death a year later. In 1991 Mengistu fled to Zimbabwe, having been defeated by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), led by  Meles Zenawi, in a civil war that ended in Addis Ababa.

If history is anything to go by, it will be hard to find a peaceful and orderly route to succession. The Ethiopian people know this, moulded as they are by their own history. On the surface, it's "business as usual", the government governs and people go about their daily affairs as usual. But under the surface there is an extremely heavy atmosphere, with an overwhelming feeling that this is just the calm before the storm. The widespread conviction shared by most diplomats and experts is that, whether Meles is dead or alive, he is no longer in charge and never will be again, so the candidacy for his succession is open. Under this hypothesis, which is still no more than a hypothesis, it is all the more difficult to speculate on what will happen when the leadership operates under a cloak of complete secrecy, almost unequalled anywhere else in the world. Whatever is happening, one thing is obvious, the succession will have to navigate a untold number of threats, unknowns and divisions.

The first of these is institutional: nothing in the Constitution says what to do if the Prime Minister dies or is incapacitated.[3] The second is economic: inflation has reached a new high, even if it has started to come down again,[4] and growth has slowed down having been exceptional up until now (officially 11% a year for the past eight years). The third is political: the internal crisis of the TPLF in 2001 ended with the expulsion of part of the "old guard". The opposition pulled off a triumphal surge in the 2005 elections, which forced the regime to a counter-attack, and from which the opponents never really recovered. After 2005 "Ethiopia has definitely fallen back into the camp of authoritarian regime’ as it is  ‘de facto ruled by a ‘monolithic party-state’”.[5] The Front is now facing a third major challenge that could prove to be particularly severe. The Muslim community officially 34% of the population, but in reality more has been moderate and tolerant for centuries, but now it is being caught up in government manoeuvres to forcefully enlist followers for the obscure branch of Islam – al-Ahbash – whose enemy number one is Wahabism, which the regime thinks is growing too strong in Ethiopia.  Specialists on the subject play this down and think that the regime's actions are likely to have the opposite effect on the Muslim community. In the meantime, the protests and arrests continue.[6]

In addition to this tense context, this possible succession can basically be looked at from three main points of view, which are of course not mutually exclusive, but even reinforce one another, namely: institutional, ethnic and "class".

Up until the internal crisis of 2001, the leaders of the TPLF stood out in African politics. Even if power was effectively confined to a very small inner circle, it still operated in an exceptionally collective manner. To the outside world, Meles was perceived as a strong leader, but he was more the Primus inter pares. The TPLF delegated a great deal to him, but remained ultimately able to hold him to account, and, if necessary, they would put him in place. But after 2001 the edifice of power under went a dramatic change with Meles as its sole architect and master. He centralised power by utilising the three main pillars of the state. 

First, there was the security apparatus, in other words, the police and, if things really got out of hand, the army, one of the largest and most efficient in all of sub-Saharan Africa. Then he reinforced the power of his inner circle, which, for the first time, was no longer comprised of key figures in the party leadership of the TPLF. He shook up the Front’s leadership (the nine-member Executive Committee) removing the remaining influential characters, under the guise of injecting young blood. At the same time, he promoted people the opposition have dubbed “yes-men” characterless officials whose support he could rely on including his own wife, Azeb Mesfin. The upshot was that none of the founders of the TPLF were left, Meles himself having only joined a few months after the start of the armed struggle. On top of this, his closest collaborators, and therefore those to whom he delegated most power, were his advisers, who didn’t belong to this leadership. The pre-eminence of the party, with its collegial leadership structure, became no more than a distant memory. 

Mutatis mutandis, the predominance of Meles is equally apparent within the ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). This has four components, with equal representation in its leadership for the Tigreans (6% of the population), the Oromos (35%),  Amharas (26%), and finally various ethnic groups from the South (20%). The latter three were creations of the former when it became imperative that the TPLF's struggle against Mengistu needed to extend beyond the Tigray alone. Ultimately, they remained under his control. “The EPRDF, at least outside Tigray, has never been able, or indeed has never been allowed, to develop into an effective political organisation whose regional leadership could exercise any autonomous authority, or represent the communities that they governed”.[7] The change that Meles introduced was not so much this subjugation, which still persisted, but how it was managed. While it was once controlled by the leadership of the Front, it instead became completely under the control of Meles. He changed the leaders whenever he wanted and clipped the wings of anyone who looked as though they were gaining political support.  

The third pillar is the economy. The government effectively controls two thirds of the “modern” economy – excluding the small holders in agriculture -, via the remaining nationalised enterprises and the so-called "para-statal" enterprises, because they are effectively the economic arm of the Front. This means it controls the banks, insurance companies, telecommunications, transport, industry, etc. It is the classical process whereby the former revolutionary elite "turns into the ruling class through the primitive accumulation of capital that is possible because of the very fact of holding power.”[8] Political, business and even family roles are all confused, even though they now respect a strict hierarchical order. And here again, the last word goes to Meles himself, or Azeb Mesfin, whom he put in charge of the largest "para-statal" conglomerate. Outside of this inner circle of oligarch-leaders another, "private" oligarchy was formed, although it can only operate within the orbit of a political "patron". 

The second viewpoint arises from Ethiopia's diversity, being a patchwork of  “nations, nationalities and peoples”, as laid down in the Constitution. To take this situation into account, a Federal State of ethnic groups was set up, with power shared equitably between them, at least in theory. The reality is something else. The “national question” still persists in other words, the inability of successive regimes to manage the diversity of Ethiopia in an equitable manner. Having not been resolved for centuries, this remains the major source of potential conflicts. It is the leaders from the Tigrean minority - 6% of the population - who hold the reins of political power. Both the police force and military command are entirely in their hands. Holding political power means that they can be over-represented in the state and para-statal economy, as well as in the so-called "private" economy, thanks to the favours they benefit from.  

To pass this ethnic bias, along with its growing authoritarianism, the regime successfully played its only trump card soaring economic growth. One of the premiums is that the beneficiaries end up offering the regime their political support, or at least moving from a position of opposition to one of neutrality, thus providing it with the social basis it needs to sustain its durability. The stratification of social "classes"  – the third angle from which to view this possible succession – has gained pace. A middle class – those households that can provide for their own basic needs - has effectively emerged, not just in the urban areas, but also in the rural areas where a process of  “kulakisation" is patently operating.  

What could happen if the cornerstone of this whole edifice were to disappear ? Would everything come tumbling down, like a house of cards, as the opposition websites predict and hope for? Or, on the contrary, as one diplomat in Addis-Ababa points out, has the “the structure” demonstrated that it does not rest on the shoulders of one single man, since it is continuing to function without any obvious hiccups or crises?[9]  But is this just a matter of its momentum? And in reality or just appearance? For the long term or just temporarily? 

If Meles is out of the game, it is obviously in the best interest of the TPLF to take the initiative by putting forward a solution for his replacement as quickly as possible so as to keep its hold on power. Also, because Meles cleared away any possible contenders from his entourage, there is no obvious, strong candidate who could step in at short notice. “He will be leaving very big boots that cannot be filled by anyone else,” according to one of the founders of the Front, now a member of the opposition.[10] The solution could therefore consist of entrusting formal power to the Deputy Prime Minister, Hailemariam Dessalegn, who is from the South or somebody else with the same profile, while the effective power, at least for the time being, would be in the hands of a collective leadership at the top the Front, the army and the security services playing a key role in its composition and in decision-making. And since the Constitution stipulates that the Prime Minister has to be a member of parliament from the majority party or coalition, the Front could propose that one of the members of this collective be ultimately elected to the newly vacant post, which would give a window dressing of legality to the succession. 

But the TPLF itself is anything but homogeneous. The first fissure comes from the individuals concerned. Even if the major figures excluded from power in 2001 no longer seem likely to be able to make a reappearance, regardless of their historical calibre, other leaders who were once in the forefront, only to be sidelined recently, might wish to make their come-back, notably by advocating the restoration of the pre-eminence of the Front. They would naturally meet with resistance from those who have recently been promoted. But how strong would the latter be, given that they owe their position to the whims of Meles? Those most often cited as being in control now include: Behrane Gebre-Kristos, the diplomat, and Neway Gebreab, the economist, advisers to  Meles; Samora Yunus, commander in chief of the armed forces; Getachew Assefa, head of the security apparatus; Abay Woldu, chief of the Tigray region. Only the latter is a member of the Executive Committee, and only two of the four others sit on the 45-members Central Committee.

The second fissure is geographical. At the TPLF congress before the last, the majority of voters outside of Tigray supported Meles, while those from Tigray itself backed Arkebe Equbay, the former mayor of Addis Ababa, who ended up winning the most votes. He withdrew spontaneously. Since then he has been relegated to the Central Committee and holds no other responsibilities at all. In addition, the over-representation of leaders hailing from Meles' home town of Adwa, causes considerable gnashing of teeth.

Last, but not least, the TPLF itself is criss-crossed by political divisions, which is totally logical, given that simply belonging to the same ethnic group does not mean automatically sharing the same political views. These divisions are themselves centred around three points. What position should be adopted vis-à-vis Eritrea, with which Ethiopia has been neither at war nor peace since 2002? When Meles decided to put a stop to the victorious offensive of the Ethiopian army in Eritrea (2000) and signed the Alger agreements which brought the war to an end, a number of Tigrean leaders felt these decisions showed an inexcusable weakness. And which economic model should be followed, or, in other words, how far to go in creating a free market and what should be the place of the public and para-public sectors? But the main point is the Tigrean stranglehold.  “Hard liners” still feel that 17 years of bloody and exhausting armed struggle against the Mengistu regime gives them an undisputed right to govern, and that this legitimacy is irrevocable, because it is more deserving than any that could be claimed by an alternative force emerging through the ballot box.[11] At the other extreme, a “realist” wing feels that maintaining this stranglehold can only end in disaster, and that a more equitable form of power sharing, that would still allow most of the acquired positions and interests, would be worth a lot more than trying to hold out indefinitely and risk losing everything.

Supposing that the TPLF reaches an agreement on a mode of succession – both a mechanism and a person - it will be obliged to get it endorsed by the three other factions within the EPRDF. Two should logically be most vocal in their attempt to seize this opportunity to try to shift the balance of power in their favour. First, there are the Oromos, subjugated during the imperial conquests, then practically colonised until Haïle Selasse was overthrown, and now permeated by an increasingly marked sense of identity, that the regime has dubbed  “narrow nationalism” and that poses the greatest threat to it. Then there are the Amharas. This was the dominant ethnic group during the entire imperial era. It is within this group that the most vigorous opposition to ethnic federalism is to be found, alongside the hope of re-establishing a form of  “Ethiopianism” that transcends ethnic diversity. The regime made it pay a high price for its former domination and has disqualified its aspirations as “chauvinist” and “vindictive”.

But what cards do these two factions hold in the succession stakes? The intrinsic weight of the two parties representing these two ethnic groups has been reduced considerably by the hold the TPLF has over them, at least up until now, depriving them of any significant claim to be truly representative.

So the edifice of power is completely turned in on itself in all sectors. But this brings with it the risk that, if there is indeed a battle for succession, the long stifled, but well-founded demands and aspirations will bubble over if they are not taken into account. The regime was so aware of this risk that its worst fear that the "Arab Spring” would spread led them to crack down even further on any dissenting voices.

But the first concern of tens of millions of Ethiopians when they get up in the morning is whether or not they will have enough to eat that day. They are frightened of the disturbances and insecurity, not to say the chaos that could follow. Their very survival would be at stake. Also, after centuries of subjugation, they still see it as inconceivable that they could have any say in politics, especially at the top: “The King who rules is my King”, as the saying goes.

This alienation is attenuated and even disappears altogether as one enters the new middle class. But this class is not homogeneous and is divided by contradictory attitudes between frustration and satisfaction, desire and fear of change. It knows that its rise is precarious, and to a great extent is dependent on economic growth that any kind of "disorder" could wipe out. Some feel proud of the country’s economic progress or Meles’ standing on the international scene, but others  – and sometimes they are the same people – are hoping for radical changes. The arrogance, authoritarianism and omnipresence of the regime are increasingly being rejected, as this kind of behaviour could in particular put a stop to their socioeconomic ascension. Particularly hard to swallow is the regime’s obsession with control, which leads to the self-appointed and permanent right to intrude on daily life, as well as the allegiance they have to constantly show, and the almost forced membership of the party – that now has some five million members – if they want to protect themselves or improve their prospects. In the eyes of their critics, these constraints are a heritage of an age-old archaic Ethiopia that they are sorry about, whereas its democratisation would be a major proof of its entry into the modern world.

This spirit of non-compliance that is running through part of this middle class is fuelling the same kind of hitherto stifled discontent that, as we have seen in so many other countries, can be a major lever to bring down authoritarian regimes. But it is being undermined by two major handicaps.  The “civil society” has absolutely no autonomy. Its only organisations are those that remain within the party orbit, as it does not tolerate that independent organisations assert themselves. And while there are widespread hopes for a change, the barrier of fear soon begins to loom. The spectre of the repression that followed the 2005 elections  – almost 200 dead, 30,000 arrested and deported - still haunts peoples' minds. Everyone knows that the regime would not hesitate in the least to do it again, hence the question being asked by several dissenters, “who will dare to be the first to go and get himself killed?"

Does this mean to say that any possible succession process could only go on behind closed doors within the circles of power? This is likely, unless they move into an acute and open state of crisis, in other words acted out in public. In this case, the precedent of the 2005 elections should be borne in mind, when the regime lifted the lid off the cauldron. No one could have predicted the scale of the burst of popular reaction that this slackness would allow, leading to the opposition breakthrough.

One final remark: this analysis does not mention the parliamentary opposition or the international community. The former has been wiped out, as evident by the single seat it holds in a house with 537 members. It does not seem to have the wherewithal to influence the power play for succession. The latter will be kept out of the way, as the Ethiopian leaders are too haughtily nationalistic to accept the least interference in their affairs. Even so, what is at stake is no mean affair.[12] It not only concerns the second most highly populated country in Africa – with 86 million inhabitants – but also a Horn of Africa that is in the midst of turmoil. Somalia is the archetype of the “failed state” and a battleground against one branch of Al Quaida and the Sudan and the brand new South Sudan have a very long way to go before they manage to live side by side. At the very heart of the Horn, Ethiopia is by far the dominant power, and a very reliable western ally in the fight against radical Islam. At least up to now, compared to its neighbours, it is a haven of stability.

The TPLF has never envisaged any form of power-sharing compromise.[13]  Not during the 1991 conference which gathered opposition forces to organize the post Mengistu regime, nor after the 2005 elections, when the opposition had nevertheless suggested it, nor at any other moment up to now. The possibility of Meles’ succession offers a new opportunity. Will the Front seize it? Many Ethiopians would like to see it, many also fear the risks it would involve, and few expect it to happen.


[1] VOA and AFP, 19 July 2012.

[2] BBC, 1 August 2012.

[3] See http://open.salon.com/blog/almariam/2012/07/29/ethiopia_in_constitutional_crises

[4] It reached 39% in November 2011, 50% for food (Reuters, 11 December 2011).

[5] Respectively, Aalen, L. & K. Tronvoll 2009.  ‘The end of democracy?  Curtailing political and civil rights in Ethiopia’, and Clapham, C. 2009.  ‘Post-war Ethiopia: the trajectories of crisis’, Review of African Political Economy 36, 120.

[6] See, especially, William Davison, CSM, ‘Will Ethiopia crackdown stir Islamist backlash?’, 28 July 2012. 

[7] Comments on the Ethiopian Crisis, Christopher Clapham, 2005, http://www.african.cam.ac.uk/people/registry/subjectlist/clapham.html

[8] Jean-François Bayart, 2008, Le concept de situation thermidorienne: régimes néo-révolutionnaires et libéralisation économique, Question de recherche.

[9] AFP, 20 July 2012. But appearances can be deceptive… During the 2001 crisis, the central committee of the TPLF sat night and day for a month without anyone outside knowing about it

[10] The Economist, 4 August 2012.

[11] Following the opposition breakthrough in 2005, some Tigrean high-level officials told the author that “if the opposition wants power, let them start to make as many sacrifices as those we have had to endure».

[12] Bizarrely, the disappearance of Meles has so far hardly been mentioned in the international media.

[13] It is highly significant that the concept of compromise does not exist in Tigrinya, or in Amharic, the country’s official language. 

 

About the author

René Lefort has been writing about sub-saharan Africa since the 1970s and has reported on the region for Le Monde, Le Monde diplomatique, Libération, Le Nouvel Observateur.

He is the author of "Ethiopia. An heretical revolution?" (1982, Zed books).