By Jerome Mwanda
The death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who has been Ethiopia’s epicentre for 21 years, will have profound national and regional consequences, but democracy and an end to repression appear unlikely, according to analysts.
The man, who led the movement that overthrew the Marxist junta Derg in 1991, had not been seen in public for several months. His death in a Belgian hospital was announced on August 20, 2012 by Ethiopian state television.
The national implications of Meles’ death should be considered against the backdrop that he engineered one-party rule in effect for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and his Tigrayan inner circle, with the complicity of other ethnic elites that were co-opted into the ruling alliance, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). The Front promised freedom, democracy and ethnic devolution but being highly centralised, it tightly controls the economy and suppresses political, social, ethnic and religious liberties.
As the Brussels-based International Crisis Group points out, in recent years, Meles had relied ever more on repression to quell growing dissent. The Crisis Group expects his successor to lead a weaker regime that struggles to manage increasing unrest unless it truly implements ethnic federalism and institutes fundamental governance reform.
The Group – an eminent think-tank presided over by Louise Arbour, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and Chief Prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda – calls attention to the fact that “despite his authoritarianism and poor human rights records, Meles became an important asset to the international community, a staunch Western ally in counter-terrorism efforts in the region and a valued development partner for Western and emerging powers. As a result, Ethiopia has become the biggest aid recipient in Africa, though Meles’s government was only able to partially stabilise either the country or region.”
In an analysis ‘Ethiopia After Meles’, the Crisis Group Ethiopia’s political system and society have grown increasingly unstable largely because the TPLF has become increasingly repressive, while failing to implement the policy of ethnic federalism it devised over twenty years ago to accommodate the land’s varied ethnic identities.
The result has been greater political centralisation, with concomitant ethnicisation of grievances. The closure of political space has removed any legitimate means for people to channel those grievances. The government has encroached on social expression and curbed journalists, non-governmental organisations and religious freedoms. The cumulative effect is growing popular discontent, as well as radicalisation along religious and ethnic lines.
Weaknesses to the fore
“Meles adroitly navigated a number of internal crises and kept the different TPLF factions under his tight control,” says Emilio Manfredi, Crisis Group’s Ethiopia Analyst. “Now that he’s gone, the weaknesses of the regime that he built are more likely to be exposed, and the repercussions could be felt across the region.”
The Crisis Group analysts opine that given the opacity of the government and army, it is difficult to say what the new administration might look like or who might eventually lead it. Hailemariam Desalegn, the deputy prime minister named to carry on Meles’s functions, is not a Tigrayan and likely only a figurehead stop-gap. But it is probable the new government will be more fragile, the security forces more influential and internal stability endangered. The Tigrayan elite could be forced to use more repression to hold onto power and control other ethnic groups.
The regional implications are huge, avers the Crisis Grouo. “Greater instability would threaten Ethiopia’s military interventions in Somalia and Sudan, exacerbate tensions with Eritrea and, more broadly, put in question its role as a key Western counter-terrorism ally in the Horn of Africa. If religious or ethnic radicalisation grows, the shockwaves could be felt across borders, with militants linking up with armed Islamist groups elsewhere.”
In view of this, the Group asks the international community, particularly Ethiopia’s main allies, the U.S., UK and the European Union (EU), to seek to influence the new transition by making political, military and development assistance dependent on an end to repression, the opening of political space and democratic reforms. They should encourage the new leadership to draw up a clear roadmap for an all-inclusive, peaceful transition, with free and fair elections held within a limited timeframe. They should also help members of the Ethiopian opposition to return from abroad so they can better represent their constituencies, both in the country and in the diaspora.
Crisis Group’s Horn of Africa Project Director EJ Hogendoorn says: “The international community mostly turned a blind eye to Meles’s authoritarian actions and growing dissent in the country. Now it must push the ruling party to revive the rights and freedoms enshrined in the constitution and promote inclusive reforms as the only way to ensure Ethiopia’s internal security and durable development and the region’s fragile stability.”
Looking ahead, an analysis by Maplecroft emphasises that “in the short term, major changes in policy are highly unlikely”. This is because there are few reasons for Hailemariam to make any immediate alterations to economic policy, “since maintaining investor confidence is vital to sustaining economic growth, which is in turn essential to bolstering his tenuous leadership.”
Similarly, the Ethiopian troop presence in Somalia is likely to continue in order to underscore Ethiopia’s importance to its Western allies, while the conflict in Somalia and ongoing hostilities with Eritrea are useful in justifying the harsh security measures taken against domestic opponents.
“There is no immediate likelihood that repressive security measures will be relaxed, since the regime is likely to be concerned that Meles’s death will encourage their long-suppressed opponents to mount an ‘Arab Spring’-style revolt, and more importantly because of the fear that competing factions within the regime could mobilise their ethnic powerbases in an attempt to bolster their influence in the federal government,” UK-based Maplecroft risk analysts say.
A power struggle could see rivals promoting resource nationalism, risk analysts add. This is because Meles was widely acknowledged as a competent technocrat, who maintained a strict focus on the economy. The country managed to record double-digit growth during much of his time in office, and is projected to achieve 7% growth in the current financial year. The immediate focus of the regime will be on maintaining political stability, and decisions on improving the investment climate and business environment are likely to be deferred. In the longer term, though, significant economic reforms are possible. Meles always had an affinity for a Chinese-style ‘developmental state’, and thus never fully subscribed to neo-liberal economic policies prescribed by international financial institutions.
The analysis warns that international donors may judge that a less secure leader will be more pliable to demands to conduct economic liberalisation. This could result in the privatisation of state-owned enterprises, a measure which may also allow the regime to distribute patronage to its supporters.
“However, the direction of economic policy will depend to a large degree on political stability. As Hailemariam seeks to consolidate his power, there is an increased possibility that he will resort to populist measures, such as insisting on local content provisions in concessions awarded to extractive-sector companies, or by raising taxes or royalties in order to fund poverty-reduction measures,” Maplecroft risk analysts say.