MELES ZENAWI, Ethiopia’s usually dynamic prime minister, has not been seen in public since mid-June. Regularly invited to grand gatherings such as those of the G8 and G20, he has often been deemed “the voice of Africa”. But he was notably absent earlier this month from a summit of the African Union in his own capital, Addis Ababa. His government added to the uncertainty by first denying that he was critically ill in a hospital in Belgium, then announcing that he was away on sick leave. When a weekly newspaper was about to publish an article on his health, the authorities stopped the presses.
What if Mr Meles goes for good? After 21 years at the helm, his sudden incapacity has forced the succession issue trickily into the open. For the moment it is not even clear whether his deputy, Hailemariam Desalegn, who is also foreign minister, is temporarily in charge. A former defence minister, Seeye Abraha, now a critic, says that Mr Meles, his college classmate, has created a system that is dangerously reliant on him. “He will be leaving very big boots that cannot be filled by anyone else.”
A graduate of Britain’s Open University, Mr Meles has been known for his wide reading, relatively austere habits, and the success of his development policy. Under his remit Ethiopia, one of the world’s poorest countries, has become a donor darling. Nearly $4 billion of aid pours in every year—most of it to good effect.
But he has also been criticised for the increasing harshness of his politics and for his vaunted experiment in “authoritarian development”. His government has accepted foreign aid, but he has ignored pleas to respect democracy and human rights, citing China as his model. Mr Meles has gambled that donors are keener to see good results from their money than to require proof of democratic behaviour. And the West has been grateful for Ethiopia’s service as a regional policeman in a turbulent neighbourhood. Mr Meles has let the Americans fire drones from Ethiopia. He has also sent his own troops into Sudan and against jihadists in Somalia.
Mr Meles’s economic record is hard to match. Ethiopia claims to have been growing by an average of 11% a year since 2004. Some World Bankers say those figures may be optimistic, but only slightly. A string of huge dams are being built to boost hydroelectric power fivefold by 2015. That should generate electricity for vast new farms spread over 3m hectares of arable land granted to foreign and local firms.
Environmentalists, however, say that the dams will make lakes in Kenya run dry. And human-rights groups say local people will be forcibly resettled. Mr Meles dismisses such complaints out of hand. Dissident or investigative journalists have been jailed or driven into exile. In July a prominent online journalist, Eskinder Nega, was sentenced to 18 years in prison.
Moreover, rapid economic growth has come at a price. The cost of living has soared. Inflation at one point last year was running at over 40% a year, though it has since come down. Food prices have quadrupled in the past 12 months. Graduates are finding it harder to get jobs. Wages lag far behind inflation. Some senior civil servants earn as little as $250 a month.
On paper, Mr Meles’s ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front should weather a transition. It has all but one of the seats in Ethiopia’s parliament after sweeping the 2010 elections, officially with 99.6% of the vote. At the previous poll in 2005 the opposition took the capital and claimed to have won nationwide. The crackdown that followed left at least 200 people dead, 30,000 arrested, and opposition leaders in the dock for treason.
Since then the ruling party has expanded its membership from 300,000 to more than 4m out of a population of about 85m. With 85% of Ethiopians living in the countryside, everything from jobs and food aid to seeds and school places is in the party’s gift. State and party have been conflated.
Meanwhile Mr Meles, at 57, has promoted younger people, such as Mr Hailemariam, a water engineer with a degree from Finland. But power has still rested with a clutch of Mr Meles’s comrades from his home area of Tigray in northern Ethiopia, many of them once members of a Marxist-Leninist group that used to admire Albania’s long-serving Communist leader, the late Enver Hoxha. This hard core, including the army’s chief of staff, General Samora Younis, retains a “paranoid and secretive leadership style”, according to a former American ambassador to Ethiopia, David Shinn. Were Mr Meles to leave in a hurry, relations between the young modernisers and the powerful old guard might fray.
If the constitution was respected, parliament would pick a successor, probably Mr Hailemariam, whose southern origins might appease those who think Tigrayans have too much power. Officials say that Mr Meles had anyway intended to step down in 2015. Yet he was expected to remain in charge behind the scenes. In ruling circles the uncertainty is causing jitters.
* Originally published on The Economist, on Aug. 4, 2012, titled “The reported ill health of Ethiopia’s big man is jangling the nerves”.
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