Ruling Ethiopia: Long live the king | The Economist

Ethiopia’s new leadership is practising hero-worship

DURING his two decades running Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi almost single-handedly engineered its rise from lost cause to model pupil. Even his enemies admit he was both popular and competent. Often working around the clock, he could make complex policy choices and then explain them to ordinary people. He planned meticulously for everything—from road building to oppressing the opposition—except, that is, for his own demise.

It came six months ago on August 20th, following illness at the age of 57, and left the state reeling. Meles, as he is known, had grabbed so much power that many feared his death would spark political chaos and an economic downturn. He alone had the trust of the soldiers, the financiers, the Ethiopian people and the West.

But the transition to a new prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, has gone smoothly. The streets of Addis Ababa, the capital, have seen no unrest and the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) suffered no defections. A few audible grumbles were swiftly silenced. Rioting Muslims were beaten back. A minister was fired as were four regional officials in events that may or may not be related to the leadership change. Jockeying among the elite has been kept behind firmly closed doors. In public it espouses business as usual.

Instead of chaos, an eerie calm now hangs over the country. The old guard that once surrounded Meles, who hailed from the northern region of Tigray, remains in power. Winners of a 1980s civil war that toppled the dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, the Tigrayans have held on to top security jobs. Meles’s widow, Azeb Mesfin, who for a few months refused to move out of the prime ministerial palace, still controls a state-affiliated conglomerate, EFFORT. The number of Tigrayans in the cabinet has shrunk but key posts remain in the hands of ageing loyalists, many of whom fought alongside Meles. Talk of “generational change” over the past few years was seemingly a charade.

One of the few exceptions is the relatively young prime minister, Mr Desalegn. The 47-year-old is an articulate and experienced administrator as well as a former water engineer who studied in Finland. But he lacks his predecessor’s charisma and shrewd policy instincts. Though a former deputy prime minister (and former foreign minister) he is not an insider. He is a Protestant in a predominantly Orthodox Christian nation (his first name means “the power of Mary”). He is also an ethnic Wolaytan in a government dominated by Tigrayans. Meles, his mentor, may have chosen him for that reason, either to weaken ethnic divisions or perhaps to guarantee that ultimate power remains with his northern brothers-in-arms.

As the new chairman of the EPRDF, Mr Desalegn may eventually attain sufficient control to reshape the ruling party, but only if he survives long enough. For the moment he seems to have little room to manoeuvre, lacking his own power base in the security forces. He has publicly pledged to continue his predecessor’s work “without any changes”.

Those who know him say he is more comfortable with capitalism than many of the leftists around him. He was never a Marxist, but nor does he have an alternative vision for the country. Few Ethiopians know his name, though he does well internationally; he was recently elected chairman of the African Union. “We want him to be a leader not a follower,” says a progressive Ethiopian who occasionally meets him, but doubts his authority.

In his first six months in power, the prime minister has announced few new policies. Reform efforts are frozen. Economic liberalisation has been postponed at least until after elections in 2015. Party leaders seem unsure how to survive without Meles. They govern on autopilot, following the blueprints he left behind. Conformity of thought is common and new ideas are seemingly unwelcome.

Meles was so central to the Ethiopian state that his followers are trying to keep him alive with a Mao-style cult of personality. Even months after his death, Addis Ababa is still plastered with bereavement posters. They cover entire sides of buildings and run for hundreds of metres along fences. Banners declare “we will continue your work” and “we will never forget you”. The body of the former prime minister is buried under a tall granite arch next to Holy Trinity Cathedral where Haile Selassie, the last Ethiopian emperor, is entombed. New propaganda tracts depict Meles as a selfless leader who sacrificed his life for his country. His party is trying to wring as much legitimacy as possible from his legacy. It may be too early to speak of a post-Meles era—even in death he is the country’s most visible politician.

The future could yet be difficult. Without the former prime minister’s zeal, authority and attention to detail, the system he created could founder. Vested interests once kept at bay may reassert themselves. Reform projects could not just stall but break down irreparably. The fight against corruption and for economic progress will slow. Officialdom is already adrift, unsure of which way to turn. Only when the grizzled Tigrayan bosses at last step down might a new generation of leaders return to the ambitious experimentation that was an essential ingredient in Meles’s success. A move to genuine democracy, which he talked about but never dared to try, remains far off.

Ethiopia’s leaders are confused. They hail Meles as their country’s uniquely brilliant leader but act as if they can govern just as he did.


* Originally published on The Economist, on Feb. 13, 2013, titled "Ruling Ethiopia: Long live the king. Ethiopia’s new leadership is practising hero-worship".

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