Oduu Haaraya

The more things change…Ethiopia’s path remains same three years after death of former strongman Meles


Current Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn has chosen to continue Meles’ policies without a flinch, but with a more collective leadership.

RIGHTS groups say at least 75 people have been killed in a bloody crackdown on protests by the Oromo people, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group.

Bekele Gerba, deputy president of the Oromo Federal Congress, puts the toll at more than 80 while the government says only five have been killed. The demonstrations have spread to several towns since November, when students spoke out against plans to expand the capital into Oromia territory—a move the Oromo consider a land grab.

But the Ethiopian government is not blinking. It never has, which is remarkable because three years ago many expected a change. It didn’t come.

When former Prime Minister and strongman Meles Zenawi, and architect of Ethiopia’s aggressive “developmental state” model,  died in 2012 after two decades of iron fisted-rule, many believed that the country was destined for chaos and power struggle within the ruling Ethiopian People Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).

However, the East African nation of 90 million people seemed to have succeed in proving those fears unfounded and has managed to keep its peace and growth trajectory.

Hailemariam keeps the faith

Elsewhere, there are always changes, however slight, even when leadership changes happen with the same ruling party as in Ethiopia. However, the current Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, seemed to have chosen to continue Meles’ policies without a flinch.

The main theme of Meles’s leadership was creating a developmental state through revolutionary democracy, a practice that looks more like the Chinese way of doing things. And, of course, Hailemariam has committed himself to this principle, which has the “Growth and Transformation Plan” at its core, a five year development strategy.

All in all, the massive government funded projects, a policy of state ownership of land, the safety net programmes and even the infamous “negative attitude” the government has towards civil society organisations and the media have all continued to this day.

Hailemariam has his roots in the Southern part of Ethiopia and is a Protestant whereas most of Ethiopia’s leaders in the past have been from Northern regions, and power was dominated by followers of the Ethiopian Christian Orthodox Church.

Smooth succession

“The ruling party has succeeded in institutionalising the organisation’s power after the death of Meles so it has succeeded in making the succession to Hailemariam smooth,” said Lovise Aalen, a political scientist who has researched on Ethiopian politics for more than a decade. “However, this should not confuse short-term stability and growth with long term sustainability.”

The current ruling party, the EPRDF, seized power in 1991 after overthrowing the military Derg regime of Haile Mariam Mengistu. It is composed of four major largely ethnic-based political parties, wherein the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which Meles led, continued to dominate the rest.

Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn has largely maintained the status quo.

At the moment, Ethiopia is enjoying a double digit economic growth and is often regarded as one of the fastest growing economies in Africa. The government’s massive pro-poor public investments and the attention it gave to the education, housing and health sectors are bearing fruits.

However, some downplay the “smooth succession” talk and the “development rhetoric”, especially those in the opposition camp.

Opposition view

Merara Gudina, one of the most prominent opposition figures in Ethiopia, said there is no policy change in Ethiopia after Meles and this has got to do with a changes within the ruling party that some outsiders might miss.

“The government is nowadays swearing day and night that they want to continue Meles’ legacy,” Merara told Mail & Guardian Africa. “It was a one-man-rule during Meles but now it seems the TPLF party is the one that pulls the strings. To be frank, the current Prime Minister doesn’t seem to have much power in the government’s decisions process unlike like Meles.”

Merara alleges that the country is still facing a massive drought and that Oromo students are being killed. According to him, this represents no change of policy and no viable development as well.

Prime Minister Hailemariam’s rise to power, experts say, was facilitated by Meles before his death and it began to manifest after the 2010 elections as the ruling coalition began promoting a new breed of leaders.

“Although no successor was named then, the appointment of Hailemariam, a Protestant from the traditionally marginalised south, as Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister before Meles’s death gave hints about Ethiopia’s political direction after Meles,” Aalen argued adding that party leaders did not use the transition as an opportunity to change direction. Instead, she said, their main priority after Meles’s death was to maintain the status quo.

So far they seem to have succeeded.

The current leader has instituted two strategies to quell any rebellion within the ruling party: the first is a policy of bringing in collective leadership. The second is a policy of conciliation: an attempt to give adequate representation to all parties in the league and answer old grudges and avoid the birth of a one man show all afresh.

Despite all this, Ethiopia is still frowned upon by sections of the international community for its human rights record.

Rights groups allege that civil society is depressed and the anti- terrorist laws introduced in 2009 are used arbitrarily to detain people. They add journalists and opposition take big risks and bloggers write in fears.

“All the powerful posts in the country are currently occupied by Tigreans, from where the former Prime Minister descended from. And there is still a lot of devotion to Meles’ past rule,” Merara said. “As one French writer has put it, the ghost of Meles is ruling the country.”

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