When the official announcement came, no one was surprised. On August 20th, the Ethiopian government released news of Males Zenawi’s death. He had been absent from the political scene for more than two months. According to some sources he was in India for medical check-ups. Others say he died in Brussels. Whatever the case, the Prime Minister from Adwa had ceased to control Ethiopian politics weeks before.
Zenawi belonged to the minority Tigrigna group. He was an active agent in the fight against dictator Menghistu Haile Mariam and came to the fore soon after the fall of the latter in 1991. Prime Minister since 1995, he controlled both the federal government and the military. During his tenure, he easily manipulated smaller ethnic groups and placed his allies in key positions.
In few years, Zenawi imposed himself as the most brilliant political mind in the Horn of Africa and one of the prima donnas within the African Union. On the international scene, he befriended the USA, supported their policiy in the region and obtained substantial military and development aid in return. With American support, he invaded Somalia – twice. Yet, he had to stop his advance on Asmara during the war against Eritrea because of a veto imposed on him by the same allies.
On the home front, Zenawi scored his highest and lowest points as a politician. In the past decade, GDP has grown by 10% plus a year, double the average in the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. The share of Ethiopians living in extreme poverty fell from 45% to just under 30%. The government has boosted manufacturing and agriculture. Exports have risen sharply. A string of hydroelectric dams now under construction – criticised by environmentalists – is expected to give the economy a further boost in the coming years.
The other side of the coin has been authoritarianism, slowly moving towards pure and simple dictatorship. “Before his departure he ensured that meaningful opposition was “already dead”, says Zerihun Tesfaye, a human-rights activist. In 2005, the opposition won the elections, even though he never accepted it and unleashed unprecedented violence against protesting citizens, keeping control of parliament. In the 2010 elections, Zenawi silenced the opposition to claim 99.6% of the vote. In between these elections, he dismantled independent organisations from teachers’ unions to human-rights groups; opposition parties were banned and their leaders jailed or driven into exile. 200 opposition members and journalists were jailed.
“The government and the next prime minister should take the opportunity for change represented by the succession of Meles Zenawi to move towards a greater respect for human rights,” said Claire Beston of Amnesty International. “Ethiopia’s leadership should demonstrate its commitment to human rights reform by taking urgent steps to amend or repeal some of the most damaging legislation, including its anti-terrorism laws and restrictions on civil society,” added Leslie Lefkow of Human Rights Watch.
Haile Mariam Desalegn, the foreign minister, has been called to succeed Zenawi. Desalegn is from a small ethnic group in the south. Few hope that his nomination is a sign of the end of political dominance by the Christian highlanders of the Amhara and Tigray regions. All seem to realize that Desalegn has not enough clout to stand up against the powerful Amhara and the shrewd Tigrigna. Most probably he will toe the line and might be replaced once the power games taking place behind the scenes will be settled. He could certainly give a positive sign releasing the scores of political prisoners and make clear that the transition will result in a meaningful opening of political space.
He will have, nonetheless, face Getachew Assefa, the head of the intelligence service; Abay Tsehaye, the director-general of the Ethiopian sugar corporation; and Mr Meles’s widow, Azeb Mesfin. Either openly or from behind the curtains, this trio will continue to control the future of Ethiopia.
However he will deal with the fragile transition, Desalegn must at the same time tackle the popular protests that have taken the country by surprise. Ethiopian Muslims, a large minority, have been taking to the streets against a perceived interference on their religious choices. While the government has been trying to contain radical Islam, Muslim youth are unhappy of the country’s involvement in Somalia. Tensions with Eritrea seem also to rise. The border dispute – a flimsy excuse for the war between the two countries – has never been resolved, and might bring to another military confrontation: it would be a bitter ending for the liberation struggle that brought Ethiopia and Eritrea out of dictatorship but has not yet materialised the democracy it promised.