The death of Meles Zenawi on August 20 at the age of 57 brought to an end more than two decades of controversial rule. In 1991, at the age of 36, Zenawi became the youngest ruler in Africa after leading his Tegrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF), an ethnic militia from the country's north, to crush Marxist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, and helping to save Ethiopia from the ruins of civil war.
Ethiopia under Zenawi – Developed Yet Authoritarian
Ethiopia under Zenawi can however be summed up in two key words: development and authoritarianism. Ethiopia under Zenawi saw a remarkable economic growth with the economy growing on the average of 10 percent in the last five years. The IMF rated the country the fastest non-oil growing economy in Africa. Confidence in the Ethiopian economy soared with investors from Europe, North America, Asia and Africa, including Tiger Brands of South Africa, Canada's Allana, Schulze Global Investments of America, Diageo and Heineken, all making their pitch in the country pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into the economy. Apart from direct Chinese investment in the country, the Chinese government has been loaning the country about $3 billion annually, most of which has been used for infrastructure development including schools, clinics, roads, railway lines, hydropower stations and canals.
The consequence is that there has been notable improvement in the lives of ordinary Ethiopians. Although poverty is still pervasive, majority of the country's population are not starving. Food security in Ethiopia has drastically improved, and hunger and malnutrition, which featured in the country in the 1970s and 1980s, are not as threatening as before.
Pillar of Stability
The government of Meles Zenawi projected Ethiopia as the pillar of stability in the Horn of Africa and in the process even came to assume the status of policeman of the Horn of Africa. The UN Security Council in 2011 voted to allow Ethiopia to deploy about 4200 soldiers to Abyei, the oil-rich border town between North and South Sudan, which has become a major source of tension between the two countries. Ethiopia also played key role in mediating between the two Sudans.
Since 2006, Ethiopia has played a pivotal role in trying to bring peace, security and stability to Somalia. Together with Kenya and Africa Union forces, Addis Ababa helped to push the al-Shabaab terror group out of Mogadishu and Beledweyne, and the terror group is now on the defensive.
These efforts to bring stability to East Africa and to rid the region of terrorism made Ethiopia the most important ally of the West in East Africa. According to US officials, Ethiopia's military and security services have become the Central Intelligence Agency's most trusted allies in the war against extremism and terrorism in East Africa.
Ethiopia's aggressive attitude towards terrorism has earned the country not only praises, but also more than $4 billion in development assistance annually. The country's leaders have also been rewarded by the West. Former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, for example, was a regular participant in G8 and G20 gatherings. He also spoke at the World Economic Forum in Davos-Switzerland and during climate change negotiations in Durban and Copenhagen. Zenawi used his presence in these gatherings to project a voice for Africa helping to articulate Africa's interests on the international stage.
But the development initiatives and the aggressive stance on terrorism came at the expense of democracy, human rights, free speech, ethnic and religious cohesion, and regional stability. In the latter part of his reign, Zenawi and his government became increasingly authoritarian and repressive. Democracy and human rights have suffered a terrible blow, particularly since 2005. Many opposition figures have either been imprisoned or have been forced to flee the country. Anti-terrorism laws passed in 2009 have been used to criminalise free speech leading to a number of journalists and activists either being imprisoned or freeing the country for their safety.
Apart from the erosion of democratic values, Ethiopia has become ethnically polarised. This is largely due to the 1994 constitution which divided Ethiopia into ethnically-based regions. The Tigray ethnic group of Meles Zenawi (which makes up about 6.07 percent of the population) dominates not only the ruling Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), but also the country's economy, commerce, political and military sectors much to the chagrin of Amharas, Gurages and other ethnic groups. The ethnicisation of the country has seen separatists' movements springing up in several places including the Afar, Oromo and Ogaden regions.
Rise of a New Era
The smooth and peaceful transfer of power to Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Hailemariam Desalegn put to rest (at least for now) the speculation of leadership battle and the much feared leadership crisis and has helped to restore confidence in the country. Desalegn's confirmation shows that the ruling elite in Ethiopia understand the importance of stability and positive continuity in their country.
The greatest dividend is that the death of Zenawi and the coming into office of Desalegn could mark the end of the old era of authoritarianism, political intolerance, ethnic and religious polarization, and the beginning of a new era of democracy, respect for human rights, and decriminalisation of free speech, inclusive economic development and political stability. In fact, the appointment of Desalegn (a non-Tegrayan) may calm down ethnic tension both in the country and within the ruling EPRDF party. This has the potential to avoid the kind of instability that some analysts have predicted.
One of Desalegn's first acts in office was the release from prison of the two Swedes who were convicted for helping Ogaden National Liberation Front rebels to destabilise the country. Their release signals that the new PM might move away from some of the unpopular policies of his predecessor. The release of the Swedes also raises optimism that Desalegn might release opposition members, journalists and activists who were incarcerated under Zenawi. Any gesture of that nature will mark a new era of relationship between the ruling government, civil society and the opposition parties and will have the potential of returning competitive politics and democracy in the country.
However, this optimism has to be balanced with the realistic and critical question of whether the new PM will continue with the same policies of his predecessor or whether he will be his own man. The first part of the question is true.
To begin with, Desalegn appears to have little influence within the EPRDF and will not be able to control the powerful Tegrayan bloc in the party and in the government. In fact with elections due in 2015, it is unlikely that the new PM will engineer any drastic policy moves that will antagonise the Tegrayan bloc. Even if he succeeds in carrying out major reforms, it is improbable that the Tegrayan elite who dominate the ruling EPRDF party will give grounds so easily and will fight to maintain their power, influence and interests.
The fear is that if the Tegrayan bloc continues to dominate, control and shape government policies, it will further deepen the ethnic polarisation in the country, erode democratic values, possibly break up the ruling EPRDF party, and threaten Ethiopia's fragile political, social and economic environment. The worst case scenario is that instability is likely to be final outcome.
That said, Desalegn's is not expected to shift away from the lead role the state plays in driving development. Ethiopia is also likely to continue to be involved in the internal affairs of her neighbours especially Somalia and Sudan. However, is also expected to cooperate with her neighbours in a number of areas including joint infrastructural development, intelligence sharing, defeating terrorism, and promoting regional peace, security and stability.
Given the important role donor funds play in Ethiopia's development, the country's relationship with the West, and particularly the United States, is expected to continue unchanged and may deepen even further. The need to attract badly needed investment to promote economic growth, infrastructure development and poverty reduction will see Ethiopia deepening its relationship with China, India and Middle Eastern countries.
Whatever changes that take place in the post-Zenawi era, especially with respect to democracy, human rights, inclusive economic development, ethnic and religious cohesion, and regional peace, security, stability among others, will be heavily influenced by the internal politics within the ruling EPRDF party.
Lord Aikins Adusei is an independent energy and security analyst on Africa. His research interests include security, development and energy. He may be reached at [email protected]
Note: This article was first published by the Diplomatist magazine in India.