Is Ethiopia's Zenawi really eying the exit door?By ARGAW ASHINE | Friday, February 10 2012 at 17:08
It is a topic more likely to be whispered about than discussed openly, but could Ethiopian strongman Meles Zenawi, now closing in on his 17th year as Prime Minister (after four earlier as President), be thinking of calling it a day?
It is for many familiar with Ethiopian politics an almost unimaginable prospect, while skeptics will point out that Meles has repeatedly promised to step down.
But early this month, senior officials of the ruling EPRDF party (Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front) hinted at a succession plan to replace its 56-year-old leader at the end of his current term in 2015.
While no one in the party that he has tightly-controlled since 1985 has so far ventured to make any public comments on the sensitive topic, a senior government official and member of the ruling party told this reporter on condition of anonymity that Meles will "surely" hand over power by 2015.
The ranking official said they were not sure as to who could replace the strongman, but there has been widespread party speculation about two hopefuls: Deputy Prime Minister, also Foreign Affairs minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, and Health minister Tewodros Adhanom.
Hailemariam, a humble family man and former university lecturer, looks to be more well-placed given his proximity to the Premier, and also because he has not had direct contact with military and intelligence circles as he was not part of the armed struggle against the Mengistu Haile Mariam regime.
Picking his deputy would mean Meles would have considerable influence if he were to relinquish power in 2015. A protestant, Hailemariam joined politics in the late 1990s and became the regional governor of southern Ethiopia in 2000 on an EPRDF ticket.
He has been a trusted Meles ally, and was in 2010 elevated to deputy Premier and Foreign Affairs minister. Hailemariam is also the deputy chairman of the EDRDF and has recently been chairing Cabinet meetings, in addition to supervising all ministries.
The minority tribes he represents have never been in power in modern Ethiopia, an attractive position to Meles should he seek to move the power base from the traditional north and centre (Tigray and Amhara communities) to the southern minorities.
He also regularly represents Ethiopia in crucial regional and international meetings, including recent Igad and African Union summits, lending credence to observers' assertions that he could be the prime minister-designate.
All-seeing: Meles. ARGAW ASHINE
All-seeing: Meles. ARGAW ASHINE
However, his actual sphere of influence has been questioned, given he does not have a big constituency in his backyard or in the ruling party. His southern region is home to more than 45 ethnic groups and is highly divided to favour the traditional powerful Amharas and Tigrians political elites.
The fact that he was not in the guerrilla armed struggle may also count against him, especially in the inner security circle run by Tigrians who are close to Meles.
His perceived rival, Tewodros, is a populist hailing from Meles' Tigray community, which represents less than five per cent of the Ethiopian population. He was, along with Meles, a young combatant during the armed struggle, although he is not especially recognised for this.
A medical doctor, Tewodros has studied in Asmara and the United Kingdom, and is a father of five. But political analysts say he has been more of a model civil servant than an outright political leader.
A down-to-earth EPRDF official (a rarity in the party), he is popular with the public and is also a darling with donors. He has been the architect of a thriving health sector, though heavily foreign-funded.
However Tewodros popularity does not appear to have gone down well with the power brokers around Meles, while the fact that he is also from the Tigray community may count against him, given other ethnic groups would most likely oppose its political dominance.
A potential outcome is Meles could also choose to stay on as the elevation of two men who lack power bases would be opposed by ruling party officials.
But with all the hushed talk of succession, there are also those who fear that Meles so bestrides every facet of Ethiopia that his retirement would leave the country of 85 million at risk of further conflict.
The Prime Minister is to be found in every aspect of Ethiopian life, and often portrays himself to the citizenry as indispensible. Meles and the EPRDF have systematically dismantled any opposition, including critical media, a process hastened by the violence that accompanied the 2005 election and which led to the deaths of 200 people.
Meles won the 2010 election with a staggering 99.6 per cent of the vote, but has gone on to clamp down on democratic institutions, including through a raft of restrictive laws.
A new NGO Bill that prevents charity groups from receiving foreign funding saw the number of these groups reduce from 2,980 to 1,500. Watchdog the Committee to Protect Journalists says that in 2011, 25 per cent of all exiled African journalists were from the country, while dozens of others are incarcerated.
The opposition has been pummelled into submission, with a recent controversial anti-terrorism law proving especially handy.
Meles offers himself as a reformist and great Ethiopian leader, leading to one man show style of ruling reminiscent of China's Mao Zedong, Russia's Lenin or North Korea's late Kim Jong Il.
He often explains every single policy and frequently directs national dialogue in any field.
Key institutions such as the judiciary, parliament and party organs are effectively under his control, while the financial and banking industries are not exempt either, giving a deep sense of unpredictability to investors.
Often credited with transforming the economy, critics say that this has been at the expense of the poor. Ethiopia has borrowed up to its neck for infrastructure development, including from China and India, with Addis Ababa claiming unverified growth of 10 per cent annual expansion (The IMF places it at eight).
The massive infrastructure projects are sold to the Ethiopian people as his gifts to them.
But Meles has also overseen inflation levels of up to 35 per cent over the last two years, affecting mainly the Horn of Africa country's poor.
His intelligence network stocked by his tribesmen and cronies has tentacles in every sector. He has struck a delicate, if admirable, balance on the international front, positioning himself as a key Western ally in the international war against terrorism, while ruthlessly neutering any opposition domestically, and also from arch-rival Eritrea.
The military is divided along ethnic lines and party allegiance, faults which his close control has so far been able to paper over. His exit would, in all likelihood, change this.
Given this level of political and economic control, some fear that his complete exit would cause more turbulence and that Ethiopia would not be ready for such a shock.
The jury remains out on this. But what is clear is that whoever succeeds him would most likely be under his control, and that the ruling party will be in power for a long time.
In fact, the EPRDF has targeted at least a four-decade stint, and in a party document, says that one party's long stay in power enables the government to be stable and focus on delivering development and alleviating poverty.
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