Cloud of uncertainty over Ethiopia after Meles: UK Institute

After Meles: Implications for Ethiopia’s Development

BY  Handino, M., Lind, J. and Mesfin, B |UK Institute of Development Studies

October 2012

Meles Zenawi, the long-serving Ethiopian Prime Minister since 1995 and leader of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition, passed away in August. His death sparked considerable concern and debate internationally. The political stability of Ethiopia – the largest recipient of overseas development assistance in Africa – was put into question. Would the loss of Zenawi upend a decade of staggering official economic growth? Would it halt the transformation of Ethiopia from a famine-plagued country to a regional hegemon in the Horn of Africa?

The late Ethiopian dictator

Meles sought to replicate the Chinese growth ‘miracle’ and to craft a distinctly Ethiopian version of this that has been labelled ‘developmental authoritarianism’ by outsiders. He dismissed human rights critiques from many directions and squeezed the space for opposition and civic society to organise around governance and rights-based concerns – unless part of officially sanctioned institutions.

Foreign donors quietly criticised his policies – more vocally after the post 2005 elections – yet maintained substantial aid commitments to the country in the long term. With his death, some western critics have sought to cast the transition as an opportunity for Ethiopia’s development partners to press governance and human rights concerns yet again. However, the implications of the transition to a new PM and leadership at the top of the EPRDF are far from certain.

The first issue of a new policy briefing series from IDS explores the implications of Meles’ death for Ethiopia’s political stability, geo-political relations and development pathways. The IDS Rapid Response Briefings are published by the Institute of Development Studies and aim to provide high level analysis of rapidly emerging and unexpected global events and their impact on global development policy and practice. The briefings provide expert perspectives, opinions and commentary from around the world drawing on the experience and expertise of IDS’s 1000 alumni and 250 partners.

So, what are the implications of Meles’ death?


Meles’ successor, Hailemariam Dessalegn, Foreign Minister and Vice Premier since 2010, from the EPRDF, became acting PM under party rules in September. Crucially, Hailemariam is from the southern part of the country – Wolaita more specifically – and was not a member of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) that holds ultimate power in the coalition.

While Hailemariam’s appointment has been welcomed by Southerners within Ethiopia, representation of SNNPR in the military and federal command structure is minimal or absent altogether. The TPLF maintains control over the National Intelligence and Security Services, as well as the all-powerful federal police. A majority of recent key military appointments were from Meles’ home Tigray region, which has led some to speculate that Hailemariam’s appointment is a calculated political move by and for the TPLF, allowing them to maintain de facto political authority behind a cloak of ethnic pluralism.

Meles’ death exposes the dangers of a state built around one man, but he also leaves behind a formidable political machine. For Hailemariam the challenge is whether and how he can manage the machine. Members of competing elites may fight for control of this machine and ethnic movements on the periphery could be emboldened to exploit a perceived power vacuum. Eritrea might also sense an opportunity to destabilise its neighbour. The question is whether perceived economic development and prosperity will willingly be traded for political instability – even by those at loggerheads with the central state.


Ethiopia’s presence and capacity for global influence may well diminish. Meles courted Chinese largesse and trade and investment deals with other non-conventional donors such as Turkey, Brazil and India. He was an astute political game-player and realised that many more strategic issues could be used to assist western powers and, therefore, ensure their eventual quiescence when human rights abuses were carried out.

Ethiopia is a key strategic ally in counter-terrorism efforts by the US and its allies in the Horn. Meles opened Ethiopia’s doors to U.S. geostrategic interests, through positioning drones at Arba Minch in the south of the country, which enables greater U.S. geostrategic reach in and around Somalia, and providing proxy forces for the U.S.-backed invasion of southern Somalia in 2006.

Meles deftly negotiated the intricacies of regional diplomacy in the Horn, cultivating close ties with both Sudans. He championed regional economic integration and was deeply engaged in the Lamu-South Sudan-Ethiopia Transport project (LAPSSET) as well as several hydroelectric schemes under which Ethiopia sought to position itself as a regional energy exporter.


In spite of significant economic growth over the past decade and important gains in reducing poverty, Hailemariam inherits formidable economic challenges. These are dominated by the need to find secure livelihoods for a large and growing population and the acute vulnerability of its major economic sector – rainfed agriculture which is dominated by small plots that are leased by the government. Two thirds of the economy is controlled by government through nationalised and ‘para-statal’ enterprises, many of which fall under the control of TPLF figures.

The current picture is mixed: economic vibrancy is apparent in Addis Ababa and other major cities as construction booms and the consumption economy grows. Yet unemployment is rising – particularly in urban areas, inequality is widening and inflation has surged in recent years. Balancing the complex interrelations between transformations in agriculture, urbanisation, employment generation and maintaining a reasonable cost of living is the challenge facing the new Prime Minister.