El Cid rides again? The death of Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi

The death of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was announced this morning, following complications arising after a long illness. Yet for weeks now, rumours have been flying around the internet that Zenawi had died in an overseas hospital, and that this news was kept quiet whilst the fierce succession battle took place. Whether true or not (and it would certainly not be the only time in recent months that the death of an African leader had been kept quiet until the struggle for succession had been won), the political elite in Ethiopia has almost certainly been seeking how to ensure a smooth transition since Zenawi’s last public appearance in mid-June.

There are a number of interesting questions that emerge from this, for Ethiopia itself, for the international community, and for watchers of African politics and leadership more widely.

  1. Will the succession prove to be smooth and stable? The constitution says parliament should choose the successor. But does anyone really expect the weakened institution to be given that authority? The struggle has likely already taken place and parliament will be asked to confirm that decision. If it hasn’t, this opens up real concerns over stability whilst a succession battle takes place. Ethiopian growth may still be relatively strong, but it is suffering from high inflation. For most Ethiopians, high inflation is a worse curse than lower economic growth, and this could foster social tensions. Tensions are growing between the country’s Muslim population (around one-third of the population) and state authorities following a crackdown on Muslim protestors over the summer. Could this provoke wider ethnic and religious tensions across the country? How will the new prime minister deal with such tensions? Will there be an opening up of the political space to the opposition following the transition? Probably not. For there is not likely to be much real pressure by external powers to address the democratic deficit with stability being seen as the main priority.
  2. The political elite in Ethiopia is not the only group with a vested interest in an orderly succession. The international community has largely ignored, or downplayed, the government’s poor governance record due to Zenawi’s clever positioning of his government as a major backer of the war against radical Islamic violent movements (much as Museveni has done in Uganda, which also successfully steered attention away from his own governance record). Ethiopia’s deep engagement in neighbouring Somalia means the global north will be determined the new government retains its commitment to this effort, and as a result will be far less concerned about the democratic credentials of the transition or the new leader
  3. Finally, are we seeing the emergence of an El Cid policy in African politics? Only four months ago, the death of Malawian president Bingu wa Mutharika was delayed for several days as the succession battle played out in private. Only once his widow, Joyce Mutharika, was confirmed in place was the news officially announced. After months of rumours of his death, former Nigerian president Yar-‘Adua spoke by phone to the BBC to show he was still alive (although he could not convince that he was still in effective power). Africa is not alone in this, of course (official silence over the health of several Latin American leaders springs to mind). But whilst leaders cling as much power to themselves as possible, and seek to ensure no clear successor emerges who might challenge them whilst they are still in power, El Cid will continue to ride.

About Mike Jennings

I am Reader in International Development and Head of the Department of Development Studies at the SOAS, University of London. I research, teach and write on Africa, and the history and politics of international development in sub-Saharan Africa. Research areas include: - The history of development in Africa, from the late nineteenth century to the current day - Politics of East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda) - the role of non-state providers (NGOs, FBOs and self-help groups) in welfare service provision - Social aspects of health, including HIV and AIDS, and malaria
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2 Responses to El Cid rides again? The death of Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi

  1. Johan Wandall says:

    Excellent analysis. I would like to draw the attention to two aspects of human rights and the development in Ethiopia since 2005. Firstly, during the period of Meles Zenawi millions of ethiopians have been lifted from famine and poverty. He transformed Ethiopia from a society marked by repeated famine and “red terror”. True, this has not been evenly distributed throughout Ethiopia. A human right frequently forgotten, the right not to be hungry, have been diminished in Ethiopia. It may still exist on a regional level but not the catastrophic famines occurring before 2004.
    Secondly, the regime of Meles Zenawi introduce a constitution in 1995 with a number of democratic rights. Human rights did not become an issue before the election in 2005. A statement by the EU representatives referring to the that electoral process may have been pivotal for the social unrest following the election. The Statement by the EU was later retracted. Comments by european or other international institution should be made with caution and not in the heat of the moment.

  2. Pingback: West confuses stability and dictatorship | The Rising Continent

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