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Big Tent: Ethiopia's Authoritarian Balancing Act

Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2014

When Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s leader of more than 20 years, died in August 2012, many anticipated significant and potentially destabilizing change. Past political transitions in Addis Ababa had been violent and settled at the barrel of the gun, so the precedents were worrisome. Meles’ eulogies emphasized his individual brilliance and his personal role in bringing development to the modern Ethiopian state. What would happen with the strongman gone? Could the strong and effective authoritarian developmental party-state engineered under Meles’ leadership sustain itself without him?

Instead of instability, the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) quickly moved Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn into the leadership spot without public drama or fuss. Meles’ Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP) remains the party’s guiding policy document, and key initiatives such as the Grand Renaissance Dam are moving forward steadily. Ethiopia was never a one-man dictatorship, but was characterized by a strong authoritarian ruling party with deep links among the security forces, regional administrations, mass organizations and party-affiliated enterprises. The EPRDF is key to understanding Ethiopia’s stability and the regime’s ability to remain in control of a diverse country of some 90 million, divided into a complex set of ethnic groups, in a poor region that suffers terrible levels of conflict. ...

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