The death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in August 2012 marked the end of an era in contemporary Ethiopian politics. After defeating the brutal Derg regime in 1991, Meles headed the powerful ruling party that led the country of more than 80 million through a massive transformation. But it is a mistake to think of his tenure as a period of one-man rule or his death as creating either a political vacuum or an opportunity for liberal reform, as power, authority and resources never rested in Meles’ hands alone.
Meles’ Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) created an Ethiopia based around ethnically defined regions and political parties, state control over land and other key economic assets and a strong authoritarian political party. Meles’ aim was to create a developmental state through revolutionary democracy, a project that more closely resembled the Chinese model than Western notions of liberalism. Levels of economic growth have been high and the expansion of health care impressive. At the same time, however, Ethiopia has effectively criminalized dissent and made it virtually impossible for civil society organizations to engage in human rights monitoring or democratization initiatives.
Many reflections on Meles’ leadership have pointed to his personal qualities and his complicated and often quite contentious legacies. U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice gave a laudatory speech at his funeral, calling him “an uncommon leader, a rare visionary and a true friend to me and many.” But Meles left behind a larger set of interlinked interests that include key figures in each of the ethnic parties that make up the EPRDF coalition; powerful economic institutions and mass organizations controlled by leading members of the ruling party; and, most importantly, the large and disciplined military and security services. This old order remains fundamentally in place even after Meles’ passing. While formal authority has shifted to Hailemariam Dessalegn, a former deputy prime minister who has now ascended to the top post, it is clear that power remains embedded within this network of party, economic and military institutions, at least for now.