This essay was originally penned soon after the passing of former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. The conclusions and implications part is posted for the second time as it still hints on issues of broader relevance to the state and trajectories of Ethiopian politics. Though this type of prognosis has always been a hit-and-miss affair, given what is happening now the correlation between actual and predicted developments was almost precise. It led to venomous outbreaks from both the anti and pro-EPRDF camps. Most of the attacks came from a group of broken analysts, or blinking newcomers, the Mesay Kebede’s of this world. In retrospect, it seems likely that their objections were motivated less by academic or ideological reflections and more by ethnic considerations.


At his best, Meles inserted the rudiments of the developmental state in Ethiopia, but at his worst he made it intimidating and suffocating. It is the latter that should draw the attention of Ethiopia’s emerging leaders as the most urgent problem that need to be fixed. It is time for the country to move beyond its authoritarian past and build a democracy that matches the democratic aspirations of its people and supports its development.


The sudden death of former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi will have wide-ranging implications.

1) It will change the nature of political power in Ethiopia, by extension the stability of the regime:

· Power and decision making at the top EPRDF leadership will go back to a kind of amorphous and unstructured circuit. The emergence of a heavy-duty leader (armed with both expertise and coercive power) will be a challenge. This will have profound implications on the unity and strength of the EPRDF as it is regulated by control than representation.

· After demolishing collective leadership Meles had succeeded in establishing autonomous power within the party. It is a challenge to fill the void left by him nor easy to resuscitate the processes and institutions that led to the emergence of rudimentary forms of collective leadership in the TPLF in the first place. And most of all, fissures that Meles’s peculiar position managed to paper over will start to come into the open now.

2) It will raise the balance of power within the ruling party to a critical level.

· The balance of power within the EPRDF and among its member parties will change: power relations will be based more on representation than control. No group will be able to cut a deal on matters of national interest without having the full support and approval of the other parties.

· This will lead to the elevation in status and influence of the remaining three members of the EPRDF,particularly ANDM and OPDO, which makes them at par with the TPLF which had a dominant position up to now. If the split with in the TPLF in 2001 was the beginning of the end of TPLF’s hegemony in Ethiopia, the death of Meles brings the front one step closer to losing its most important political leverage to date. The decline of the TPLF is thus in full swing.

3) It could alter civil-military relations

· Evidently the preponderance of the political and civilian leadership over the military will essentially diminish.

· Meles was conscious that politics should lead the AK 47 and was apprehensive about it. The TPLF had achieved this equation quite early prominently after 1977. With the loss of strong and collective leadership and his own departure security institutions, particularly the military will gain unfettered access to resources and state power.

· Ambitions aside one cannot expect the military to reach the level of a deep state but its influence in politics and the economy will definitely increase. The political leadership and the party could easily come under the influence of the military.

4) Might impact on center-periphery relations

· The absence of Meles at the Center will gradually enhance the power and influence of the regions to negotiate and interact with the Federal government. Unless handled carefully this could lead to the progressive fragmentation of the political and security landscape.

5) It will lead to plurality in Ethiopian politics.

· Ethiopia will no longer be a one man rule, but will become more pluralistic. The chances for the personification of the state are minimal.

· The EPRDF will not have a strong leader, or dominant figure in the years to come; let alone that it is difficult for someone from the remaining leaders to emerge as ‘first among equals’.

· And given the effective merger of first the TPLF, and recently the Meles core, with the Center, both face a crisis of legitimacy.

· Meles had a disproportionate power in the Ethiopian state that cannot be fully controlled and managed by anyone else. This means, among other things, that his successors will have a smaller political base from which to operate than they themselves have anticipated, and a weaker political machine.

· For the time being the political system will operate through difficult negotiations and deal making in which the military and security nexus exert a significant influence in defining power relations. It is not yet possible that they will capture the state but until the party regains new vitality, which is very unlikely, security institutions will likely remain stronger than the political leadership.

· There is no short term fear of uncertainty, but if some key political reforms are not introduced the current system will have difficulty ensuring a stable political order. Political and governance reforms have been long coming. This must have happened while Meles was in power.

· Ethiopia’s economy is expected to grow in the coming years but in order to sustain the trend there is an urgent need for a new political covenant involving all elite groups representing the dominant narratives of statehood in the country.

· Ethiopia’s regional policy will remain unchanged but its influence will be greatly affected. Weakness at the Centre will inevitably demobilize Ethiopia’s foreign and security policy and attendant mechanisms at the regional level. Ethiopia is a status quo power and will remain as such albeit in a much weaker form.

Key Issues:

The modalities of the developmental state need to be redefined. Economic transformation should not be matched by political degradation; it is neither useful nor sustainable.

There is a need for political reforms both to meet the democratic aspirations of the Ethiopian people, achieve political stability as well as the revitalization of the much needed developmental state model[ix]

Ethiopia’s economic development need to be anchored in a strong political process, a prerequisite for long term stability. If the current trend persists, it is extremely worrisome development for the health, perhaps the viability, of the Ethiopian state.

Political reform must include appropriate constitutional reform, such as the articles related to the power of the Prime Minister as well as the governance of the security sector i.e. security sector reform/SSR/

The death of a strong leader like Meles should lead to concentrate minds in the ruling party, particularly the TPLF. To ensure its relevance and secure a positive political legacy and a respected place in the history of the country, it is in the interest of the TPLF to push for the democratization of the state.

The link to the full article is provided here.Meles Zenawi and the Ethiopian State

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