DURING his two decades running Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi almost single-handedly engineered its rise from lost cause to model pupil. Even his enemies admit he was both popular and competent. Often working around the clock, he could make complex policy choices and then explain them to ordinary people. He planned meticulously for everything—from road building to oppressing the opposition—except, that is, for his own demise.
It came six months ago on August 20th, following illness at the age of 57, and left the state reeling. Meles, as he is known, had grabbed so much power that many feared his death would spark political chaos and an economic downturn. He alone had the trust of the soldiers, the financiers, the Ethiopian people and the West.
But the transition to a new prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, has gone smoothly. The streets of Addis Ababa, the capital, have seen no unrest and the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) suffered no defections. A few audible grumbles were swiftly silenced. Rioting Muslims were beaten back. A minister was fired as were four regional officials in events that may or may not be related to the leadership change. Jockeying among the elite has been kept behind firmly closed doors. In public it espouses business as usual.
Instead of chaos, an eerie calm now hangs over the country. The old guard that once surrounded Meles, who hailed from the northern region of Tigray, remains in power. Winners of a 1980s civil war that toppled the dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, the Tigrayans have held on to top security jobs. Meles’s widow, Azeb Mesfin, who for a few months refused to move out of the prime ministerial palace, still controls a state-affiliated conglomerate, EFFORT. The number of Tigrayans in the cabinet has shrunk but key posts remain in the hands of ageing loyalists, many of whom fought alongside Meles. Talk of “generational change” over the past few years was seemingly a charade.
One of the few exceptions is the relatively young prime minister, Mr Desalegn. The 47-year-old is an articulate and experienced administrator as well as a former water engineer who studied in Finland. But he lacks his predecessor’s charisma and shrewd policy instincts. Though a former deputy prime minister (and former foreign minister) he is not an insider. He is a Protestant in a predominantly Orthodox Christian nation (his first name means “the power of Mary”). He is also an ethnic Wolaytan in a government dominated by Tigrayans. Meles, his mentor, may have chosen him for that reason, either to weaken ethnic divisions or perhaps to guarantee that ultimate power remains with his northern brothers-in-arms. >> Read More on The Economist