The passing of Meles Zenawi after a 21-year transformative reign leaves the people of Ethiopia in grief and the country at a crossroads

They mourned for two weeks; publicly and profusely, individually and collectively, at candlelit marches and street processions. The doctors mourned in laboratory coats, the nurses in white smock, the athletes in national colours in red trackpants and gold jackets with green sleeves, the Ministry of Communications wore black. People queued up on the street, waiting their turn to stand before the flag draped coffin of Meles Zenawi, erstwhile revolutionary, national hero, transitional president in 1991 and Prime Minister of Ethiopia for 17 years.

On August 20 this year, Meles died of an unidentified illness at a hospital in Belgium after a 21-year reign in which he transformed Ethiopia, a country once ravaged by famine and war, into one of Africa’s fastest growing economies, at the cost of centralising power and silencing dissenters.

The ascension of his deputy, Hailemariam Desalegn, marks the first peaceful transition of power in Ethiopia after Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown by a military coup in 1974. Yet, in the wake of Meles’s funeral on Sunday, there are concerns that the political system, and particularly the command economy he created, may not withstand the turbulence of his departure.

Most Ethiopians are too young to remember the military dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam, which was in turn replaced in 1991 by the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the rebel coalition headed by Meles. Nearly 65 per cent of the country is below the age of 24 and has no memory of a time prior to his reign. Those in search of the context of Meles’s rise may stare at hundreds of human skulls, bones, and bloodstained clothes, stacked on glass shelves in the Red Terror Martyrs’ Memorial Museum at the central intersection of Jomo Kenyatta Street and Africa Avenue in Addis Ababa.

“Seven hundred and forty-six mass graves were found around Addis alone,” said Getachew Haile, the museum curator, describing the terror of the Mengistu era, “People were shot in the streets and their families were forced to pay for the bullets.” The museum, a historian pointed out, is a vital part of the narrative upholding the legitimacy of Meles’s years in power — a perspective Mr. Getachew doesn’t deny. “Our people must know that this peace has come due to payment in blood.”

Economic assistance

Local journalists and businessmen, and foreign diplomats, said that the peace bought by blood was invested in years of out-sized economic growth fuelled by foreign direct investment — particularly Indian and Saudi — economic assistance from western donors and soft loans from China. Lured by the offer of land for agricultural projects and other incentives, many Indian companies have set up shop here.

A year after Meles took power, the Ethiopian economy contracted nine per cent. In the following decade, the economy fluctuated wildly before stabilising at the turn of the century. The last contraction was in 2003; since then World Bank and International Monetary Fund figures suggest that the economy posted double-digit growth for five years before slowing down to about seven per cent in 2011.

This explosive growth has come at a cost with Ethiopia averaging inflation rates reminiscent of Zimbabwe. In July 2008, inflation peaked at 64 per cent, food inflation was 41 per cent as recently as four months ago and the price of meat has increased 69 per cent year on year. The cost of food, and the lack of jobs — 85 per cent of the population are farmers, and urban unemployment is at 18 per cent — are frequent topics of conversation in Addis’s coffee shops, street corners and public transport.

In 2011, the government unveiled the “Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP),” an ambitious five year road map to build roads, infrastructure and hydropower and provide assistance to export-oriented industries like sugar, leather and commercial agriculture. The day after Meles’s death, Minister for Communication Bereket Simon foregrounded the importance of the GTP, saying, “There will be no fundamental change in policy except an enhancement in the GTP.”

Yet, the investment for these projects has been harder to find. While the government has a planned expenditure of 15 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), public sector spending accounts for another 16 per cent, effectively locking up a third of the domestic production and depriving the private sector of credit and markets. In 2011, the National Bank of Ethiopia directed private banks to purchase government bonds worth 27 per cent of their lendable capital to finance construction projects like the Renaissance hydroelectric power project on the Nile. A macroeconomic report by private consultancy Access Capital suggests that many private banks are actually holding far more government debt.

Yet, by all accounts, Meles had the uncanny ability to get international donors, suppliers and his own fellow Ethiopians to support his plans. “I bought government bonds worth 10,000 Birr ($555) for the Nile dam,” said Dawit Derwe, a taxi driver in Addis Ababa. Mr. Dawit, who had also bought a T-shirt emblazoned with Meles’s photograph, said he hoped to buy government bonds every year because he wanted to help build his country.

“The GTP has provided us with a clear way to measure the government’s performance,” said Girma Seifu, the sole opposition delegate in Ethiopia’s 547-member Parliament, where the ruling EPRDF has a 99.6 per cent majority.

Mr. Girma entered politics in 2004, a year before a watershed election in which, he alleged, the EPRDF defeated the opposition using the state police force. In the 2010 elections, he was one of two non-EPRDF delegates to win a seat, the other was a former EPRDF delegate who ran on an independent, but pro-government platform. “Mr. Meles has ruled for 21 years,” said Mr. Girma. “On the way he implemented many things, he will be judged by history.”

The article has been corrected for an error.


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