By William Wallis, FT Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s prime minister and one of Africa’s more prominent leaders on the world stage, says he is preparing to step down and hopes to take with him a generation of government officials in office since the 1991 overthrow of Mengistu Haile Mariam.
Mr Meles, 54, gave no deadline for his departure, which would be unprecedented in Ethiopia and rare among African liberation leaders who have come to power at the barrel of a gun.
But he insisted in an interview that he would go willingly and said discussions on when and how had started within the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).
In theory, a leadership contest could take place at the EPRDF’s next congress in September, but those diplomats who take the Ethiopian premier at his word believe he is more likely to leave office after seeing the party through elections in a year’s time.
“My personal position is that I have had enough … I am arguing my case and the others are also arguing their case. I hope we will come up with some common understanding on the way forward that would not require me to resign from my party that I have fought for all my life,” Mr Meles said.
During 18 years in power Mr Meles has skilfully leveraged Ethiopia’s strategic position in the Horn of Africa, forging strong ties with successive administrations in the US, Britain and other European countries, while fending off criticism of his human rights record and resisting their efforts to use aid to influence economic policy.
He has also steadily strengthened commercial relations with China, which has project and other loans to Ethiopia worth more than $4bn (€2.9bn, £2.4bn), and has encouraged links between the EPRDF and China’s ruling Communist party.
Ethiopia’s economy has been expanding at official growth rates of above 10 per cent in recent years, evidence, Mr Meles argues, that the government’s interventionist policies are working.
He has hinted before that he is ready to step down, but this is the first time he has suggested publicly that he might enforce his will by leaving the guerrilla movement he joined in 1974 and for which he fought over 17 years. It was a necessary step, he said, to ensure that the EPRDF did not follow some of its peer groups in Africa by falling prey to cronyism and clinging to power for power’s sake.
“We are not talking about Meles only,” he said. “We are talking about the old generation. The party needs to have new leadership that does not have the experience of the armed struggle.” His comments are likely to stir opposition among some party peers.
Mr Meles has been consolidating his grip on the EPRDF and playing a dominant role in government since a split in 2000 over strategy in the border war with Eritrea. Many Ethiopians remain sceptical of his intentions, believing talk of a leadership change is a ruse ahead of elections.
The country is still recovering from the trauma of the last round in 2005, when the government relaxed restrictions on political parties in the run-up to polls and was then shocked by opposition gains. Nearly 200 people were killed and thousands arrested in demonstrations that followed claims by the opposition to have been robbed of victory.
Two former allies of Mr Meles said the EPRDF had learnt its lessons and aims to control the electoral process more carefully. It was also encouraging a new generation to join the party and seeking support from unemployed and younger Ethiopians, through micro-credit and social housing schemes, aware that inflation and persistent food shortages have raised social tensions.
The opposition has become more fragmented, with many opponents of the regime in exile and activists in Ethiopia subject to greater restrictions.
The government said last month it had uncovered a coup plot tied to exiled opposition leaders. Arrests followed, including retired and serving army officers.
Mr Meles said that some of those detained admitted planning to assassinate officials, including himself. But there had never been any danger that they would pull it off. “There are more professional terrorists around,” he said.