SCENARIOS – What next for Ethiopia’s leadership?

Meles Zenawi
Meles Zenawi

ADDIS ABABA, July 2 (Reuters) – Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi wants to step down after 18 years running sub-Saharan Africa’s second most populous country. [NLN889141]

But Meles says he is “bored” of questions about this, and will only repeat he needs the permission of his ruling party before he can leave. [NL071549]

So when might he go? And what will happen if he does?

Here are some possible scenarios:

MELES GOES AT SEPTEMBER PARTY CONGRESS?

* Unlikely. The 54-year-old needs the permission of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) party’s annual September congress before he can move aside. But it is doubtful he will ask for its blessing this year, analysts say. And, even if he did, they probably would not accept it a year before Ethiopia has its next national election due in June 2010.

OPPOSITION WIN 2010 ELECTIONS, MELES LOSES POWER?

* This would be a shock. The 2005 elections — touted as Ethiopia’s first truly democratic poll — ended in violence when Meles claimed victory, the opposition shouted fraud and about 200 protestors were killed by police and soldiers. Meles said they were trying to march on state buildings and topple him.

* More than 100 opposition leaders, journalists and aid workers were jailed after the government blamed them for orchestrating the violence. Despite the prisoners’ release in a 2007 pardon deal, the opposition has remained weak ever since.

* They say that is because the government harasses them. Meles denies that and says the opposition criticises the government to ruin its image and provoke the rich world into cutting the aid on which the desperately poor country relies.

* Whatever the truth, the EPRDF is likely to win a big victory in the 2010 election, analysts say. This would mean a continuation of economic policies that brought increased growth through foreign investment and commodity exports before the global recession undid much of that progress. A ruling party triumph would probably please Western powers and investors who are used to doing business with Meles and his ministers.

* If the opposition wins, the future will be uncertain for one of Africa’s biggest potential markets. With no obvious alternative prime minister, potential investors might play wait-and-see. Foreign powers and international lenders like the IMF and the World Bank would jostle for policy influence.

MELES WINS IN 2010, OPPOSITION CRY FOUL?

* There are fears of a repeat of violence if Meles wins the next election and the opposition protest again. But any allegations of fraud in 2010 would be harder to believe than last time, analysts say. If the opposition parties go into the election as weak as they are now, they may find it difficult to convince Ethiopians and the world to support their claims.

* If the opposition was to strengthen before 2010 and credibly claim fraud, people would listen. After the violence of 2005, some countries withdrew aid. But — worried about hurting some of the world’s most vulnerable people — they quickly reinstated it. Ethiopia is the key U.S. ally in the volatile Horn of Africa region and sent troops into neighbouring Somalia in 2006 to oust an Islamist group who controlled the country.

* But despite Ethiopia’s close relations with the West, allegations of fraud or violence would be more difficult for the international community to take a second time and the country could see its aid slashed, plunging it deeper into poverty.

EPRDF WINS ELECTION, NO VIOLENCE, MELES RESIGNS?

* This is the most likely scenario. The weakened opposition will not be a serious threat at the next polls, most people believe. Meles will probably resign within two years and be replaced by a party loyalist who will continue his domestic, economic and foreign policies. [nLN12239]

* Stepping down mid-term would raise interesting questions. The EPRDF is made up of four parties, each representing one of Ethiopia’s biggest ethnicities. The Tigryan ethnic group — of which Meles is a member — make up only 6 percent of the population but dominate the country’s political and military establishment. With Meles gone, the ethnic Amharas — who have traditionally made up the Ethiopian elite — will argue one of their party members should take over. The country’s most populous ethnic group, the Oromos, who have never held power, will offer a compromise candidate.

* Bearing this ethnic tension in mind, the most important task for whoever takes over will be maintaining party unity. If the ruling party broke up, Ethiopia’s future would become uncertain and investors and the international community may worry.

MELES SERVES ANOTHER 5-YEAR TERM, RUNS AGAIN?

* Some Ethiopians are claiming Meles saying he wants to resign is a ruse to make him appear more democratic than he is. If he vacates the top chair, he would be the first Ethiopian leader in modern history not to have been violently overthrown.

* But most analysts say the much-repeated intention is probably genuine. Meles is unlikely to serve another five years and even less likely to ever run again beyond that. If he were to continue indefinitely, opposition would grow and some may seek to overthrow the EPRDF.

A group of 32 mostly former and serving military officers are on trial in Addis Ababa accused of attempting to oust Meles.

* If he gives up power soon, analysts say he will leave a legacy of economic progress and improved relations with the West, marred by accusations of human rights abuses.