Will Ethiopia’s PM step down?

Meles ZenawiBarry Malone Africa Blog – Reuters

They say that the foundation of a good retirement is planning. By that measure, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi should have his rest period well laid out. The rebel-turned-leader has been saying he wants to step aside for almost two years now.

But after 18 years at the helm of one of the world’s poorest countries the 54-year-old is still in power and says he is trapped by the wishes of his ruling party. They will discuss his desire to retire at an executive committee meeting next month and a September congress would give him the opportunity to ask the party for his twilight years.

Some analysts say his repeated hope for freedom – with the condition of party acceptance – is a ruse to make Meles appear more democratic than he is, while others say he feels he has taken the country as far as he can and covets a high-profile international position in the United Nations or the African Union.

The problem is that many in the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) do not want to see their internationally recognisable leader go and may question his loyalty in an attempt to keep him in the driving seat as Ethiopia heads into an uncertain political and economic landscape ahead of its June 2010 national elections.

The father of two – who has a fascination with economics and represented Africa at the G20 summit – has presided over years of double-digit growth for the desperately poor country but has watched the global recession undo much of that progress.

And analysts and diplomats are divided on how next year’s elections will turn out.

A 2005 poll, touted as Ethiopia’s first truly democratic elections, ended in brutality when the government declared victory and the opposition said the result was fixed.

Police and soldiers then killed about 200 opposition protesters who had taken to the streets after Meles said they were attempting to topple the government.

Opposition leaders were jailed after Meles blamed them for orchestrating that violence and have made little impact since their release in a 2007 pardon deal. They say that is because of government harassment but the government denies that.

Ethiopians go to the polls again in June 2010 and analysts are divided on the question of whether the elections will pass off peacefully and without accusations of rigging.

And the straight-talking leader, hailed as a new hope for Africa when he overthrew a communist regime in 1991, has become a focus for rights groups who say he is cracking down on dissent again. One opposition leader has been jailed and 32 of former and serving military officers have been charged with plotting a coup.

The fact that the leader’s human rights record is questionable frustrates many Addis Ababa-based foreign diplomats who had admired Ethiopia’s economic development and poverty reduction schemes before the financial crisis started to unravel the good work.

With the opposition weakened it seems that a successor for Meles is likely to come from within his own party. EPRDF members have told me that Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin, Health Minister Tewodros Adhanom and Trade Minister Girma Birru are the most likely successors.

Should Meles step down, analysts and potential investors will closely watch his successor to see whether opposition parties are given more freedom or whether the EPRDF becomes more authoritarian so it can hold on to power beyond 20 years.

So does Meles really want to step down? Will his party let him? What will his legacy be? And what will become of Africa’s second most populous nation if he resigns?