The reported ill health of Ethiopia’s big man is jangling the nerves
MELES ZENAWI, Ethiopia’s usually dynamic prime minister, has not been seen in public since mid-June. Regularly invited to grand gatherings such as those of the G8 and G20, he has often been deemed “the voice of Africa”. But he was notably absent earlier this month from a summit of the African Union in his own capital, Addis Ababa. His government added to the uncertainty by first denying that he was critically ill in a hospital in Belgium, then announcing that he was away on sick leave. When a weekly newspaper was about to publish an article on his health, the authorities stopped the presses.
What if Mr Meles goes for good? After 21 years at the helm, his sudden incapacity has forced the succession issue trickily into the open. For the moment it is not even clear whether his deputy, Hailemariam Desalegn, who is also foreign minister, is temporarily in charge. A former defence minister, Seeye Abraha, now a critic, says that Mr Meles, his college classmate, has created a system that is dangerously reliant on him. “He will be leaving very big boots that cannot be filled by anyone else.”
A graduate of Britain’s Open University, Mr Meles has been known for his wide reading, relatively austere habits, and the success of his development policy. Under his remit Ethiopia, one of the world’s poorest countries, has become a donor darling. Nearly $4 billion of aid pours in every year—most of it to good effect.
But he has also been criticised for the increasing harshness of his politics and for his vaunted experiment in “authoritarian development”. His government has accepted foreign aid, but he has ignored pleas to respect democracy and human rights, citing China as his model. Mr Meles has gambled that donors are keener to see good results from their money than to require proof of democratic behaviour. And the West has been grateful for Ethiopia’s service as a regional policeman in a turbulent neighbourhood. Mr Meles has let the Americans fire drones from Ethiopia. He has also sent his own troops into Sudan and against jihadists in Somalia.