The first shift saw Meles emerge as the unchallenged supremo, moving quickly to clip the wings of the few leaders who seemed to be acquiring a solid political base. He promoted only those whose loyalty he considered unshakeable, whose positions depended entirely on his goodwill, people like Hailemariam Dessalegn. Radiating outwards from a first circle of “advisers”, almost all Tigrayan, all the lines of real power penetrated down to the base of the State apparatus, whether federal or regional, to the Party and to whole sectors of the economy.
Although the government reflected the country’s ethnic diversity, most ministers had authority only in name. Parliament, as it had since 1991, remained a rubberstamp chamber. No institution was able to escape this dominance and achieve autonomy. Moreover, this personal power was also intellectual. The one politically correct doctrine (“revolutionary democracy” and the “developmental state”) was devised and imposed on the country by Meles and Meles alone. This monopoly prevented the emergence of any other body of ideas and, inevitably, of any alternative line of thinking.
The army and security services were represented within this central authority, which held sway over them. Later, although Meles Zenawi maintained a grip on the security forces, the army gradually became “bunkerized”, a sort of state within the State. Meles himself had to acknowledge the autonomy of the military command, by agreeing a kind of pact: I will grant you substantial autonomy, and in particular turn a blind eye to your wheeling and dealing; you support me, especially since if I fall, you fall with me. Hence, no doubt, the remarked upon reticence of the army during the recent period of succession, as if it felt so powerful that its fortress would remain impregnable, away from the turbulent currents within the new governing team. Hence, also, the procedure followed in announcing, on September 12, the appointment of 37 new generals – including at least 23 from Tigray – a reminder that no one, not even Hailamariam Dessalegn, can interfere in the affairs of the military.
The third change concerned the TPLF and, concomitantly, the EPRDF. It was contradictory. On the one hand, the tentacles of the single party penetrate to every level of the administration: it has consumed the State from the inside. Its agenda takes absolute precedence. The TPLF holds the key positions in the nationalised companies and the web of “private” firms that in reality it controls, the so-called “parastatal companies”. Overall, this structure accounts for two thirds of the modern economy, excluding traditional agriculture. With its 5 million members – 300,000 in 2001 – the Party controls and directs the population as never before, right down to the smallest echelon of five or six households. On the other hand, the Party has been marginalised as a political institution and therefore left lifeless, if not brainless. The TPLF, not to mention the three other satellite parties, were reduced to mere instruments for the exercise of Meles’ personal power, an essential institution but nevertheless no more than an instrument.
This extreme concentration of multifarious powers in the hands of Meles Zenawi is one of the darkest aspects of his legacy: his death leaves a profound and multifaceted vacuum. Conversely, however, it also opens up an exceptional opportunity for change. First, politics and power, like nature, abhor a vacuum. Second, the Meles “model” is running out of steam. It will inevitably have to be refashioned.