By Barry Malone – ADDIS ABABA, June 23 (Reuters) – When Ethiopia’s rebel-turned-leader Meles Zenawi emerged from the bush to take power in 1991, he sat for a long-distance learning degree to feel more qualified to run Africa’s second most populous nation.
Despite studying while running a vast country of 80 ethnicities emerging from 17 years of communist rule, Meles came a remarkable third in his graduating class.
Some Ethiopians say he has gone on learning ever since and consider him the sharpest of Africa’s leaders. But for others, he is a prime minister who never learned to rule effectively, failed to deliver full democracy and trampled people’s rights.
Now, the 54-year-old leader regularly says he wants to quit, with the blessing of his ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) party.
With the party due to discuss that at a meeting of its executive committee next month, and the next EPRDF congress scheduled for September, 18 years of often tough political learning for Meles may be nearing the final chapter.
A change could, however, be delayed until after 2010 elections, analysts say, and successors would come from senior government figures likely to continue Meles’ economic policies, rather than from a weakened opposition.
“I think he genuinely feels the time is right to step down and let someone else guide the country to full democracy,” an EPRDF insider said. “He is thinking about his legacy and I think he realises he personally has taken things as far as he can.”
Analysts, diplomats and Ethiopian politicians disagree about what that legacy will be, and how an Ethiopia without the internationally high-profile Meles at the helm might look.
The Meles government has cultivated good relations with the West, introduced a safety-net system for millions of hungry people which should ensure the ruinous famine of 1984/85 is never repeated, and reduced infant mortality and poverty rates in one of the world’s poorest countries.
A new, albeit small, middle class has emerged.
But the 2005 elections, touted as Ethiopia’s first truly democratic poll, 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.
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.
Rights groups have accused Meles of cracking down on the opposition again. One opposition leader has been jailed and a group of former and serving military officers have been charged with plotting to overthrow the government.
The unrest has come as the Ethiopian economy is suffering the impact of the global recession and analysts question who can replace Meles at such a delicate time.
The country’s economy had been developing at a rate of more than 10 percent in recent years and Meles — who represented Africa at the G20 summit of rich nations — was widely credited with using his economic know-how to achieve that.
Investors interested in agriculture and gas and oil exploration were beginning to move in — many of them from China and India — and commodity exports were growing.
But the country has seen demand for its agricultural exports plummet, inflation soar, and power cuts ravage business and fuel a crippling foreign currency shortage.
Opposition leaders were jailed after Meles blamed them for orchestrating the 2005 violence and have made little impact since their release in a 2007 pardon deal. They say that is because of government harassment but Meles denies that.
“It is unlikely that anyone from the opposition will come to power after Meles,” Kjetil Tronvoll, an Ethiopia expert from the International Law and Policy Group think-tank, told Reuters.
“We will see a transition period with another EPRDF leader, and then a possible withering of EPRDF before a new party constellation may take power down the road.”
Though there has been speculation Meles could leave at the next EPRDF congress in September, most diplomats say a more likely scenario is that he will guide the party to victory in 2010, then seek support for his resignation at its September 2010 national congress.
Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin, Health Minister Tewodros Adhanom and Trade Minister Girma Birru are all possible successors, party members told Reuters.
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 holds on to power in authoritarian fashion.
“There was a bad bump in 2005,” an Addis Ababa-based diplomat, who did not want to be named, told Reuters.
“But if Meles can put Ethiopia back on the path towards democratisation in 2010 he’ll leave the country in a better position than he found it.” (Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)