Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s prime minister for the past 20 years died of an illness at the age of 57. Had he survived, he might have been prime minister for another 20 years. Meles was a technocrat with authoritarian tendencies. He was never going to face serious international pressure to step down so long as: 1) he remained a key ally of the United States; 2) He kept up astronomical levels of economic growth  — 11% annually between 2004 and 2011, to be exact.

Still, he had a dark side. Ethiopia is theoretically a democracy. But in practice it is a one-party state. In 2005, the first serious democratic political challenge to Meles was crushed quite brutally. Nearly 200 people were shot dead in a protest, and the space for dissent has be closed even further since then. Most worrisome is the increasing use of anti-terrorism laws since 2009 to crack down on journalists. The conviction and 18 year sentence handed down to journalist Eskander Nega has become something of an international rallying cry. 

Now that Meles is gone will the civic space start to open up?  “I suspect it may on the margins but the change is not likely to be dramatic,” says David Shinn who served as American Ambassador to Ethiopia from 1996 to 1999 and is an adjunct professor at George Washington University. “There have been three significant changes of government since the time of Haile Selassie and each of those governments were authoritarian. You are dealing with a cultural situation that militates against any dramatic change.”

An important inflection point in this process will be 2015 elections, which had been long scheduled (and for which Meles said he would not run.) The degree of openness in this election will be a key test of the post-Meles political landscape.  To that end, international donors–particularly the USA– have an important role to play.

Ethiopia is Africa’s single largest recipient of foreign aid–and the United States is the single largest donor to Ethiopia. Excluding military and counter terrorism assistance, the USA  gave $866 million to Ethiopia. This is more than the next four largest donors (the UK, Canada, Germany, and Japan) combined.

“There is great opportunity for donors to use this window to push the central power figures to consider how to not just move forward on economic progress, but reverse the centralization of authority and political repression that we’ve seen,” says Human Rights Watch Deputy Washington Director Sarah Margon. ”There is a great opportunity to change the status quo.”

Let’s hope the international community is wise enough to sieze this opportunity and help nudge Ethiopian politics away from its authoritarian tendencies.

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