Ethiopia’s ruling party wants Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to remain its leader for another five years, making it likely the former rebel will run the Horn of Africa nation for some time to come.
“We have made a decision about all our frontline leaders, not just Prime Minister Meles Zenawi,” Muktar Kedir, chief of headquarters for the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), told Reuters.
“They will all resign within five years. We will consider his request again then,” he said after the EPRDF’s annual congress this week.
Speculation has surrounded Meles’ intentions since he began talking about resigning in 2008. But Meles has always insisted he needed permission from his party to step aside.
Opposition politicians say the Prime Minister’s statements were a ploy to make him appear more democratic and he never planned to step down before national elections in May 2010.
Analysts say the EPRDF will easily win the elections, allowing Meles to rule for another five years if he wants to.
The 54-year-old took power in 1991 after rebels led by him and others overthrew a communist regime that many Ethiopians blamed for causing the 1984-85 famine that brought the desperately poor country to world attention.
Opposition parties say the EPRDF is set to remain in power because their politicians are regularly intimidated and jailed.
Ethiopia’s last polls in 2005 were touted internationally as the country’s first truly democratic elections, but they ended in violence when the government declared victory and the opposition said the result was fixed.
Police and soldiers killed about 200 people who had taken to the streets. Meles accused the protesters of trying to topple the government and more than 100 opposition leaders, journalists and aid workers were then imprisoned.
They were released in a 2007 pardon deal but rights groups say the government is cracking down on dissent again. One party leader is in jail and a group of former military officers have been convicted of plotting to oust Meles.
“The opposition knew he would never resign,” Bulcha Demeksa leader of the Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement, one of Ethiopia’s biggest opposition parties, told Reuters.
“It will be another five years of tribulation now. Saying his party won’t allow him to go is just a lame excuse.”
Diplomats in the capital Addis Ababa said while the EPRDF had decided Meles should continue as party leader, there was nothing to stop him resigning as prime minister at some point during another EPRDF term in office.
“There’s still a strong possibility Meles will lead the EPRDF to victory in 2010 and then step down maybe one to two years after that and hand the reins to a party loyalist,” said a western diplomat who did not want to be named.
If he does go, analysts disagree about his legacy.
The Meles government has cultivated good relations with the West, introduced a safety-net system for millions of hungry people which should ensure the 1980s famine is never repeated, and reduced infant mortality and poverty rates.
Meles has also become something of a spokesperson for Africa, representing the world’s poorest continent at the latest G8 and G20 summits of rich nations. He is again due to speak for Africans at December’s Copenhagen climate change summit.
But the 2005 election, jailing of opposition leaders and the vicious military campaign against an ethnically Somali rebel group, have tarnished his image and turned many Ethiopians against him.
Pic: Meles Zenawi- Prime Minister of Ethiopia