[DEHAI] (FT) Ethiopian premier ready to stand down

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From: Merhawie (merhawie@gmail.com)
Date: Tue Jun 23 2009 - 22:53:44 EDT

Ethiopian premier ready to stand down

By William Wallis

Published: June 22 2009 18:16 | Last updated: June 22 2009 18:16

Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s prime minister and one of Africa’s more prominent
leaders on the world stage, says he is preparing to step down and hopes to
take with him a generation of government officials in office since the 1991
overthrow of Mengistu Haile Mariam.

Mr Meles, 54, gave no deadline for his departure, which would be
unprecedented in Ethiopia and rare among African liberation leaders who have
come to power at the barrel of a gun.

But he insisted in an interview that he would go willingly and said
discussions on when and how had started within the ruling Ethiopian People’s
Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).

In theory, a leadership contest could take place at the EPRDF’s next
congress in September, but those diplomats who take the Ethiopian premier at
his word believe he is more likely to leave office after seeing the party
through elections in a year’s time.

“My personal position is that I have had enough ... I am arguing my case and
the others are also arguing their case. I hope we will come up with some
common understanding on the way forward that would not require me to resign
from my party that I have fought for all my life,” Mr Meles said.

During 18 years in power Mr Meles has skilfully leveraged Ethiopia’s
strategic position in the Horn of Africa, forging strong ties with
successive administrations in the US, Britain and other European countries,
while fending off criticism of his human rights record and resisting their
efforts to use aid to influence economic policy.

He has also steadily strengthened commercial relations with China, which has
project and other loans to Ethiopia worth more than $4bn (€2.9bn, £2.4bn),
and has encouraged links between the EPRDF and China’s ruling Communist

Ethiopia’s economy has been expanding at official growth rates of above 10
per cent in recent years, evidence, Mr Meles argues, that the government’s
interventionist policies are working.

He has hinted before that he is ready to step down, but this is the first
time he has suggested publicly that he might enforce his will by leaving the
guerrilla movement he joined in 1974 and for which he fought over 17 years.
It was a necessary step, he said, to ensure that the EPRDF did not follow
some of its peer groups in Africa by falling prey to cronyism and clinging
to power for power’s sake.

“We are not talking about Meles only,” he said. “We are talking about the
old generation. The party needs to have new leadership that does not have
the experience of the armed struggle.” His comments are likely to stir
opposition among some party peers.

Mr Meles has been consolidating his grip on the EPRDF and playing a dominant
role in government since a split in 2000 over strategy in the border war
with Eritrea. Many Ethiopians remain sceptical of his intentions, believing
talk of a leadership change is a ruse ahead of elections.

The country is still recovering from the trauma of the last round in 2005,
when the government relaxed restrictions on political parties in the run-up
to polls and was then shocked by opposition gains. Nearly 200 people were
killed and thousands arrested in demonstrations that followed claims by the
opposition to have been robbed of victory.

Two former allies of Mr Meles said the EPRDF had learnt its lessons and aims
to control the electoral process more carefully. It was also encouraging a
new generation to join the party and seeking support from unemployed and
younger Ethiopians, through micro-credit and social housing schemes, aware
that inflation and persistent food shortages have raised social tensions.

The opposition has become more fragmented, with many opponents of the regime
in exile and activists in Ethiopia subject to greater restrictions.

The government said last month it had uncovered a coup plot tied to exiled
opposition leaders. Arrests followed, including retired and serving army

Mr Meles said that some of those detained admitted planning to assassinate
officials, including himself. But there had never been any danger that they
would pull it off. “There are more professional terrorists around,” he said.

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