Inquirer Editorial: Ethiopia in transition could embrace freedom

Meles Zenawi
Meles Zenawi
Posted: August 23, 2012

The unexpected death of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi provides the United States with an opportunity to put greater pressure on his successor to give that nation more than the token democracy its people have had to satisfy themselves with for 21 years.

Meles, 57, died Monday in a Belgian hospital of an unknown illness. He had not been seen in his own country for weeks. Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn was expected to be sworn in Thursday to replace Meles. Military leaders have pledged to defend the constitution as the country makes the transition to new leadership.

Meles came to power as the commander of a 17-year rebellion that ousted the Derg, a communist group that in 1974 dethroned Emperor Haile Selassie, ending a centuries-old monarchy. Meles allowed other parties to exist, but maintained tight control. Journalists feared losing their jobs, or worse, if they criticized him.

In recent years, Meles has been a staunch ally of the United States in the war on terror, allowing drones to launch from his country into Somalia. In return, this country has lavished millions of dollars of military and economic aid on Ethiopia - and for the most part held its tongue about the lack of freedom there.

In noting Meles' death, President Obama said, "Going forward, we encourage the government of Ethiopia to enhance its support for development, democracy, regional stability and security, human rights, and prosperity for its people." That was a nudge. The hope must be that Obama will become more direct in urging Ethiopia to embrace true democracy.

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