“We are worried,” said Makeda Taye, who will enter college in Addis Ababa this fall having known life under no other leader. “This country has grown stronger and it’s not certain — did it grow this way because of Meles or in spite of him? In absence of knowing one way or the other, we prefer things the way they are.”
The U.S. government has long viewed Meles as a stable partner in a region peppered with despots and religious extremists. The United States has given Ethiopia, which serves as an ally in the fight against terrorism and hosts a base for U.S. drones, hundreds of millions of dollars in aid over the years.
Meles’s health problems — the exact nature of which government officials have declined to disclose — came to public light when he failed to appear for a series of high-profile events, including the opening of the African Union summit in Addis Ababa last month.
Early rumors, apparently spread by the nation’s assorted opposition groups, posited that the prime minister had died in an overseas hospital.
Government spokesmen quickly assured the country that Meles was alive and, while ill, in need of little more than a short break from his duties, though they have declined to say where he is or when he will return.
Meles, the longtime chairman of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, presides over a nation where human rights groups say dissent, even of the peaceful sort, has often been met with a violent governmental response, including the killing of 200 protesters in 2005.
Under his rule — which was extended for another five years in 2010 when the incumbent reportedly received 99 percent of the vote in his native Tigray Region and his party and its allies won all but two parliamentary seats — tens of thousands of dissidents have been jailed. So have hundreds of journalists.
“He’s like other leaders in Africa; some are better and some are worse, but all of them are addicted to power,” said Tola Benti, a young businessman who would like to see a change in leadership, even though he says it is a bit frightening to imagine what his nation would look like under someone else.
Meles, 57, hasn’t exhibited the same ostentatious insatiability for riches and power as many other regional strongmen. Under his rule, religious and press freedoms have been slowly expanded, and a multi-party parliament has been established. Meles also claims to be anticipating his eventual resignation with some relish, telling FT Africa in 2009 that a peaceful transfer of power — which would be a first in Ethiopia’s modern history — “is a precedent that I would almost kill to set.”