ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — When the summer rains come, as they have in cleansing torrents over recent weeks, the 3 million residents of Ethiopia’s smog-choked capital usually inhale a little more deeply and exhale a little more freely.
But at this moment it seems the entire city is holding its breath. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, the rebel-turned-technocrat who has led Ethiopia since 1991, is sick. And his long absence from public view has given Ethiopians cause to contemplate what their nation — now enjoying one of the longest sustained periods of economic development in its history — might look like without him.
“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.”
It was an unnerving contradiction in a nation that suffered grievously under the Communist Derg’s brutal reign that Meles helped to overthrow. At the Red Terror Martyrs’ Memorial Museum in Addis Ababa, curators have filled a room of glass cases full of skulls and assorted bones recovered from the mass graves exhumed after dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam’s ouster in 1991.
“Of course, everyone has his own opinion about Meles,” said Aberra Deressa, who was minister of agriculture from 2006 to 2010. “All of the opponents of the party say he is a dictator and would never say he is a good man. All of the party members say he is a good man and would never say anything different.”
Aberra, who is not a member of the party, said that nothing about Meles is as absolute as his supporters and detractors profess.
“For my part, I believe he is a good man and a good leader,” he said. “He is democratic, but that is a relative term . . . in developing countries, you don’t get big change through democracy alone.”
As surrounding nations churn through political and social tumult, Ethiopia — among the most linguistically, ethnically and religiously diverse nations in the world — has also been among the most stable.
That’s in no small part due to an economy that has enjoyed an average annual growth of nearly 9 percent over the past decade, driven largely by foreign investment in agriculture, textiles and manufacturing.
Still, Ethiopia’s per capita income remains among the lowest in the world, and the nation has continued to attract international support to the tune of billions of dollars a year.
“That’s one of the remarkable things,” said Asrat Seyoum, deputy editor of the independent newspaper the Reporter and an expert on Ethiopian finance and investment. “Meles has broken all sorts of records in attracting foreign direct investment, even as report after report comes out about journalists getting arrested, foul play, voter intimidation, all of those things.”
The party, which has the prerogative to name Meles’s replacement through the 2015 elections, has no public succession plan and has not speculated as to who would replace the prime minister if he were unable to return to office.
“He has said that he would be stepping down after this term, so Ethiopians have known about that,” said Ethiopian policy adviser BT Costantinos. “But I can feel the kind of vacuum we would have today; even from his absence at the African Union summit, it is palpable.”
At Teddy Abebe’s barbershop on a recent Saturday afternoon, patrons passed around a cellphone with a picture of Meles’s face superimposed on the body of Gollum, the creepy gremlin from the “Lord of the Rings” films. Another cartoon on the phone showed Meles in a hospital bed, hooked up to an IV that is being supplied by the lifeless bodies of his countrymen.
“My customers, in general, they don’t like Meles, but no one can really picture what Ethiopia would be like without him either,” Abebe said.
When Meles disappeared, Abebe said, most of his customers expressed hope that he would have to step away from office. But just days after Meles’ s leave of absence was officially acknowledged, tens of thousands of members of the nation’s minority Muslim population had staged protests calling for greater religious freedoms — and many in the nation’s Christian majority began to quiver.
“As soon as that happened,” Abebe said, “everyone was saying, ‘if Meles was here, this wouldn’t be happening.’ ”