ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AP) — Ethiopia's long-ruling leader died half a year ago, but it seems Meles Zenawi still holds on to power. In the capital, his face looks down from hundreds of posters plastered on walls, and government representatives vow to implement the late Meles' vision without alteration.
Meles, who held tight control of the country since 1991, died Aug. 20 at the age of 57. A major U.S. counter-terrorism ally, Meles was credited with uplifting the country's poor, but he was condemned for human rights abuses and crushing the opposition.
Since his sudden death, Meles' pictures and past statements have become commonplace throughout Addis Ababa, the capital, and smaller cities and towns. "Our great leader ... we will never forget you!" reads one gigantic billboard erected in the capital's main street.
An upcoming meeting of the congress is billed as an opportunity to achieve goals, speed up development and build democracy "based on the vision of Meles." That vision can be boiled down to two things: economic advancement, and a tight hold on political power.
While Meles has many fans in Addis Ababa, some residents feel the six-month lionization has gone on too long. "During the news of his death and funeral, all the pictures and tributes were understandable and also fitting as a lot of people wanted to celebrate a man's life who had left a clear mark in the nation's history," said resident Adey Derbew.
"But now ... when you see such a sustained campaign spearheaded by the government, you wonder what it is really about. I think it actually hurts the people's confidence in the government as the current leaders are saying that their best one is gone," she said.
State-run media still carry headlines of officials vowing to follow the late leader's visions in all sectors, ranging from pastoralist area development projects to efforts to modernize the country's military.
Meles long insisted he wanted to create a developmental state with his ruling party dictating the country's fate. Meles said the opposition would undermine the country's constitution if they get the chance. An untold number of opposition leaders were jailed during his rule.
"You are allowed, as they say, until you become a 'clear and present danger' to public institutions," Meles said to the lone opposition member of parliament. A number of projects and activities, including the country's national soccer tournament, have been named after Meles in recent months.
On Jan. 17 the parliament issued legislation to establish The Meles Foundation. The upcoming foundation will include a mausoleum where the body of the late premier will rest and be visited by the public. Officials say the foundation premises will also showcase the late leader's writings and documentary videos done on his life, while promoting research on developing states and green economies.
Ethiopia's new leader, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, also continues to praise Meles in all of his major speeches both at home and abroad. Following Meles' death, the country saw its first ever peaceful power transfer. Though the power transition went smoothly, Hailemariam has three deputies, each from the other three parties of the ruling coalition. That was not the case for Meles, who was a founding chair of the ruling party and accompanied by a low-profile deputy. Meles was re-elected to the position and premiership several times, always unchallenged.
Hailemariam's leadership is unlikely to be challenged anytime soon. Next month when some 2,500 ruling party elites and supporters meet for a congress in a regional town, Bahir Dar, he is expected to be re-elected as party chairman. Senior officials back in September, however, announced that Hailemariam can serve only two terms as prime minister.
The memory of Meles will also cast its weight on the decision. The head of the secretariat of the ruling party, Redwan Hussein, told journalists on Thursday that the congress will serve "to renew commitment, to achieve the goals, to speed up development and build democracy based on the vision of Meles."
Some observers of Ethiopian politics are concerned that Meles' policies are sticking around too long, such as suppression of the free press. The country's largest weekly, Feteh, and the opposition paper Finote Netsanet were forced off the market last year after the state-owned Berhanena Selam printing company refused to continue printing them. Charges against the editor of Feteh, Temesgen Desalegn, were dropped during Meles' funeral, but those charges were revived last month.
"Hailemariam has thus far perpetuated the policies of late Meles Zenawi in limiting the growth of independent media in Ethiopia," said Mohamed Keita, Africa Advocacy Coordinator of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. "But he still has an opportunity to show strong leadership. He holds the power to remove Ethiopia from the list of nations in Africa with journalists in prison."
Tired of the lack of opportunity to gain political traction, leading opposition parties have decided to boycott local elections due in April. "Thirty-three opposition parties have demanded the election be carried out properly and for the electoral board to be neutral and independent. We wanted to talk about this . they said no," said Girma Seifu, the lone opposition member of parliament. "So we said in that there is no point of contesting, as these people are determined to have themselves elected by any means. There is no competition; it is only the ruling party's candidates that are contesting the seats, so there is no real election."