The Death of a Big Man

It was reported that Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi died on August 20th at the age of 57, a relatively young age for an African dictator. Zenawi had been the de facto leader of Ethiopia since the coup he led dislodging Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991. Zenawi is known for his repressive and intolerant leadership style that jailed dissident journalists, killed hundreds of opposition members and protesters, and forced numerous Ethiopians into exile. While his human rights record leaves much to be desired, Zenawi’s economic successes and policies are hard to ignore with realistic claims of 11% annual growth since 2004, a revived agricultural sector, and a (mostly) honest and well intended use of donor funds.

Some commentators have expressed concerns that the fragility of Ethiopia, which Zenawi managed to hold together, could leave a power vacuum—especially considering the irredentist ambitions of Somalia and persistent grievances emanating from Eretria. However, Jason Mosley, an Associate Fellow at the Chatham House, correctly stated that while Zenawi’s party is by no means “monolithic” and that plans were evidently in motion for a leadership transition in the near future, but it is likely that Zenawi was planning to solidify himself as the head of his the state anyway. Mosley comments further that few historical precedents exist in Ethiopia to help guide this transition process along, complicating the situation further.

Despite these concerns, I think that the death of Zenawi provides a better window into questions of political succession and legitimacy in ‘Big Men’ states, than any would be violence per se. In other words, I think that a serious observer of the current political climate in Ethiopia should pay careful attention to individuals posturing their authority in this unsettling climate, and be less enamored by whoever ascends to fill the Prime Minister post due to some guideline in the constitution that no one has ever paid attention to in the first place.


Informal Networks

Zenawi, like many ‘Big Men,’ rose to power through informal networks from outside the formal state structure. And Zenawi maintained his control by pumping money, opportunity, jobs, and any other kind of reward into these informal structures by pillaging the formal state, or through strict application of military against opposition. For its part, the informal networks supported Zenawi so long as the wealth and opportunity flowed. However, importantly, with the death of Zenawi the informal network, of which he was previously the head, is now shifting and someone must come to the fore to fill this void.

Nevertheless, informal networks are typically very complex—making the next ‘Big Man’ hard to predict. Mats Utas, a researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute, described informal networks in his book, African Conflicts and Informal Power as, “an intricate latticework of collaborative ventures…and consist of relations that are enduring but by no means permanent.” In the case of Ethiopia this translates into a sophisticated constellation of formal and informal interests from the military, private sector, civic groups, rebels, consumers, farmers, and financial institutions. These entities come together in precise and indirect ways which may not be totally apparent to even the ordinary Ethiopian citizens, let alone casual foreign observers.


‘Second Fiddles’ and Patrimonial Networks

Zenawi was an institution in and of himself, but he did not stand on his own. Just like most ‘Big Men’ regimes there are “second fiddles,” or individuals who are acting primarily behind the scenes and, because they have aggregated enough authority and followship, have become major forces in the political and economic landscape. These individuals could range from, depending on the country, career military officers, tribal leaders, insurgents or rebels, Parlimentarians, or a relative of another power broker. Importantly, “second fiddles” do not necessarily need to come from, in this case, Zenawi’s inner circle because of the diverse nature of informal social relations and political pragmatism in ‘Big Men’ regimes. Therefore, the individual who actually “replaces” Zenawi may, or may not, ascend to the role of Prime Minister, rather, it is more critical that they fill the all-important void in the informal patrimonial network that Zenawi left behind. Similarly, rumor and some analysts claim that, even as Vice President, Paul Kagame has been running Rwanda thanks to his military and intelligence contacts. This may suggest that president Bizimungu was, in fact, a “second fiddle.” At any rate, my point is that the Big Man does not need to be president so long as they can provide enough wealth to control the informal network in any given country or space.

In my opinion, Western observers in general have yet to fully realize the omnipresence of informal power and its role in the function of contemporary political and social life in Africa. The mischaracterization of Africa by many observers had led to a lack of appreciation of behind-the-scenes power brokers which makes analysis of “formal” political regimes and leadership incomplete. This incomplete analysis is one reason that many academics and policymakers were caught by surprise when the popular and fairly democratic president Amadou Toure was deposed by a coup from an obscure Captain from the Malian military. While I hasten to add there are many other dynamics and factors at play in the Malian case; nevertheless, few observers predicted that the intense frustration emanating from certain key officials in the military would lead to such extremes. This frustration, coupled with the Tuareg rebellion seemed to provide an opening for the informal networks in Mali to be reconstituted.


The Relationship Between Big Men and Second Fiddles

 Ethiopia and Mali are rarer cases in this phenomenon because of the boldness of individuals who usurped power garnered so much international focus. Greater in number are, as Anders Themner described in African Conflicts and Informal Power “actors such as paramount chiefs, warlords, politicians and businessmen [that] have much sway over societal affairs. The authority of these elites, or Big Men, stems from their ability to create networks of dependents that can be mobilized to acquire power, resources, and concessions.” However, I would like to assert a perspective that somewhat parts ways with Utas’s interpretation of Big Men as “nodes in the informal network.”

I would argue, at least at the theoretical level, that the modern state system in Africa prevents numerous Big Men from existing side-by-side in the same country; rather, I believe that most of these nodes are actually those individuals playing “second fiddle” to the Big Man. This distinction should not be taken as to claim that the Big Man stands alone. But due to the complexity and inter-reliance of the informal networks, Big Men will most certainly need to strike deals, or even on some occasions bow down to interests of these “second fiddles” to maintain their power. Moreover, the resource limitations of the state means that a certain level of distribution to these informal networks must take place through these nodes, or “second fiddles” to keep the state and network bound and ‘functioning.’

In short, a cunning Big Man will take the lion’s share of state resources for himself but also ensure that enough wealth is flowing to the informal networks and “second fiddles” to secure his position as the Big Man. However, I think that there are alternatives. In instances where the Big Man either cannot bring a powerful “second fiddle” into his patrimonial network, or refuses to try, he may utilize force and violence to ‘legitimize’ his role as the Big Man. The relationship between Big Men and “second fiddles” does not have to be marked by frustration and tension however, nor would it be fair to claim that “second fiddles” are powerlessly subjugated below the Big Man—rather “second fiddles” are simultaneously establishing the Big Man, and aggressive in their desire to generate more wealth and authority. I offer this slight variation of Utas’s arguments to contribute to the conversation, and hopefully to the re-conceptualization of power relations in contemporary Africa. Naturally, however, empirical data and clearer case studies are needed to support many of the claims and theories that I have presented.


Moving Forward without a Big Man

Despite the fact that Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn is in control of the country, I believe it will soon be clear which of the “second fiddles” in the now shifting Ethiopian power structures are vying to replace ascend to be the Big Man. Unfortunately, political transition in Africa has developed the reputation of being more of a tournament-style moment, with various personalities all gunning to occupy that number one slot. I am sure that Ethiopia is no exception to this, particularly since there is little doubt that there are individuals who have sat as “second fiddles,” and waited eagerly for a bigger piece of the action during Zenawi’s long reign. I believe that commentators of African affairs would do well to observe how Ethiopia recovers from this political theater, and not only note who replaces Zenawi but how they ascend to that role.

Declan Galvin is an MA candidate at New York University concentrating on African Politics and Security. He is an avid observer and commentator on global issues, and was recently honored as an NYU Africa House Fellow. He has lived, worked, and conducted research throughout the African continent since 2008, presenting and publishing his findings in a number of social and academic venues. In addition to his scholarly work, he has consulted and worked with non-profit organizations throughout the world. He may be reached at for questions or comments.