Ethiopia: What happens now?

Ethiopia: What happens now?

Following weeks of speculation about the state of his health, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi died on August 21 at the age of 57.  Although a government spokesperson claimed that the long-time leader of the country’s authoritarian state apparatus was felled by a sudden infection, Meles seems to have been sick for some time and had not been seen in public since mid-July.

His aides concealed his condition from the public throughout his illness, feeding contradictory reports to the press which led to speculation that an internal power struggle was taking place in order to determine succession within Ethiopia’s ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).

Government sources assured the BBC that Ethiopia will remain stable throughout the transition, though many — including Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga — have expressed fears that the country could unravel with the sudden absence of their strongman of over two decades. Ethiopia’s last political transition was marked by violence, and increased government repression:

"In the 2005 election when the opposition won the capital, Addis Ababa, and claimed to have won nationally, the government arrested its leaders and tried them for treason. Some were imprisoned, others fled into exile. Now with 99.6% of the vote, the ruling Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has created a virtual one party state."

In accordance with the constitution, Meles will be succeeded by his deputy, Hailemariam Dessalegn, as interim prime minister. Unlike past Ethiopian rulers, who have mostly hailed from the powerful northern Tigrayan and Amharic tribes, Dessalegn comes from the populous Southern Nation, Nationalities and People’s Region.

The EPRDF is expected to meet in late September, according to AFP, to determine whether Hailemariam will remain prime minister until the next scheduled elections in 2015. As a relatively inexperienced political outsider, he may face difficulty winning over the powerful military and intelligence establishments.

Somalia’s Al Shabab militants, meanwhile, are gleefully pessimistic about Ethiopia’s future without Meles:

"We are very glad about Meles’ death. Ethiopia is sure to collapse," Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage, Al Shabab’s spokesman, told Reuters.

The group has reason to welcome a possible dissolution of power in Ethiopia. Ethiopian troops invaded bordering Somalia to combat Al Shabab in November 2011 and it continues to conduct combat operations alongside African Union AMISOM troops. Ethiopia also hosts U.S. military operations at a base at Arba Minch, southern Ethiopia, from which many drone operations over Somalia have been conducted.

Indeed, despite his questionable human rights record, Meles has long been a valued ally of western governments in the war on terror. A true diplomat, however, his loyalties were always targeted to ensure Ethiopia’s regional ascendance – and to keep the aid money flowing in at a rate of around $4 billion a year. As Harry Verhoeven writes for Al Jazeera:

"Meles rapidly became an international statesman: He was hailed by Bill Clinton as the prime exponent of "Africa’s new generation of leaders" in 1998; he sat on Tony Blair’s Commission for Africa in 2004-2005; and represented the African Union in climate change negotiations since 2009. Boosted by relative political stability and spectacular – if deeply uneven – economic growth at home, the former guerrilla leader from Tigray transformed Ethiopia from an object of international pity into a powerful actor that has commended increasing global attention."

Meles’ legacy is decidedly mixed. His rule was oppressive, yet he presided over the re-emergence of Ethiopia from a state of near collapse into the dominant regional power in the Horn of Africa. He was intimately involved in brokering agreements between the warring Sudans, having developed close ties with leaders on both sides since the 1980s, and became a dominant figure in the African Union – which is based in Addis Ababa, the country’s capital.  Nevertheless, the distribution of his country’s newfound wealth – Ethiopia currently has the fastest-growing non-oil dependent economy in Africa – remains highly uneven, with the majority of the population still living in poverty.

For all his faults, Meles’ was a formidable presence and his shoes will be big ones to fill.