With death of Ethiopian leader Meles, US loses an anti-terror ally (+video)
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who died yesterday, was one of the US's closest allies on the continent, particularly when it came to efforts to combat Somali Islamists.
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That friendship has developed further amid the US’s growing concern about terrorism in Africa. Washington says terrorist groups have found safe haven in neighboring Somalia, and under President Obama, Meles has allowed US unmanned drones to take off from his country’s airports for spying missions over his chaotic neighbor. He has also twice invaded Somalia to pursue Ethiopian domestic rebels and their ally, the Islamic Courts Union, which the US believes has harbored Al Qaeda.Skip to next paragraph
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Crackdowns on personal freedom
He was, however, facing growing criticism over new laws on media, advocacy groups, and aid agencies that his detractors claimed were designed to stamp out all opposition to the ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). An anti-terror law gave police extra powers of arrest.
“Ethiopia’s government should commit to respect for human rights and core rights reforms in the coming days and weeks,” said Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The country’s new leadership should reassure Ethiopians by building on Meles’s positive legacy while reversing his government’s most pernicious policies.”
The prime minister’s increasingly hard line against opposition intensified after the 2005 elections, largely seen to be the most democratic in the country, in which parties opposing the EPRDF won a surprising number of seats.
When opposition supporters gathered to protest alleged vote rigging, Meles ordered specialized army units onto the streets to disperse them forcefully. As many as 200 people died. Since then, repressive new laws have severely restricted the work of aid agencies, advocacy groups and the media, critics argue.
'A large hole' left behind
Hailemariam Desalegn, the deputy prime minister, took the reins of the country today, as stipulated in the constitution, but he is not expected to be Meles’ long-term successor.
There is no clear candidate for the job. The ruling EPRDF is a coalition of parties formed along ethnic lines representing markedly different corners of the country.
Discussions of a successor could unearth tensions between politicians from different regions. Northerners have run Ethiopia since 1991, and sources suggested that southern candidates would push to succeed Meles.
“The next few months will be really critical,” says Richard Downie, deputy director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “We could see rivals emerge, and there’s the wildcard of opposition outside the ruling party, and whether they will see this as a chance to assert themselves.
“The EPRDF could ride out the storm, but I feel that he’s left a large hole in the center of government because of the way that Meles’s managed the country.
“It’s been such an authoritarian style leadership based on his individual personality and force of character."