One of the West’s most important allies in Africa, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, has died unexpectedly without leaving a clear successor, raising fears of increased instability in a volatile region.
A period of national mourning was immediately declared and a state funeral would be planned “in due course,” said Bereket Simon, the country’s communications minister and a long-time friend of Meles.
Bereket refused to specify what illness the prime minister was being treated for, telling reporters in Addis Ababa only that he “has been quite ill for some time.”
"He has been struggling to be healthy in the last year,” he said. “One of the best things about him was that he never considered that he was ill and he was up to the job every time, every day, every evening.”
The US counted Meles as one of its closest allies on the continent, and USAID has given an average of $700 million in development support a year to the Ethiopian government for the last four years, most of which was devoted to health and education spending.
He was a leader who managed both to lift millions of his country’s citizens from poverty and to play the role of regional power-broker and anti-terror hawk. He was also a central figure in peace negotiations between Sudan and South Sudan, boosted the presence of the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, and was regularly called upon as a “voice of Africa” abroad.
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.
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."