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Meles Zenawi Asres, Prime Minister of Ethiopia since 1995, died in Belgium on 20 August 2012 after he contracted an infection following an operation to remove a brain tumour.(2) He had not been seen in public for several months. Thousands gathered on the streets of Addis Ababa to mourn their leader.(3) Heads of state around the world praised Meles for “his lifelong contribution to Ethiopia’s development.”(4) As per Ethiopian law, his deputy, Hailemariam Desalegn has assumed leadership. He takes over a country that has been under one-party rule since 1995, a country that human rights groups have widely criticised for political and ethnic repression,(5) and a country that plays a vital role in maintaining fragile stability in the Horn of Africa.
Meles was the figurehead of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The TPLF was one of several armed groups involved in the Ethiopian Civil War of 1974-1991. As part of a coalition of armed groups, known as the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), Meles and the TPLF overthrew the military rule of Mengitsu Hailemariam, ending a brutally repressive regime that the opposition labelled the Red Terror.(6)
As one of the ‘strongmen of Africa’,(7) Meles held on to power from 1991, first as president, then, from 1995, as Prime Minister, with a mixture of sweeping economic reform and divisive political repression. Meles brought Ethiopia out of the poverty it suffered under Mengitsu’s regime; economic growth rose from 3.8% in the 1990’s to 10% in 2010.(8) The United Nations (UN) praised Meles in 2010 for his commitment to “pro-poor spending.”(9) The United States (US)-based Corporate Council on Africa awarded Meles a ‘Good Governance Award’,(10) and the World Peace Council honoured him for his contribution to global peace in 2002.(11) However, to put this growth in perspective, average daily income in the country is just US$ 3.00, and in May inflation peaked above 34%.(12)
Meles has been widely criticised for the divisive and repressive manner in which he implemented reforms, and the failure to commit, in any meaningful way, to his pledge for multi-party democracy or ethnic federalism. He maintained a firm grip on the media, often arresting dissidents and journalists under newly introduced anti-terrorism laws.(13) He used the same tactics to marginalise the Muslim population and nationalist movements among the Oromo people, who constitute the majority of the Ethiopian population.(14)
Ethnicity is a major issue for Ethiopian security. According to the US State Department, there are at least 77 distinct ethnic groups in the country.(15) With further divisions along religious lines, maintaining stability in a country beset by tribal rivalry is a difficult task. The EPRDF has sought to weaken the strength of any opposition movements by inciting separation along ethnic lines to prevent a coalition of any strength forming. This has led to deeply ingrained division that may threaten internal security in the absence of Meles’ authoritarian leadership.
Officially, Meles introduced multi-party rule in Ethiopia in 2005. However, he carefully engineered the strength of the TPLF within the EPRDF to maintain power and ensure elections were little more than window-dressing for the sake of international observers. In 2005, anti-Government protests led to the deaths of almost 200 people, and a further 800 were wounded.(16) Though the international community accepted the results and Meles’ continued leadership, they criticised the election process for widespread irregularities. In 2010, protests were not as dramatic, but opposition groups continued to criticise the EPRDF for failing to deliver on its promise of multi-party democracy as it again won a landslide victory.(17) It has taken a strong hand and strong character to suppress widespread unrest in the country. The worry is that now that hand has gone, opposition groups will find renewed vigour, which could harm internal security.
After Meles’ death, Information Minister Simon Bereket stated, “Nothing in Ethiopia will change. The [G]overnment will continue. Our policies and institutions will continue.”(18) However, it is not clear that a smooth and trouble free transition to Prime Minister Desalegn is a foregone conclusion.(19) Many questions remain over how power will be distributed in the new Government, and whether the policy of curbing free expression and entrenching ethnic divisions will be as adroitly maintained under new leadership. If Desalegn is unable to control rising voices of dissent from marginalised ethnic groups and discontents within the EPRDF, security within in Ethiopia could be threatened.
The EPRDF under Meles officially introduced ethnic federalism as an attempt to calm nationalist tensions within various ethnic groups. The primary purpose of this move was to empower diverse ethnicities to develop their own culture and language within Ethiopia. However, this never happened to any meaningful extent, and many saw it as another tactic designed to drive a wedge between ethnic groups allowing the Government to maintain its grip on power.(20) This has only led to deeper unrest among the Amhara and Oromo peoples, who feel marginalised by the Tigrayan-led TPLF. The primary cause of recent regional unrest has been the leasing of indigenous land to foreign third parties.(21) The starkest example of this is in the Gambella region, where the Government set aside half the region for commercial farming and sale to foreign companies.(22) Desalegn’s Government will be under immediate pressure from ethnic groups to fully implement ethnic federalism to allow regional autonomy. The problem is that the EPRDF is not as strong as it was, and without the charismatic leadership of Meles Zenawi, the party may struggle to control ethnic unrest.(23) This could lead to violent protests and clashes, as various groups perceive a power vacuum in Government.
Part of the struggle for Desalegn will be keeping control of factions within the EPRDF Government. If the Government does not work as a cohesive unit, it will find it extremely difficult to maintain control over the country’s security. Exiled opposition leader Berhanu Nega accused Desalegn of being a “placeholder” for the Government (24) and a political novice in place until they can find a better solution.(25) Kenyan Prime Minister, Raila Odinga, has stated, “I don’t know that [Ethiopian politicians] are sufficiently prepared for a succession: this is my fear – that there may be a falling out within the ruling movement.”(26) Desalegn is a Wolayta, which does not sit well with his colleagues in a Tigrayan-led party. Whilst this could be beneficial for the inclusion of minorities within Government, it is likely to create instability at the top of the party, which could impact upon security as leaders increasingly resort to direct repression in order to control other ethnic groups.(27) Many within the party back Meles’ wife, Azeb Mesfin, as the next leader of the Government.(28) It is thought her relationship to her late husband will encourage military support, vital to the success of a repressive regime. In contrast, Desalegn, who was not part of the movement that brought the TPFL to power, may struggle to gain the full backing of a military dominated by ethnic Tigrayans. Whilst full-scale mutiny is unlikely, the repression that is key to current stability relies on full military cooperation.
Despite these fears, there are good reasons to believe that the TPFL may be able to maintain its strong control over internal dissent, for better or worse. As stated above, Meles had not been seen in public for several months, and Desalegn has represented the Government in the intervening period. There has been little in the way of unrest in this time, which suggests Desalegn may have sufficient support to continue where Meles left off. It remains to be seen whether opposition groups both within and outside the Government will seek a leadership change. Any such move would lead to security fears within the country. Without Meles’ strong hand and dynamism, cracks within the Government may be more starkly exposed.
The international community may have a decisive role to play in security and Government stability. The US, in particular, was highly supportive of the Meles regime as an ally in the region. Opposition parties are only likely to be able to mount a realistic challenge on power with international support. The US and other economic and political backers of the Ethiopian Government will have to balance the stability that supporting the current Government would provide against increasing pressure from human rights organisations to open up Government to minority representation.(29)
Whilst there are legitimate fears over how political instability will affect security within Ethiopia, there are also concerns that upheaval within Government may affect stability on a regional scale across East Africa. The US has found Meles’ Ethiopia to be a useful ally in its operations against political and religious violence in the region. Meles has played a key role in combating Islamic fundamentalism in Somalia and maintaining a fragile peace between Sudan and South Sudan. The worry is that a change in leadership may weaken foreign policy initiatives that help maintain regional stability.
There are currently around 10,000 Ethiopian soldiers in Somalia.(30) The US has established military bases in Ethiopia from which it flies drone missions over Somalia.(31) The personality of Meles and the close relationship he built with the US has been vital to the American anti-terror effort in the region. Al-Shabaab leaders have welcomed Meles’ death stating, “Ethiopia is sure to collapse.”(32) However, it does not appear that the relationship between Ethiopia and the US will be drastically affected by a change in leadership. America is thought to back Desalegn’s premiership and is likely to make aid inflows, which represent a significant portion of Ethiopian gross domestic product (GDP), conditional on a continuation of this close military relationship. The key requirement for both the US and for regional stability as a whole is that leadership is stable, whoever is in power. As long as power is in flux, there will be military uncertainty, which will detract from the focus of the joint military mission in Somalia.
In Sudan, Meles has played a significant diplomatic role in preventing all out civil war on several occasions. His success is doing so is a product of his unique Bismarckian realpolitik. The Sudanese Government in Khartoum placed high regard in Meles in the early period of its struggle against the rebel group, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M).(33) Meles expelled SPLA/M groups from Gambella state, and supported Omar al-Bashir’s regime. However, in 1995, when Sudanese officers backed a plot to assassinate Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak,(34) who provided development assistance to Ethiopia, Meles cut off diplomatic relations with Khartoum. Despite these tensions, Meles was able to play a key role in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement between Khartoum and Juba, as he knew their peaceful relations were vital to regional stability. Meles frequently deployed troops to help maintain peace in troubled border regions and maintain dialogue between Khartoum and Juba.(35) The fear in the region is that the loss of a man with the Machiavellian nous of Meles, may remove a political obstacle that is preventing all out war in the Sudan. No other figure in East African politics held as much sway in the negotiations between Khartoum and Juba. His death is a genuine blow to lasting peace in the region. International peace brokers have lost a vital ally in the struggle for regional peace.
The death of Meles Zenawi could potentially open Ethiopia up to a more diverse and democratic leadership. It will do so, however, at the risk of damaging security prospects both internally and regionally. Internally, human rights groups should welcome the premiership of a non-Tigrayan. However, it is important that this development does not make the Government more vulnerable to internal unrest. The international community can help this situation by giving clear international backing to Desalegn, and making aid inflows conditional on sustained leadership in order to quell dissent within the EPRDF. On the regional front, Meles’ death will do little to change the trajectory of Ethiopian involvement in Somalia. Ethiopia is too reliant on US assistance to end its cooperation. The major regional security fear is of a break down in peace talks between Sudan and South Sudan. Desalegn must seek cordiality with both parties to enable him to continue to act as a mediator in negotiations.
Written by Fred Saugman (1)
(1) Contact Fred Saugman through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Conflict and Terrorism Unit (email@example.com).
(2) ‘Ethiopian PM Meles Zenawi Dies After Illness’, BBC, 21 August 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk.
(3) ‘Ethiopians Mourn Leader’s Death’, Al Jazeera, 22 August 2012, http://www.aljazeera.com.
(4) ‘Statement by the President on the Death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia’, The White House, 21 August 2012, http://www.whitehouse.gov.
(5) ‘Amnesty International Criticises Dead Ethiopian PM Zenawi’s Rule’, Sahara Reporters, 21 August 2012, http://saharareporters.com.
(6) ‘Recording Ethiopia’s Red Terror’, BBC, 7 August 2009, http://news.bbc.co.uk.
(7) Maasho, A., ‘Ethiopian Strongman and Western Ally, Meles, Dies’, Reuters, 21 August 2012, http://af.reuters.com.
(8) ‘Ethiopians Mourn Leader’s Death’, Al Jazeera, 22 August 2012, http://www.aljazeera.com.
(9) ‘Ethiopia: Country Report on the Implementation of the Brussels Program of Action (BPOA)’, UN Ministry of Finance and Economic Development Report, February 2010, http://www.un.org.
(10) Jawed, M.N., ‘Historical Relations With Kingdom Highlighted at Ethiopian Reception’, Saudi Gazette, http://www.saudigazette.com.sa.
(11) ‘Ethiopian PM Meles Zenawi Wins World Peace Prize’, People Daily, 16 July 2002, http://english.peopledaily.com.cn.
(12) Peebles, G., ‘Ethiopia’s Opportunity’, Counterpunch, 6 September 2012, http://www.counterpunch.org.
(13) Salisbury, A., ‘Human Rights and the War on Terror in Ethiopia’, The Jurist, 2 August 2011, http://jurist.org/forum.
(14) Woldemariam, Y., ‘Ethiopia: What Might a Post-Meles Era Bring?’, Think Africa Press, 9 August 2012, http://thinkafricapress.com.
(15) Peebles, G., ‘Ethiopia’s Opportunity’, Counterpunch, 6 September 2012, http://www.counterpunch.org.
(16) Chan, S., ‘Meles Zenawi Obituary’, The Guardian, 21 August 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk.
(17) Ibid.; Rice, X., ‘Unease Over Extent of Ruling Party’s Landslide in Ethiopia’, The Guardian, 26 May 2010, http://www.guardian.co.uk.
(18) ‘Ethiopians Mourn Leader’s Death’, Al Jazeera, 22 August 2012, http://www.aljazeera.com.
(19) ‘Ethiopia After Meles Zenawi’, Business Monitor International, 22 August 2012, http://www.riskwatchdog.com.
(21) Redi, O., ‘Ethiopia: Ethnic Federalism Could Lead to Election Violence’, Inter Press Service, 21 September 2009, http://www.ipsnews.net.
(22) Woldemariam, Y., ‘Ethiopia: What Might a Post-Meles Era Bring?’, Think Africa Press, 9 August 2012, http://thinkafricapress.com.
(23) Davison, W., ‘Is Indian Investment in Ethiopian Farms a Land Grab?’, Christian Science Monitor, 23 December 2011, http://www.csmonitor.com.
(24) ‘Ethiopia After Meles’, International Crisis Group, 22 August 2012, http://www.crisisgroup.org.
(25) ‘Ethiopia’s Regional Stability Tested With Death of PM’, Globe and Mail, 22 August 2012, http://www.theglobeandmail.com.
(26) Woldemariam, Y., ‘Ethiopia: What Might Desalegn’s Premiership Bring?’, Think Africa Press, 29 August 2012, http://thinkafricapress.com.
(27) Smith, D., ‘Ethiopian PM Meles Zenawi’s Death Sparks Fear of Turmoil’, The Guardian, 22 August 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk.
(28) ‘Democracy Unlikely in Post-Meles Ethiopia’, MENAFN, 26 August 2012, http://www.menafn.com.
(29) Kwayera, J., ‘Power Scramble After Premier’s Death Puts Fragile State on the Edge’, The Standard, 26 August 2012, http://www.standardmedia.co.ke.
(30) ‘Ethiopia After Meles’, International Crisis Group, 22 August 2012, http://www.crisisgroup.org.
(31) ‘Ethiopia’s Regional Stability Tested With Death of PM’, Globe and Mail, 22 August 2012, http://www.theglobeandmail.com.
(32) Smith, D., ‘Ethiopian PM Meles Zenawi’s Death Sparks Fear of Turmoil’, The Guardian, 22 August 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk.
(34) Verhoeven, H., ‘The Sudan-South Sudan Relationship after Meles Zenawi’, Think Africa Press, 29 August 2012, http://thinkafricapress.com.
(35) Turner, C., ‘Egypt’s Leader Survives Assassination Attempt’, Los Angeles Times, 27 June 1995, http://articles.latimes.com.
(36) McConnell, T., ‘UN Clears Ethiopia for Abyei Deployment’, Global Post, 28 June 2011, http://www.globalpost.com.