What the death of Meles Zenawi could mean

Published: 21 Aug 2012
By: Dismas Nkunda

Long serving Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has been confirmed dead. Meles, aged 57, had not been seen in public for two months, and had been reported to have been sick in a hospital in Brussels.

His death follows a list of African leaders that have dropped dead while in power, including Levy Mwanawasa in Zambia, Bingu Wa Mutharika in Malawi, Umar Yardua in Nigeria, and John Atta Mills in Ghana. It seems that leading an African state is not good for one’s health.

While these other countries seem to have managed the transition to a new leadership with ease, a post-Meles transition in Ethiopia could be more complicated.

Although his democratic and human rights credentials are clearly wanting, the issue here is the considerable power that Meles has exerted – not only in Ethiopia but also in the region. Ever since he arrived on the scene in 1991 after toppling Mengistu Haile Mariam (now in exile in Zimbabwe), he has been the all powerful man with whom everything began and stopped, holding together a country that has too often been divided on ethnic lines.

At a regional level, he has exerted his influence all over: he led the fighting against the militants Al Shabab when his country sent any army into Somalia, and the west has poured million of dollars into Ethiopia to fight the Al-Qaeda linked militants in the region. He has also been central in the negotiations between the Republic of South Sudan and Sudan over the disputed border region of Abyei, and Ethiopia is the only country to have sent peacekeepers into the area.

Likewise, his influence on negotiations for the use of the River Nile and the final agreement by countries that rely on the river were crucial, most importantly his insistence that Egypt should not dictate the use of the Nile. More recently, Meles was involved in the South Sudan pipeline project that would see oil from the south pass though Kenya to the port of Lamu in the Indian Ocean instead of Sudan, much to the annoyance of Khartoum who wanted to levy taxes on oil exportation from the South.

So what happens now? How is this power vacuum going to be filled and what are the implications? According to Ethiopia’s constitution, Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn is to “act on behalf of the Prime Minister in his absence”. Ethiopia also has a president, although this position is largely honorific, and Meles held the real political power with his ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front.

But given his huge influence in the region, we will now have to look on anxiously to see whether his passing will tilt the security landscape in East Africa and the Horn – and, if so, in what direction.

Leaders will also watch closely as to whether this country that has been so closed to the rest of the world, can withstand the absence of the man who opened it up to the rest of the world – even if only on his own terms.

And, of course, the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, is the headquarters of the African Union and every January the summit of the AU is hosted by Ethiopia. How all this pans out in the next few days and months will be worth watching.

Regions: North and Horn of Africa
Type: IRRI Blog