Meles Zenawi Death: Loss of Brutal Dictator Throws Ethiopia Into Cloud of Uncertainty

ByJawar Mohammed

After 60 days of covering up his illness, the Ethiopian government announced PM Meles Zenawi’s death. Meles ruled the country for the last 21 years. Rumors about his poor health spread after he was seen with visible weight loss during an appearance at the G-20  meeting in Mexico this past June.  Although the government kept telling the public he was recovering and would resume his duties, it was widely believed that he had already died, and that the government was keeping the news a secret because the elites in power could not reach an agreement on his successor.

With the official confirmation of Meles’ death, we must now ask what sort of impact his passing might have on Ethiopian politics and regional security.

Meles’ legacy: Unfulfilled promise

Meles’ political career began in 1975 when he left university and joined an armed struggle against the military junta that had taken power during the 1974 revolution. Although known as a lousy fighter, he emerged over time as an ideologue of the insurgency and Ethiopia’s top man by systematically eliminating and sidelining his seniors. When the military junta was overthrown in 1991, Meles rose to the helm of the second most populous country in Africa. 

He has left a decidedly mixed legacy. His supporters point to some of the changes that he introduced, including federalism, which ended the policy of forced assimilation and gave nominal self-rule and cultural rights to the country’s various ethnic groups. He is also admired for generating rapid economic growth in the last few years.

But the vast majority of Ethiopians know him as a brutal dictator who silenced the press and filled the country’s prisons with his political critics. Although he fought for 17 years against the marginalization of his ethnic group at the hands of another, he ended up establishing a system rampant with blatant favouritism towards his own Tigrean ethnic group (making up just 6% of the country’s population). Today all but one of the senior military command posts are held by Tigreans. His Tigrean political party also owns the country’s largest corporation, which dominates business sectors from import and export to agricultural production and banking. In recent years, he began selling large tracts of the country’s arable land to foreign companies, further victimizing the already marginalized pastoralist tribal groups in the South and West. His last damaging act as prime minister was his decision to import an alien religious doctrine from Lebanon and attempt to impose it on the the Muslim community, an act that has generated weekly nonviolent protests for the last nine months. This past Sunday, millions demonstrated on the Muslim holiday of Eid.

He leaves a country that is highly fragmented, with an extremely high cost of living, high unemployment, and no strong institutions to navigate the transition. As many fallen dictators before him have done, Meles has left his country full of uncertainty.

The successor

When it comes to the question of succession, it appears that the ruling elites have agreed to install the current deputy prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, as Meles’ replacement. Desalegn is unlikely to exercise real power however, as he lacks both experience and his own political base to counterbalance entrenched Tigrean political, security, and military elites. Desalegn hails from the small Walayta ethnic group in the South, which is the primary reason the Tigrean elites chose to install him. His executive experience has included a brief stint as president of the Southern regional state and two years as deputy prime minister and foreign minister. As deputy prime minister, he was overshadowed by Meles, and while at the foreign ministry undermined by his own Tigrean deputy, who had more experience than he did.

Therefore, although Desalegn is considered a liberal technocrat, he is unlikely to introduce substantive political reform, as any such effort will be effectively resisted by the privileged elites.

Regional security

Meles was an important player in both regional and international politics, as evidenced by his regular appearances at G-8 and G-20 meetings. Under him, Ethiopia was considered a vital ally in the War on Terror, as he threw his personal support with the weight of the country’s some 90 million people behind him. Ethiopia has one of the largest militaries in Africa and is strategically located across the Arabian peninsula, thus making Meles the United State’s primary proxy in dealing with Somalia. He also used his personal relations to the presidents  to play the role of a neutral mediator between South and North Sudan. In the last few years, he emerged as the undisputed ideological leader of Africa, representing the continent at most global events. He had become skilled at playing China against the West, which allowed him to gain vast funding and military assistance as they competed to exert influence over a country serving as the seat of the African Union. Therefore it is not without reason that international commentators fear his absence will create a huge power vacuum that could destabilize regional security. 

One of the primary concerns is that war might erupt along the highly militarized border between Eritrea and Ethiopia. From 1998-2000, the two countries fought a bloody war with casualties ranging from 70,000 to 120,000. The international community fears that renewal of such a war would force Ethiopia to withdraw its military contingent that currently supports peacekeeping forces in Sudan and Somalia. In fact, following border clashes this spring, and in an apparent reaction to Meles’ illness, Ethiopia has reinforced its army in the Northern border by withdrawing most of its contingent from Somalia. 

However, the consequences of Meles’ death on regional security largely depend on whether or not the ruling elites can manage a smooth transition. A possible split along factional lines could result in the conservative elements launching an attack on Eritrea in order to generate nationalist support. Such a split could also catalyze the disaffected population to seize the opportunity and go out to the street to bring down the regime. In the long run, if the ruling elites continue on the current path of excluding the rest of the population from real power and privilege, the country could be plunged into a civil war like the one in Syria now. Moreover, any domestic instability following Meles’ death will have direct repercussions on regional security, since domestic actors would reach out to neighboring countries in search of assistance, and many countries would be happy to get involved in order to advance their own geopolitical interests. 

The uncertainty now facing a post-Meles Ethiopia is just the latest example in the recent trend of African leaders who have stayed in power much too long, retarding the development of institutionalized governance, and leaving power vacuums behind them as they die. By glorifying Meles and financing his brutality against his potential challengers, the international community invested in a lone man rather than an institution. Now that he is gone, the future looks almost as grim for them as it has for us for so many years.