The Ethiopian government announced the death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi on Aug. 21. Zenawi, 57, had held his post since the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front came to power in 1991 after overthrowing the communist regime led by former dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam.
Zenawi’s death was expected to some degree; he had been receiving treatment at an undisclosed medical facility abroad for the past two months. As a result, the ruling party likely has prepared a succession plan, and with few internal or external security threats — due largely to its proactive and authoritarian security posture — Ethiopia likely will execute its plan relatively easily.
Ethiopia does not have a clearly defined order of succession, even if the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front likely has been giving the succession issue much thought since the prime minister’s health began to deteriorate. Ethiopia’s lawmakers have been recalled from recess, but since most hail from rural areas throughout the country, it will be days before they assemble in Addis Ababa. After lawmakers return to the capital, the ruling party will hold a party leadership election in the next couple of weeks.
The leading candidate to replace Zenawi is Foreign Affairs Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. A hand-picked favorite of Zenawi who brings brings extensive domestic and international experience to the office, Desalegn already has been appointed as acting prime minister. He is seen as a statesman who can incorporate diverse ethnic groups into decision-making processes.
However, Desalegn — an ethnic Wolayta — lacks the military background of Zenawi, whose ethnic Tigrays dominate the armed forces. Therefore, a Tigray likely will be promoted to ensure military support of the civilian government. A possible candidate for this promotion is State Minister Berhane Gebre-Christos, who could move up to the post of foreign affairs minister or even deputy prime minister.
Ethiopia’s ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, is making sure that there is little that could complicate the succession process. So far, there is no apparent power vacuum in Addis Ababa. In fact, the reaction in Addis Ababa has been relatively calm. The ruling party, nominally a civilian government that has been more autocratic in practice, will try to maintain that tranquility through a combination of civilian oversight and strong military presence in all the regions of the country. To be sure, Ethiopia’s geographic and ethnic diversity make far-flung regions a source of autonomous orientation, if not strife, upon which any regime seated at Addis Ababa must forcibly impose law and order.
Meanwhile, Ethiopia’s traditional rivals, Eritrea and Somalia, are watching the events in Ethiopia closely but are in no position to take advantage of Zenawi’s death. Somalia is preoccupied with settling on a new federal government, electing new lawmakers and solidifying new government leadership, while Islamist militant group al Shabaab is boxed in southeastern Somalia by Somali armed forces, pro-Somali government militias and African Union peacekeepers. For its part, Eritrea may criticize Zenawi’s leadership, but any move by Eritrea to encroach on Ethiopian territory would be met with a harsh military response.
May 8, 1955 – born Legesse Zanai Asres in Adawa, Tigray, Northern Ethiopia. Although his father was from Adawa, his mother was Eritrean.
1975 – Recognised as an outstanding academic student but leaves Addis Ababa University and helps found the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
1989 – becomes leader of the TPLF, one of dozens of rebel groups battling Ethiopia’s Marxist leader, Mengistu Haile Mariam.
1991 – Mengistu flees Addis Ababa to exile in Zimbabwe and Meles becomes President of Ethiopia, at the head of the governing Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), an alliance of four parties.
1995 – Meles’ EPRDF sweeps elections and he becomes Prime Minister.