Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s 20 August death ended weeks of speculation over his medical condition. A tense situation now exists regarding who will replace him and what impact this might have on Ethiopia and the region.
Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Hailemariam Desalegn will most likely act as the interim prime minister. Although the ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, is dominant in political terms, it comprises a number of factions, of which Meles’ Tigray People’s Liberation Front is dominant. Hailemariam is an ethnic Wolatya and is seen by many as a figurehead, representing a minor faction.
The challenge, therefore, is whether it is possible to identify a leader who is able to balance the interests of factions while meeting the significant challenges that face the country.
Despite significant economic and development growth during Meles’ latter years as president, Ethiopia remains one of Africa’s poorest countries. Over 80 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line and many have limited access to clean water, health care and education. Poor governance and corruption are widespread.
Meles’ death also leaves a void in regional matters. His involvement in negotiations between Sudan and South Sudan was instrumental in the deployment of the United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei. This force, solely manned by Ethiopian soldiers, patrolled the contested area between both countries.
Ethiopia has also invaded Somalia twice in recent years and is also involved in negotiations with Egypt and Sudan over the use of the Nile River waters.
Of greatest concern, however, is Ethiopia’s relationship with arch-rival Eritrea. A leadership transition may present an opportunity to promote reconciliation and to end the border dispute. It could also provide an opportunity for Eritrea to exploit what might be a time of instability in Ethiopia. Alternatively, Ethiopian leaders may seek to consolidate their nationalistic position by resuming hostilities.
It is unlikely that Meles will be replaced by someone with his authority. Developments in the coming weeks, therefore, could have a major impact on the region’s political, economic and security outlook.