August 27, 2012

TSG IntelBrief: After Meles, What Next for Ethiopia?

As of late August 2012, Ethiopia is reeling from the loss of its long-serving leader, Meles Zenawi, who died on August 20th. Speculation about Mr. Zenawi's health first became apparent in 2009 when he was reported to be receiving treatment for an unspecified illness in Dubai. It resurfaced in recent weeks after the prime minister missed a number of public events, including an African Union summit in Addis Ababa and a parliamentary debate on his country's budget on July 18th. Acute interest in Meles' health stemmed in part from the limited information that flows from Ethiopia's extremely restricted media environment, but also reflected the sheer dominance of the late prime minister. Meles Zenawi's death takes Ethiopia into largely uncharted territory given the fact that he was only the country's second leader since 1977, and had been the overwhelmingly dominant political figure since the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front ended the 14-year dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991.

Under the constitution, the deputy prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, will be appointed as interim prime minister before the ruling party meets to select a permanent successor. (Ethiopia does have a president, but the role is largely ceremonial). Mr. Hailemariam is expected to seek the permanent post, but while he has been deputy prime minister and foreign minister since 2010, he is not thought to have wielded serious executive power, and it is not clear whether he has built up a substantial support base within the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Mr Desalegn is expected to be confirmed by parliament as the new prime minister after Mr. Meles's funeral on September 2nd in an effort to smooth the transition.


Coming Political Machinations

Unlike many of the party's core members, Desalegn does not hail from the Tigrayan area in the far north of the country, although that could prove an electoral advantage since his home kililoch, or ethnic region — the Southern Nations, Nationalities and People's Region — is the most populous of the country's nine ethnic divisions. Mr. Hailemariam also has support among the Oromo and, it is believed, some of the Amhara, while Tigrayans seem to regard him as someone who will at least protect their interests.

This is a potentially powerful combination, but Mr. Desalegn is certainly not the only person with his eye on the top job. Tewodros Adhanom, the health minister (and a close friend of the late prime minister), is another possibility, since his stance on health issues has given him a high profile at home and abroad.

Mr. Zenawi's widow, Azeb Mesfin, is another potential candidate, and is already a member of the EPRDF's powerful nine-member executive committee. There are doubts, however, as to whether any of these candidates will be able to hold together the EPRDF's multi-ethnic framework over the long term.

The next elections are scheduled for 2015. The main opposition coalition, the Ethiopian Federal Democratic Unity Forum (known as Forum, or Medrek in Amharic), has transformed into a political front with the eventual aim of becoming a single party, which should make it a more formidable united force. However, strong personalities in the six constituent parties mean that it will remain prone to divisions, while its inability to raise significant funds domestically makes it relatively easy for the government to keep it marginalized.

Until now, the stability of the EPRDF regime has been based on three main pillars: the support of the military; support from the international community (and the United States in particular); and Mr. Zenawi's charisma and personal popularity. Removing one of these pillars would clearly have a substantially destabilizing impact overall, and a cascading effect on the remaining pillars.


Ethiopia's Relationship with the International Community

International support for the regime is largely founded on Ethiopia's role in the fight against terrorism in the Horn of Africa, a hotbed of terrorist activity. And Western countries are keen to have an influence in Ethiopia — the region's largest country, with a population of around 76 million. However, the recent concern expressed by the U.S. and the United Nations over the risks to freedom of speech posed by the broad interpretation of Ethiopia's controversial anti-terrorism law of 2009 signals a slight change in stance. More recently, a high-profile trial of 24 people accused of supporting terrorist organizations has again focused attention on Ethiopia's poor record on human rights and media freedom. The defendants — 18 of whom are being tried in absentia — include a respected journalist, Eskinder Nega (who recently won a prize from a writers' group, PEN America), and an opposition politician, Andualem Aragie. Mr. Eskinder's charge relates to an online article written last September calling for non-violent protests against the regime of Meles Zenawi.

Nevertheless, analysts believe the country will continue to benefit from strong Western support given Ethiopia's strategic importance (and fast-growing economy). And donors will continue to turn a blind eye to abuses such as the reported misuse of aid by the authorities, accepting these as the cost of maintaining their presence. (Ethiopia still receives nearly US $4 billion in aid annually, giving donors a degree of leverage over the deceased prime minister's successor.) Moreover, instability in the volatile Horn of Africa will help cement Ethiopia's position as the key U.S. ally in the region.


Pressing Domestic Challenges

However, any successor will probably be more concerned with domestic issues and securing a solid support base than regional matters — at least in the short term. Should this focus persist over the longer term, international support might begin to falter, particularly if it should be accompanied by a renewed crackdown on opposition groups or a period of protracted instability, reducing Ethiopia's effectiveness as a "bulwark" against Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan.

The role of the hugely powerful military is likely to prove crucial. It wields significant influence in key economic sectors, and will resist any attempt to alter either this or its ethnic basis (it is currently dominated by the late Mr. Zenawi's Tigrayan ethnic group). However, it is entirely possible that the death of Mr. Zenawi will lead to increased ethnic, religious and regional tensions, and that the military will be called upon to repress any upsurge in opposition to the regime. The track record in this regard is fairly clear; the military has previously responded with force to quell dissent, thereby minimizing the threat posed to the authorities. Ethiopia's new leader will therefore need to work hard to retain the military's support.

Where the military is unlikely to be substantially deployed is Eritrea. Although tensions along the disputed frontier with Eritrea have increased in recent months — Ethiopian forces made a cross-border raid in March, the first acknowledged incursion into Eritrea since 2000 — outright conflict remains improbable. Eritrea's military capability has been severely eroded in recent years by the imposition of UN sanctions and a lack of funds, leaving it less capable and arguably unwilling to respond to any Ethiopian provocation.

For its part, Ethiopia is unlikely to risk damaging relations with the West by entering into a new conflict with its smaller neighbor. What is more, the country's new leader is likely to face sufficient challenges in maintaining the support of key EPRDF leaders and technocrats, and sustaining the system built up by (and largely predicated on) Mr. Zenawi's powerful presence, without simultaneously rushing into an unnecessary conflict. In this respect, an "inward facing" Ethiopia — at least for a short period — could be a positive development, even from a Western perspective.


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