The government of Ethiopia announced late last night that Prime Minister Meles Zenawi had died, ending weeks of intense speculation over his condition and throwing the country's leadership into the next phase of an uncertain transition. A tense atmosphere in the country, especially in the capital, Addis Ababa, has been heightened, although stability has held throughout the period of Meles's absence from office since late June.
It will be difficult for the ruling party - the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which is dominated by the Meles’s Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) - to replace Meles. While not a founder of the TPLF, he rose to lead the insurgency which toppled the previous regime in 1991, and managed to stay on top of the movement and the ruling elite for the following two decades. He oversaw a purge of dissidents within the ruling party following criticism over his conduct of the 1998-2000 war with Eritrea, and he orchestrated the crackdown on the political opposition following the heavily contested 2005 elections - during which nearly 200 people were reportedly killed, and tens of thousands detained.
In the years since 2005, Meles pushed through a series of measures which closed political space, and entrenched the position of the EPRDF – dramatically expanding the party’s membership base, and marginalizing the opposition. At the 2010 elections, the EPRDF and allied parties took control over all but one seat in parliament.
In theory, this leaves the EPRDF in a fairly comfortable position in terms of the impending leadership transition. Meles's death should precipitate a leadership contest within the EPRDF, and once this is finished, parliament is sure to endorse the party’s new candidate for the premiership. There is little prospect of a sustained movement by opposition parties to destabilise the process, or life in Addis Ababa. While insurgent movements exist, none are in a position to challenge the military or seriously threaten security in the country.
However, the EPRDF is not a monolithic organization, and nor is the TPLF. Although Meles had initiated a process of 'renewal' in the party’s senior leadership positions – which would in principle have seen him step down in 2013 ahead of the next polls in 2015 – in practice, power rested firmly in his hands, and there were doubts about whether he intended to relinquish power at all.
Moreover, his death will have thrown any plans into disarray. Senior figures in the EPRDF, and especially TPLF, will now be looking to assert and protect their interests, with a view to maintaining their positions and influence under the new dispensation.
In the near term, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Hailemariam Desalegn will act as interim prime minister, and as interim chair of the EPRDF. However, there are doubts as to whether Hailemariam - an ethnic Wolayta, and former president of Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Region - will take charge more permanently. Many see him as a figurehead, part of a gesture by Meles and the ethnic Tigrayans to give more prominence to other ethnic groups under the system of Ethnic Federalism introduced by the EPRDF. Senior figures within the TPLF, nonetheless, remain in key posts - notably dominating the military hierarchy and key positions in the economy.
The question now is whether the elite can come to a consensus on a new EPRDF leader, and then whether that leader will prove able to manage the balance between elite interests while keeping the country's economic and security agendas on track. For a country that has only had three changes of power since the Second World War, there is little useful precedent to shed light on how the process will play out. However, it seems certain that Meles can not be replaced, and that a change is coming to the way Ethiopia is governed.
Regional and international anxieties
This raises interesting prospects, especially in terms of Ethiopia's relationship with key neighbours - most importantly with Eritrea. It is unlikely that Ethiopia will shift its course with respect to its interventions in Somalia or its negotiations with Egypt and Sudan over the use of Nile waters, there were already signs emerging earlier this year that a decade of stalemate in relations with Asmara may have begun shifting.
A leadership transition in Addis Ababa presents an opportunity for international engagement to promote reconciliation between the two countries' border stand-off. However, there is also the risk that Eritrea sees its interests best served by stoking any instability that emerges during the next phase of Ethiopia's transition; or that Addis Ababa seeks to pre-empt such a move by more robustly intervening in Eritrea.
Meles's diplomatic absence will also be felt within the African Union, where he has been a key presence in multilateral negotiations – in the region, e.g. between Sudan and South Sudan, or beyond, e.g. over climate change or through the G8 or G20.
Developments in coming weeks in Ethiopia have the potential to affect the Horn of Africa's political, economic and security landscape for years to come.
Ethiopia and Eritrea: Rising Tensions Amid New Opportunities for Engagement?
Jason Mosley, Expert Comment, July 2012