Meles Zenawi: An Ethiopian Oak Falls and the East African Forest Sways

Meles Zenawi
Meles Zenawi the late Ethiopian Prime Minister

In life, Ethiopia’s hard-headed prime minister Meles Zenawi polarised opinion. Whether cheerleaders of his “authoritarian developmentalism” or critics of his regime’s unrelenting bid to control civil society and opposition parties, few questioned Meles’s centrality in the region.

In death his legacy will cast a long shadow. Meles was one of the few politicians anywhere to understand the region’s longest-standing conflicts – in Somalia and Sudan. An inward-looking successor would disrupt the brokering of a regional peace.

One of the first questions following the death of Meles was whether the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front would be able to organise a credible succession.

The former deputy prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn’s victory suggests the political base of the regime has widened beyond its core of Tigrayan guerrilla fighters who overthrew Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991.

Some of those veterans, such as army chief of staff General Samora Yunus, want a political rebalancing to counter criticism that the regime is Tigrayan-dominated.

Perhaps Hailemariam’s strongest cards are his Southern minority Wolayta origins and that he was Meles’s choice. Power struggles between regional factions and the centre in Addis Ababa might prompt the military into diversionary adventures: a strike against Eritrea for example.

Relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea have been delicately poised since the end of the 1998-2000 war. That fragile peace was partly due to the strange chemistry between ‘brother enemies’ Meles and Eritrea’s Isaias Afewerki.

If Isaias exploits uncertainties in Addis with a military foray or support for Ethiopian dissidents, then confrontation could quickly follow.

It makes sense for Addis, and others in the region, to use the pretext of a new leader to restart substantive negotiations with Asmara.

It could also help AU troops’ bid to regain control of Kismayo port in Somalia from Al-Shabaab, whom UN investigators claim Eritrea had been backing.

More generally, Ethiopia’s role in Somalia provides key support for Ugandan, Burundian and Kenyan troops formally in the AU mission there.

Relations between Addis Ababa and the Sudans are harder to guess. Khartoum’s Islamist politicians supported Meles in the 1980s in his fight against Mengistu, who was backing the Southern-based Sudan People’s Liberation Army. That all changed in 1995 when agents for Sudan’s National Islamic Front regime tried to assassinate Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak attend- ing a summit in Addis Ababa.

An outraged Meles switched allegiance forthwith to Southern Sudan. Subsequently, he became one of the strongest backers of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between North and South a decade later. His knowledge of both sides explains why the border and security talks between Sudan and the now independent South Sudan were held in Addis this year.

Facilitator of those talks and a kindred spirit of Meles, South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki will hugely miss the Ethiopian leader’s expertise.

Political insiders in Addis suspect that the United States and Britain may exploit Meles’s demise by stepping up pressure on the regime to reform. That could backfire, especially if it undermines Hailemariam. The new government might feel compelled to face down outside pressure.

Western relations with Meles were a tricky balance between their counter-terror strategy and his carefully planned national ambitions.

Western states were providing some $4 billion in aid a year, most of which went into schools and clinics, as Meles solicited investment from India, Turkey and China. Meles’s plans to boost power generation fivefold to 10,000 megawatts by 2015 was partially financed by Chinese companies.

His pet project – the $4.5 billion Grand Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile – looks certain to go ahead despite Egypt’s hydrological and political worries. As a symbol of the strong state and economy, the dam may stand as a regional monument to the man behind it.