Meles Zenawi’s death raises threat of instability in Ethiopia and beyond


Meles Zenawi led Ethiopia for more than 20 yearsEthnic rivalries could resurface domestically, and loss of strong leader could affect security across region, observers say

A few hours after Meles Zenawi’s death was announced, British prime ministers past and present were queueing to pay tribute. David Cameron described him as an “inspirational spokesman for Africa”, and Gordon Brown said Ethiopia “made more progress in education, health and economic development under his leadership than at any time in its history”. Tony Blair, who appointed Meles to his Africa commission, spoke of his “great sadness” at the news.

In 1998 the then US president, Bill Clinton, said Meles was part of a new generation of African leaders with whom the west could do business, along with Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda. This triumvirate have indeed presided over an economic boom that has driven a narrative of African renaissance. They have enjoyed warm relations with western powers that seemed content to ignore evidence of democracy and human rights being trampled in the name of progress.

Meles, in particular, made himself bulletproof, first by turning a country synonymous with televised famine in the 1980s into what is claimed to be one of the world’s fastest growing economies, and second by setting himself up as a bulwark against Islamist militancy. Richard Dowden, director of the Royal African Society, who visited Ethiopia recently, said: “He was a regional player not least because he was the Americans’ policeman in the area. He was also very influential in the separation of Sudan and South Sudan, and in recently getting them to make up. He became a good diplomat.”

Meles built one of the strongest armies on the continent, and it saw action in Somalia and Sudan with mixed results. In 1998 he went to war against neighbouring Eritrea, costing tens of thousands of lives, and his demise creates fresh uncertainty among the sworn enemies. When the Ethiopian military wanted to march all the way to the Eritrean capital, it was Meles who stopped them, Dowden said. “There was a crucial moment when Meles sacked hundreds of officers because they didn’t like the settlement with Eritrea. I wonder now whether that might bubble up again, because it’s never been settled.”

The death of the strongman raises questions about Ethiopia’s influence over other neighbours. Adekeye Adebajo, executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution in South Africa, said: “If a new government decides it has to focus internally, that could affect what happens in the region. If there is a weaker, less confident leader, it may mean Ethiopia is not so confident in playing that foreign policy role. That could have a direct impact on security in the Horn of Africa.”

Domestic instability was “absolutely” possible, Adebajo said. “Meles’s deputy is seen as quite competent and substantial but nobody has the same clout to keep the complicated coalition together. Meles has always been seen as one of the most thoughtful leaders we produced as a continent. There will be a vacuum. They’re in uncharted waters and it will take a while before we see what emerges.”

Ethnic rivalries could be a source of instability. Meles was a Tigrayan, a group that accounts for 6% of the population but that came to dominate the political establishment under him. The Amhara ethnic group traditionally ruled the country and are likely to lobby for one of their ruling party members to take over.

For now the acting prime minister is Hailemariam Desalegn, a former university dean. Other contenders to succeed Meles include the health minister, Tewodros Adhanom Ghebreyesus; Alemayehu Atomsa, head of a party allied to that of Meles; and Meles’s widow, Azeb Mesfin, a workaholic politician.

Whoever it is, they will find it hard to match Meles’s intellect or his ability to show different faces to different audiences. Dowden interviewed him in May and described him as “the cleverest and most engaging prime minister in Africa – at least when he talks to visiting outsiders”. He added: “I found him funny, charming and self-deprecating. But then someone told me that, when addressing Ethiopians, he’s dogmatic, severe and dictatorial.”