Monday, July 30, 2012
With Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi seriously ill, East African leaders need to start worrying about what his impending exit will mean for the region.
Though the Ethiopian government has denied reports that the country’s leader has been admitted to a Belgian hospital, and even that he has gone into a coma, there is little doubt that Zenawi is not well.
Three years shy of completing his fourth term in office, this is not the way many imagined Zenawi — who has towered over the country’s political landscape — would end his years in power.
As Zenawi’s whereabouts and the status of his health remain top secret, inevitably, there is feverish speculation over what happens next in the Horn of Africa nation.
Regionally, Zenawi has been one of the key players in the fight against the Somali militant organisation Al-Shabaab. He also actively participated in resolving the dispute between Sudan and South Sudan, which has seen the two countries fight several brief border wars.
Zenawi has also been one of the movers behind massive development projects like Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia Transport Project (LAPSSET).
Many analysts in the region worry about the political situation in a post-Zenawi Ethiopia, and are sceptical that the country can pull off a smooth transition.
Prof Abdillahi Jama, a political science lecturer at Kenyatta University in Nairobi, said the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad) and other countries in East Africa need to get involved to ensure a smooth transition for the good of Ethiopia and the region.
"Ethiopia is not just an important country in the greater Horn of Africa but also in the rest of Africa and the world," said Mr Jama, who is also a member of the Independent Federal Constitutional Commission of Somalia.
Ethiopia is Africa’s oldest independent country, has the second largest population after Nigeria, and apart from a five-year occupation by Mussolini’s Italy, was never colonised.
Ethiopia has close ties with Kenya and Uganda, and Zenawi and Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame are thought to be close.
Since he came to power in 1991, Zenawi has been involved several times in conflicts in Somalia, in the larger Sudan conflict and in border tussles with Kenya and Eritrea.
Together with other East African Nile Basin countries, he has raised concerns over sharing of the River Nile waters and even threatened to go to war with Egypt.
Led by Ethiopia, which contributes to over 80 per cent of the Nile’s water but enjoys only an insignificant share, Tanzania, Rwanda and Uganda signed an agreement on the Nile River Basin Co-operative Framework in 2010 without the involvement of Sudan and Egypt.
The Ethiopian premier is also a key figure in the LAPSSET project, which will be Kenya’s biggest development project since Independence in 1963.
Ethiopia and Kenya have a power transmission agreement that involves the linking of the power grids of the two countries, allowing Kenya to import 400MW of electricity each year.
The 1,100km transmission line connecting the two countries is expected to be completed by 2016 at a total cost of $1.2 billion.
The World Bank will provide Ethiopia with a $243 million loan, while Kenya will receive $441 million to fund the project.
Zenawi is the force behind the controversial Gibe III dam that will be used for generating hydroelectric power to be exported to Kenya, Sudan, and Djibouti.
Despite the withdrawal of major financial backers like the World Bank, the European Investment Bank, the Italian Corporation and the African Development Bank, Zenawi insists the dam, which will be the world’s fourth largest upon completion, must be built "at any cost."
However, it is in the security architecture of the region that his hand is felt most. Ethiopia has the largest number of troops in the greater Horn of East Africa, and the fourth most powerful military on the continent after South Africa, Nigeria and Egypt.
The Ethiopian Air Force comes only behind that of South Africa and Egypt.
Since 2000, Ethiopia has collaborated closely with the US in covert missions against radical Islamists in Somalia.
Ethiopia has carried out large-scale military operations in Somalia without even bothering to get prior authorisation from the UN Security Council.
Last year, Zenawi announced that he would deploy troops for a "brief period" in support of Kenyan and Somali forces combating Al-Shabaab.
In Somalia, Ethiopian forces have helped liberate several towns including the capital of Hiiraan region, Beledweyne, and Bay, Bakool and Gaalgaduud regions. Ethiopian troops will also be involved in the final onslaught on Kismayu.
Zenawi joined some East African leaders in calling for tightened sanctions against Eritrea. The UN imposed sanctions on Eritrean government in late 2009, in response to its alleged role in providing assistance to Al Shabaab.
Yet, despite his regional reach, at home Zenawi’s regime has been reduced to a few insiders allowed to share in the spoils of power, but with none able to mount a challenge to replace him as head of state.
The retired but influential party official Sibhat Nega seemed to confirm this when he recently told Ethiopian journalists that there would be no regime change, whether Zenawi is dead or alive.
The premier’s close friend and top government spokesman Bereket Simon has also tried to downplay the illness of the leader and said he is just on "sick leave." Meles’ workload is enormous and he needed a break, he added.
But diplomats in Addis Ababa, pointing to his health record since 2009 when he first sought treatment in a London hospital, now term his illness chronic and "life threatening."
His absence for nearly a month from the public eye and critical government events has sparked a new wave of infighting inside the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) that could have far-reaching ramifications for the Horn and the wider eastern Africa.
The EPRDF is a coalition of four largely ethnically-based political parties, with the Tigrayan People Liberation Front (TPLF) — representing Tigrays, who make up less than five per cent of the population — running the show and providing the power base for Meles and his government.
An understanding of the country’s coalition politics helps explain why the absence of the premier — himself from Tigray — could turn out to be problematic for the region.
The TPLF played a major role toppling the Mengistu government through a bloody guerrilla war that it waged for 17 years.
However, it came at a cost, with more than 100,000 Tigrayans killed. The TPLF was created in the 1970s to fight for a Tigray Republic, but later in the 1980s amended its political programme to become a national liberation movement alongside other rebel groups across the nation.
The EPRDF coalition includes the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM) created in the 1980s, the Oromo People’s Democratic Front (1990) and the Southern People’s Democratic Movement (SPDM) (1992), all formed under TPLF "supervision."
The EPRDF has been in power since 1991 and its first decade was branded as a post-war reconstruction and stabilisation period. But the political landscape changed after 2000 when Meles’s government won the Ethiopian-Eritrean border war.
After the victory, a struggle for power erupted in the inner EPRDF ruling circle. Meles successfully neutralised his political opponents and consolidated his power.
Early this year, he "retired" some 120 generals and colonels left over from the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front guerrilla army that brought him to power in 1991.
One party rule
Through this process, he has positioned himself as a reformist and labelled his critics narrow and conservative.
Over the years, Meles has entrenched one-party rule in Ethiopia. He is resented in his homeland of Tigray, once his power base, and by the Amhara elite, the ethnic minority who previously ruled Ethiopia.
The Oromo, who represent nearly a third of Ethiopia’s close to 90 million population, have for years agitated for either greater freedom or autonomy, while the Amhara, at nearly 20 million and traditional rulers for most of the 3,000 years of Ethiopian history, have been locked out of power.
The Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) is another active rebel group in the Somali region of Ethiopia fighting for independence since 1984.
If Zenawi goes, the cohesion of this security and political structure will be at serious risk.
What complicates matters is that the threat is not only from within.
Eritrea will be keenly watching the fate of its enemy. Somali, Oromo and other rebel groups are currently based in its capital. Asmara may also wage full-scale war if the TPLF leadership ends up in disarray.
Last week, exiled Oromo rebel factions met in Norway, Oslo to discuss the future role of their struggle. They agreed to unify their fight against the current Ethiopian regime.
The deteriorating health of Zenawi, 57, can only embolden these opposition groups, though the home-based opposition are weak and fragmented.
But Meles’ sudden absence has exposed the lack of a proper succession plan. According to the Ethiopian constitution, Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn (from the SPDM) acts as the country’s leader in premier's absence.
Were anything to happen to the prime minister, his deputy would continue as acting leader until parliament elects a new leader. But there has been no official direction as to who is in charge at this time.
After the controversial 2005 election, he tried to sell his leadership as all-inclusive and appointed ministers from other regions. His deputy and three of his personal advisors are also from other ethnic groups.
But the TPLF still controls key military, intelligence, public service and business institutions. "If the transition is not smooth, there could be internal wars resulting in millions of refugees fleeing to Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan and Djibouti leading to a major crisis in all the four countries," Prof Jama warns. "Then the country will be divided into eight ethnic states.