Meles Zenawi, Prime Minister of Ethiopia, is dead at 57

The BBC reports:

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has died at the age of 57, state media say, after weeks of illness. A government spokesman said Mr Meles had died in a hospital abroad – but did not say exactly where or give details of his ailment. Speculation about his health mounted when he missed an African Union summit in Addis Ababa last month.

Mr. Zenawi is believed to have died in a Belgian hospital – the Saint-Luc University Hospital in Brussels (where he was allegedly receiving treatment for an acute case of hematologic cancer). The last time he was seen in public was on the 19th of June 2012 at the G20 summit in Mexico.

For now the leadership transition in Ethiopia, Sub-Saharan Africa’s second most populous country, appears to have gone smoothly. According to the BBC report, the deputy Premier – Hailemariam Desalegn – will take over.

Mr. Desalegn is from the south of Ethiopia, away from the political centre of gravity of the country, which for centuries has been to the north – in Tigray and Amhara dominated areas.  

It is not yet clear if the smooth transition will stick. As the Economist reported a couple of weeks ago:

“power [in Ethiopia] has still rested with a clutch of Mr Meles’s comrades from his home area of Tigray in northern Ethiopia, many of them once members of a Marxist-Leninist group that used to admire Albania’s long-serving Communist leader, the late Enver Hoxha. This hard core, including the army’s chief of staff, General Samora Younis, retains a “paranoid and secretive leadership style”, according to a former American ambassador to Ethiopia, David Shinn. Were Mr Meles to leave in a hurry, relations between the young modernisers and the powerful old guard might fray.”

Under Mr. Zenawi (May 1991- Aug. 2012) Ethiopia was a mixed bag. His rule was characterized by one of the worst human rights records in the world. But he also brought some semblance of stability following the misguided and murderous Marxist-Leninist dictatorship of the Derg under Mengistu Haile Mariam; and presided over an economy with one of the fastest growth rates on the Continent.

It is also under Meles Zenawi that Ethiopia invaded Somalia to rid it of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) which was beginning to spread Somalia’s chaos into Ethiopia’s Ogaden region (it helped that the U.S. also wanted the ICU ousted from Mogadishu because of their alleged links of al-Qaeda).

A recent profile in the Atlantic summarizes it all:

“for every Muammar Qaddafi there’s a Meles Zenawi, the shrewd, technocratic Prime Minister of Ethiopia. Inside of the country, he’s known for imprisoning his political opponents, withholding development assistance from restive areas, stealing elections, and cracking down on civil society NGOs. In the rest of the world, he’s often praised for his impressive economic record, though not for his human rights. Zenawi has attracted Western support by being a responsible steward of aid money, a security partner in a rough region, and a G20 summit invitee.”

I remain cautiously optimistic that the Ethiopian ruling elite will pull through the rocky transition period. The next elections are due in 2015. In the current parliament the ruling party, the EPRDF, and its allies control nearly all of the 547 seats.

Beyond Ethiopia’s borders, the absence of Mr. Zenawi will certainly be felt in Somalia (which is presently struggling to get on its feet after decades of total anarchy and whose government partly depends on Ethiopian troops for security) and South Sudan (where Addis Ababa has been a broker in past conflicts between Khartoum and Juba). Ethiopia’s hostile relationship with Eritrea might also experience some change, most likely for the worse as whichever faction emerges victorious in Addis engages in sabre rattling in an attempt to prove their hold on power.

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UPDATE:

The Atlantic has a nice piece on the legacy of Meles Zenawi, the ailing Ethiopian Premier.

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The African Union elected South African Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to head its executive arm, the AU Commission. Ms Dlamini-Zuma is a former wife of the polygamist South African President Jacob Zuma. I hope that with Pretoria’s success in having her elected to head the AU South Africa will take a more proactive role in leading the regional organization. As I have stated before, I think the organization needs “owners” in the form of diplomatically powerful custodians. Being the region’s biggest economy, South Africa is well placed to provide strong leadership to the African Union, if it wanted to.

Still on the AU Summit, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has been conspicuously absent, fueling speculation that he is critically ill. Rumors abound that Mr. Zenawi has left the country for a Belgian hospital – the Saint-Luc University Hospital in Brussels (where he is believed to be receiving treatment for an acute case of hematologic cancer). Some opposition groups have suggested that Mr. Zenawi may have died in hospital. The last time he was seen in public was on the 19th of June. Mr. Zenawi has led Ethiopia since 1991. His record has been a mixed bag of aggressive and ambitious development projects (with results, growth has averaged over 8.4% over the last ten years) and militarism and authoritarian tendencies that have seen many opposition members detained, exiled or killed.

And in Somalia, BloombergBusinessweek reports on the massive corruption in the Transitional Federal Government.

The nearly 200-page report lists numerous examples of money intended for Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) going missing, saying that for every $10 received, $7 never made it into state coffers.

The report, written by the U.N. Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea and obtained by The Associated Press Monday, says government revenues aren’t even clear: The Ministry of Finance reported revenues of $72 million in fiscal year 2011, while the accountant general reported revenues of $55 million.

The Somali Government remains an unrepresentative shell, propped up by African Union forces and barely in control anywhere outside of Mogadishu. No elections are in sight (and rightly so. I have never been a fan of rushed post-conflict elections. See Liberia circa 1997 for details), instead the UN and the AU are presiding over a process in which Somali power brokers will put together a list of electors to appoint the next parliament. The current government’s mandate expires the 20th of August (next month).