Ethiopian prime minister’s death prompts concern over African regional stability

With the death of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi on Monday there’s some concern that his absence will destabilized the volatile Horn of Africa region. Zenawai, who has ruled Ethiopia since 1991 was a long-time U.S. ally.

(Photo by World Economic Forum via Flickr CC.)

Long-time Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who died on Monday after a long illness, was a staunch ally of the United States in its war on terror — and a friend to many in Washington.

His death, though not unexpected, is likely to cause concern because of the country’s strategic importance.

Zenawi seized power in 1991 after he helped overthrow General Mengistu Haile Mariam. He was praised by many for his success in revitalizing Ethiopia’s economy, yet at the same time, was criticized for his record on human rights and his failure to allow democracy to flourish in Ethiopia.

But praise for the late prime minister came quickly and was effusive.

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf hailed Zenawi as “the intellectual leader for the continent of Africa”

David Shinn, the U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia from 1996-1999, agreed.

“I think every African leader who dealt with him respected his intellect, and for that reason, for example, he was named as the Africa representative for dealing with climate change,” Shinn said.

Shinn said Zenawi mastered the topic of climate change, as well as nearly every topic that interested him. While he served as prime minister, he earned business degrees from the Open University in London. Shinn said he was reported to have earned the highest score on the written exam ever given by the university.

“That may be apocryphal, I don’t know. But I’ve heard that from people on good authority,” Shinn said.

Shinn said Zenawi’s demeanor was professional and focused.

“He didn’t like to waste time bantering or chit-chatting,” Shinn said. “That was just not his idea of a good time. And as a result, if anything, he exemplified a very high intelligence. He was an exceedingly bright person.”

Ethiopia, the second-most populous African country in the African continent is poor and landlocked. It borders six other nations — all of which have varying problems that tend to move across their borders.

Both the Bush and Obama administrations respected Zenawi because of his views on counterterrorism in the Horn of Africa region. The U.S. collaborated with Ethiopia on terrorism, as well as threats from Sudan and Somalia.

But those accomplishments didn’t overshadow all the criticism. During elections held two years ago, a bullish Zenawi rejected allegations voters had been intimidated. Zenawi’s policies on issues of human rights abuses, freedom of the press and the slow pace of democratization in the country, were also criticized. Rightly so, Shinn said.

“But in terms of his impact on the continent, it was enormous,” he said.

Zenawi’s death may have an impact on regional security, which Shinn said is perhaps the reason for greatest concern about the nation’s future.

Another concern, though, is who will be Zenawi’s successor?

“My guess is, that since we now know that Meles has had this illness for an extended period of time and probably knew that he wasn’t long for this world, if you look back now in retrospect at what he has done in the last several years, he has been moving younger people into leadership positions in his ruling government party,” Shinn said.

That includes Hailemariam Desalegn, the deputy prime minister who was recently named the temporary prime pinister.

“I have no idea whether Hailemariam will remain Prime Minister over an extended period of time,” Shinn said, “but I think this is all part of a succession process that Meles has been working on quietly behind the scenes for several years, unbeknownst to most of us. So I think there will be a peaceful succession. I think people are going to be surprised at how stable Ethiopia is going to be in the coming months.”

Shinn said it’s unlikely there will be a lengthy mourning period in Ethiopia.

“Meles was not a person who was loved, he was a person who was respected. There will be a desire to respect him as the leader over the last 21 years, and for being the leader who overthrew the previous Mengistu government, but he wasn’t a greatly beloved figure,” Shinn said. “He wasn’t really personable. He didn’t mingle among the people. So it’s going to be a quiet end, but I think a respectable end.”



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