Where in the world is Ethiopia's prime minister?
The question is not a geographical brain teaser but a concerned query about the well-being of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who has not been seen in public for two months, and about Ethiopia’s commitment to U.S. counterterrorism efforts in neighboring Somalia.
Ethiopian officials say Mr. Meles, 57, is recovering from an undisclosed illness, but he has not been seen or heard from since he attended the Group of 20 summit in Mexico in mid-June.
In his absence, the government has continued to brook little dissent from the media, activists and members of opposition parties. It also has announced that Ethiopian troops will remain in Somalia to help defeat al-Shabab, the al Qaeda-linked Islamist militant group that has ruled large areas of the Horn of Africa nation.
What’s more, government insiders say Mr. Meles has been grooming his deputy, Foreign Affairs Minister Hailemariam Desalegne, to succeed him.
But no succession plan has been announced publicly, and Mr. Meles' hold on power has been near absolute, with little in the way of institutional capacity to accommodate a transfer of power.
In addition, Mr. Meles' minority Tigray ethnic group dominates the government’s ruling coalition, which has stoked deep ethnic resentments and heightened the risk of a scramble for power if the prime minister is no longer in charge.
"Ethiopia is a very traumatized society, and people could use this window of uncertainty as a chance to rise up," said Obang Metho, executive director of the Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Arlington.
Such a scenario, observers say, could dramatically shift government attention and resources toward domestic issues and hamper Western- and African Union-led efforts to stabilize Somalia.
Mr. Meles' government sent hundreds of Ethiopian troops into Somalia in November to fight al-Shabab. They have helped wrestle away towns in central Somalia, train local militia and prevent spillover along Ethiopia's long border with Somalia, which has allowed AU troops to advance toward other al-Shabab strongholds.
Ethiopia invaded Somalia in 2006 to fight Islamists, but that move was unpopular among Somalis and gave rise to al-Shabab. This time, Ethiopia’s presence in Somalia has been more welcome, given the ruthless governance of al-Shabab militants.
Ethiopia also has attacked militant bases in Eritrea, which has been accused of supporting al-Shabab.
Ethiopia is home to a U.S. drone base operating from a small civilian airport in the southern town of Arba Minch. Mr. Meles' regime receives billions of dollars in U.S. assistance.
Economic growth has averaged more than 10 percent over the past eight years, spurred by low taxes, improvements to infrastructure and strong foreign investment.
But economic inequality remains stubbornly high, with per capita income at about $1,000 a year and youth unemployment at 25 percent, according to the CIA World Factbook 2012.
Meanwhile, the government has cracked down on Muslim protesters and forced thousands of people from their land in Gambella and South Omo to make room for commercial agricultural projects.
An aide to a U.S. senator involved in African affairs described Mr. Meles' absence as unsustainable and said it's anybody’s guess how the country might unravel.
David Shinn, a former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, said domestic unrest is unlikely to have much impact on Ethiopia’s policy in Somalia because self-interest is guiding the government’s involvement there.
"Any government in [Ethiopia's capital] Addis Ababa will link unrest in Somalia to potential or actual unrest in Ethiopia’s Odaden region," Mr. Shinn said, referring to the Ethiopian territory that borders Somalia.
The Ethiopian government likely sees itself benefiting from the U.S. drone operation in terms of security and intelligence-sharing with the West.
A spokesman in the U.S. Bureau of African Affairs said the United States has been in contact with several Ethiopian officials since Mr. Meles' disappearance but would not speculate on what changes might occur should the prime minister not return to his duties.
Mr. Meles took power after the fall of the communist Haile Mariam Mengistu government in 1991 and was re-elected amid accusations of voting fraud in 2005.