- - Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Ethiopia’s long-ruling prime minister, Meles Zenawi, a strong U.S. ally in the war on terrorism in the Horn of Africa, died this week of an undisclosed illness after having not been seen in public for nearly two months, Ethiopian authorities said Tuesday.

His death raised questions about whether the government will remain as committed in the fight against al Shabab terrorists in neighboring Somalia. U.S. military drones that patrol the region are based in Ethiopia.

Mr. Meles, whose rebel movement toppled communist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991, died in Belgium on Monday. He was 57.

He attended a Group of 20 summit in Mexico in June but failed to attend a meeting of African Union leaders held in July in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.

Ethiopian officials continued to insist that he was in “very good” health and would soon return to his duties.

Mr. Meles was credited with bringing economic growth to his impoverished nation, but also criticized for widespread human rights abuses.

In Washington, President Obama expressed reactions shared by many Western leaders.

He said he had “personal admiration for his desire to lift millions of Ethiopians out of poverty through his drive for food security.”

However, Mr. Obama, added, “Going forward, we encourage the government of Ethiopia to enhances its support for development, democracy, regional stability and security, human rights and prosperity for its people.”

In Somalia, a spokesman for the al Qaeda-linked al-Shabab militants rejoiced at news of his death, telling reporters that Ethiopia is now “sure to collapse.”

Mr. Meles sent troops into Somalia after the Islamic Courts Union forced a strict version of Shariah law on southern Somalia in 2006. Ethiopia’s invasion initially caused an increase in support for al Shabab, whose hard-line rule later alienated many Somalis.

Mr. Meles invaded Somalia against less popular resistance in late 2011, along with troops from Burundi, Kenya and Uganda. The foreign force helped wrestle away territory controlled by al Shabab. Somalia is expected to complete formation of a parliament and appoint a president in coming months, after nearly 20 years of lawlessness.

Mr. Meles‘ deputy and foreign affairs minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, 47, was appointed prime minister Tuesday in keeping with the Ethiopian Constitution.

“I assure you everything is stable, and everything will continue as chartered by the prime minister,” a government spokesman was quoted as saying.

Mr. Hailemariam hails from the country’s south, where political power — including key positions in the military — is dominated by northerners from Mr. Meles‘ Tigre tribe. Some observers doubt he will win in the next general election in 2015.

Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga has reportedly expressed concern that a power vacuum could weaken regional stability.

Power rested disproportionately with Mr. Meles‘ Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front. That allowed for an efficient enactment of his economic vision, which relied heavily on party-affiliated companies.

Economic growth has averaged 10 percent per year for much of the past decade, but critics note the boom has been very unevenly distributed, heavily dependent on agriculture and has occurred at the expense of long-term nation-building.

Mr. Meles‘ power consolidation also led to growing discontent among ordinary Ethiopians over issues such as religious freedom, land reform and ethnic favoritism.

Messay Kebede, an Ethiopian specialist and philosophy professor at Ohio’s University of Dayton, said Mr. Meles was “deft, smart and could outshine everyone.”

“But I don’t think that’s possible to repeat,” he added.

Mr. Messay foresees a brief honeymoon for Mr. Hailemariam, after which he will struggle to unite factions within the ruling party and opposition.

“He’s never been in charge. Meles controlled everything,” Mr. Messay said.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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