Africa

Meles's death creates a vacuum

David Smith

Just a few hours after Meles Zenawi's death was announced, British prime ministers - past and present - were queueing to pay tribute.

An Ethiopian man prays as he holds a poster of the late Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi. (AFP)

David Cameron described him as an "inspirational spokesman for Africa" and Gordon Brown said Ethiopia "made more progress in education, health and economic development under his leadership than at any time in its history". Tony Blair, who appointed Meles to his Commission for Africa, spoke of his "great sadness" at the news.

In 1998, then-United States president Bill Clinton said Meles was part of a new generation of African leaders with whom the West could do business. The others were Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda. This triumvirate have presided over a boom that has driven the African renaissance narrative. They have enjoyed warm relations with Western powers that seemed content to ignore evidence of democracy and human rights being trampled in the name of progress.

Meles, in particular, made himself bulletproof, first by turning a country synonymous with televised ­famine in the 1980s into what is claimed to be one of the world's fastest-growing economies, and second by setting himself up as a bulwark against Islamist militancy.

Richard Dowden, director of the Royal African Society, said: "He was a regional player, not least because he was the Americans' policeman in the area. He was also very influential in the separation of Sudan and South Sudan and in recently getting them to make up."

Mixed results
Meles built one of the strongest armies on the continent and it saw action in Somalia and Sudan with mixed results. In 1998 he went to war against neighbouring Eritrea, which cost tens of thousands of lives, and his demise creates fresh uncertainty among the sworn enemies.

His death raises questions about Ethiopia's influence over other neighbours. Adekeye Adebajo, director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution in South Africa, said: "If there is a weaker, less confident leader, it may mean Ethiopia is not so confident in playing that foreign policy role. That could have a direct impact on security in the Horn of Africa."

Domestic instability was a possibility, Adebajo said. "Meles's deputy is seen as quite competent and substantial, but nobody has the same clout to keep the complicated coalition together. Meles has always been seen as one of the most thoughtful leaders we produced as a continent. There will be a vacuum."

For now, the acting prime minister is Hailemariam Desalegn, a former university dean, who will remain at the helm until an election in 2015. Other contenders to succeed Meles include Health Minister Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Alemayehu Atomsa, head of a party allied to that of Meles, and Meles's widow, Azeb Mesfin, a workaholic politician.

Whoever it is, they will find it hard to match Meles's intellect or his ability to show different faces to different audiences. Dowden interviewed him in May and described him as "the cleverest and most engaging prime minister in Africa – at least when he talks to visiting outsiders. But then someone told me that, when addressing Ethiopians, he's dogmatic, severe and dictatorial." – © Guardian News & Media 2012

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