With death of Ethiopian leader Meles, US loses an anti-terror ally (+video)
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who died yesterday, was one of the US's closest allies on the continent, particularly when it came to efforts to combat Somali Islamists.
One of the Westâ€™s most important allies in Africa, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, has died unexpectedly without leaving a clear successor, raising fears of increased instability in a volatile region.
Mr. Meles died late yesterday from a â€śsudden infectionâ€ť following treatment in Belgium for an unspecified illness, state television reported.Â His body was expected to arrive back to Ethiopia tonight.
A period of national mourning was immediately declared and a state funeral would be planned â€śin due course,â€ť said Bereket Simon, the countryâ€™s communications minister and a long-time friend of Meles.
Bereket refused to specify what illness the prime minister was being treated for, telling reporters in Addis Ababa only that he â€śhas been quite ill for some time.â€ť
"He has been struggling to be healthy in the last year,â€ť he said. â€śOne of the best things about him was that he never considered that he was ill and he was up to the job every time, every day, every evening.â€ť
The US counted Meles as one of its closest allies on the continent, and USAID has given an average of $700 million in development support a year to the Ethiopian government for the last four years, most of which was devoted to health and education spending.
He was a leader who managed both to lift millions of his countryâ€™s citizens from poverty and to play the role of regional power-broker and anti-terror hawk.Â He was also a central figure in peace negotiations between Sudan and South Sudan, boosted the presence of the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, and was regularly called upon as a â€śvoice of Africaâ€ť abroad.
That friendship has developed further amid the USâ€™s growing concern about terrorism in Africa. Washington says terrorist groups have found safe haven in neighboring Somalia, and under President Obama, Meles has allowed US unmanned drones to take off from his countryâ€™s airports for spying missions over his chaotic neighbor. HeÂ has also twice invaded Somalia to pursue Ethiopian domestic rebels and their ally, the Islamic Courts Union, which the US believes has harbored Al Qaeda.Â
Crackdowns on personal freedomÂ
He was, however, facing growing criticism over new laws on media, advocacy groups, and aid agencies that his detractors claimed were designed to stamp out all opposition to the ruling party, the Ethiopian Peopleâ€™s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). An anti-terror law gave police extra powers of arrest.Â
â€śEthiopiaâ€™s government should commit to respect for human rights and core rights reforms in the coming days and weeks,â€ť said Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch.Â â€śThe countryâ€™s new leadership should reassure Ethiopians by building on Melesâ€™s positive legacy while reversing his governmentâ€™s most pernicious policies.â€ť
The prime ministerâ€™s increasingly hard line against opposition intensified after the 2005 elections, largely seen to be the most democratic in the country, in which parties opposing the EPRDF won a surprising number of seats.
When opposition supporters gathered to protest alleged vote rigging, Meles ordered specialized army units onto the streets to disperse them forcefully. As many as 200 people died.Â Since then, repressive new laws have severely restricted the work of aid agencies, advocacy groups and the media, critics argue.Â
'A large hole' left behind
Hailemariam Desalegn, the deputy prime minister, took the reins of the country today, as stipulated in the constitution, but he is not expected to be Melesâ€™ long-term successor.
There is no clear candidate for the job. The ruling EPRDF is a coalition of parties formed along ethnic lines representing markedly different corners of the country.Â
Discussions of a successor could unearth tensions between politicians from different regions. Northerners have run Ethiopia since 1991, and sources suggested that southern candidates would push to succeed Meles.Â
â€śThe next few months will be really critical,â€ť says Richard Downie, deputy director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. â€śWe could see rivals emerge, and thereâ€™s the wildcard of opposition outside the ruling party, and whether they will see this as a chance to assert themselves.
â€śThe EPRDF could ride out the storm, but I feel that heâ€™s left a large hole in the center of government because of the way that Melesâ€™s managed the country.
â€śItâ€™s been such an authoritarian style leadership based on his individual personality and force of character."