Thursday, 23 August 2012

Expecting a smooth transition in Ethiopia after leader's death

The Ethiopian parliament is holding an emergency session to swear in Hailemariam Desalegn as the country's new prime minister following the death of former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi earlier this week.

The government in Addis Ababa announced the death of 57 year-old Prime Minister Meles Zenawi on August 21. His ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front has been in power since 1991. Zenawi’s death has been somewhat expected due to his poor health, although the illness itself has not yet been identified reports indicate he finally succumbed to complications resulting from infection.

Zenawi dismissed the idea that foreign aid was entirely effective in alleviating poverty and encouraged domestic industry instead. While Zenawi’s human rights legacy may not be as strong as his economic successes, his tenure is being mourned by thousands in the streets of Addis Ababa. Of these successes, Zenawi achieved a double-digit growth rate in 2006, an enormous milestone for any country, especially sub-Saharan. A close trading relationship with Chinese construction businesses and other industries opened Ethiopia up to a willing Asian investment market.

His successor, Desalegn, has had extensive foreign and internal government experience in Africa’s second most-populous country. Ethiopian officials are posted throughout rural Ethiopia without quick travel options into Addis Ababa, so post of Prime Minister may take some days to fully transition to Desalegn. A party election will ensure the final decision is ratified, but this may take some weeks. Desalegn is likely to make an uncomplicated entrance nonetheless.

Ethiopia is one of the most stable countries in East Africa. The reaction to Zenawi’s death inside the country has been measured, some would even say calm. As in many developing countries, the capital is the seat of power but the rest of the country is largely autonomous. The diverse ethnic landscape makes it difficult for any one ruling party to entirely represent the majority of Ethiopians; many simply recognise regional governors of tribal chiefs rather than central authority directly in Addis Ababa.

The altitude of the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa offers brilliant clear blue skies for much of the year. The sun beats down but is not unbearable, as other sub-Saharan countries can be. Poverty is still present in the city but affluence and education is noticeable. Freedom of the press may not meet Western ideals, but many people own updated and current Facebook accounts. Africa considers the city to be the political capital of the continent and many international agencies and embassies are based there.

In fact the U.S. embassy in Addis Ababa is one of the most heavily guarded facilities in the city, its perimeter walls jutting out rudely onto the street hundreds of meters from the building. After September 11, 2001, U.S. Embassies across the world were given extra protection. So although the omnipresent blue and white taxis can pass right outside the gates, any militant attack would struggle to do significant damage.

This imposing, fortified structure reflects the unique relationship between the United States and Ethiopia, one not replicated anywhere else in East Africa.

Since the collapse of the Communist regime Addis Ababa has worked closely with Washington. The United States backed Zenawi’s military interventions in Somalia and Ethiopia has agreed in turn to host U.S. drone aircraft in many of its airfields. It is the instability in Somalia, and the threat of spreading Islamic militancy, that binds the two countries together.

Interestingly, statistics suggest that Zenawi’s own ethnic group, the Tigray, make up roughly the same percentage in the country as Ethiopia’s present belligerents, the Somalis. The percentages hover around 6.5% each, minorities in any stretch of the imagination, but the difference between the two groups could not be starker.

Ethnic Somalis in Ethiopia are generally refugees. They come across the border into Ethiopia looking to escape the fighting ravaging the Horn of Africa. Taking up residence in Ethiopian cities, the Somalis generally gravitate to certain suburbs creating pockets of Somali-majority shanty towns.

It is not uncommon to hear ethnic Ethiopians speak disdainfully of such suburbs. They will suggest, as tourists, you do not travel through these areas due to high crime and cultural strains. Somali refugees are considered a dangerous warrior-race in Addis Ababa; Ethiopian citizens find it difficult to trust them and there are overt simmering tensions.

Indeed, the 2006 invasion into Somalia by the Ethiopian military was in a sense a move to address the instability in Somalia forcing thousands of refugees across the border. This operation was meant to eject the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) from Somalia, the precursor to the Islamic militant group al-Shabaab. The invasion has been followed up with various Ethiopian military forays into western Somalia in the years proceeding.  

Somalia has been an open wound for Ethiopia for many years. As al-Shabaab imposed a strict form of Sharia law onto south-eastern Somalia, attacks inside Somalia near the capital Mogadishu increased markedly and the group quickly seized more territory. However as the group conducted bombings against Ethiopian and Kenyan targets, and began sending militants further abroad, the African Union and the United Nations fast-tracked a military intervention known as African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).

Assisted by the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, the operations in Somalia in conjunction with Kenya, Uganda and other African countries has seen limited but sustained success. Recently chasing the militant group from their stronghold in the southern Somali city of Kismayo, AMISOM have been able to establish a working transitional government in Somalia that appears to be holding together.

This relative calm in Somalia leading up to Zenawi’s death is likely to ease the power transition in the next few weeks. His legacy will be controversial but the man himself will be missed, by his people and his international partners.

Ethiopia is fast becoming a critical diplomatic player and a responsible East African nation in a dangerously unpredictable region. Whether or not the Somali instability continues to boil, the new Ethiopian Prime Minister Desalegn will be entering an office well prepared by his predecessor to deal with both internal and external issues in the short to medium-terms.

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