What next for Ethiopia after Meles Zenawi? Possible scenarios

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia Hailemariam Desalegn (left) will have a struggle on his hands to get the nod of power barons allied to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi (right) who has died at 57. Mr Hailemariam will be sworn in as interim leader. PHOTOS  AFP | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Ethiopia could be in for a bumpy ride ahead as the country seeks to come to terms with the huge vacuum left by the death of its totalitarian leader Meles Zenawi, who has died at the age of 57.

According to analysts, Mr Meles' excessive role in the day-to-day operations of the government weakened its institutional ability, suggesting difficult days ahead for a transition.

Born in Adawa town of the northern Tigray region of Ethiopia in 1955 and one of the most brilliant students of his time, Mr Meles joined Addis Ababa University's medical school before quitting to join the Tigrayan rebels movement against Mengistu Hailemariam's brutal military regime.

Outspoken, humorous and hot-headed, Mr Meles became the leader of the guerrilla movement in 1989 and overthrew Mengistu in 1991. He that year became President of Ethiopia's transitional government at the age of 34, and became prime minister in 1995.

During his 21 years in power, Mr Meles ruled Ethiopia with an iron fist. His inner power base eliminated potential opponents, restricted media freedom and tightly controlled the operations of non-governmental organisations.

Thousands jailed

Thousands across the vast country were also jailed due to their differing political stands.

His ruling Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) honed the "developmental state" leadership style which restricts democratic rights and emphasises on development and the alleviation of poverty.

Mr Meles was a key western ally in the region, particularly the US in its fight against terrorism in the horn of Africa region. He was also a key player in Somalia affairs and in the negotiations for peace between former civil war foes Sudan and South Sudan.

Mr Meles was a chief negotiator for Africa in climate change talks, chairman of the New Partnership for Africa's Development (Nepad) and in the regional Intergovernmental Authority for Development (Igad) bloc.

He is credited for building a fast-growing economy (has averaged eight per cent growth for the last seven years) and huge infrastructure projects spanning road, telecoms and giant hydropower dams across the nation of 85 million.

Recently he was at the forefront of an ambitious multi-billion dollar infrastructure project that roped in Kenya and South Sudan.

His death brings both opportunity and challenges for Ethiopia and the wider eastern African region in terms of stability and democratisation. The country is currently facing around 12 armed opposition groups include secessionist groups fronted by Ogaden and Oromo rebels, while it maintains a bitter relationship with Eritrea, which seceded peacefully.

In the short term there may be no regime change, but various political scenarios suggest Ethiopia is set to turn a new political chapter.

The ruling EPRDF coalition includes the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM) created in the 1980s, the Oromo People's Democratic Front (1990) and the Southern People's Democratic Movement (SPDM) formed in 1992, all under the "supervision" of the dominant Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF), of which Mr Meles has been the long-time chairman.

Minority lead

Mr Meles was a Tigray, who form only about five per cent of the population, but dominate government, including in the military and intelligence.

Deputy prime minister and foreign minister Hailemariam Desalegn, a southerner, is expected to be appointed as new interim leader until the EPRDF-dominated parliament appoints a new prime minister.

Mr Hailemariam is a water engineer and former university lecturer and may appease the majority ethnic groups such as the Amhara.

Three possible post-Meles scenarios are immediately evident. On has the powerful Tigrayans (or Tigrians) fighting to retain their stranglehold on the military and intelligence apparatus.

Unless TPLF power barons crush all opposition, the Amhara would certainly want to use the Meles vacuum to come back to power either through negotiations or by taking up arms.

In the case of the latter option, wider instability and chaos would ensue, with a distracted Ethiopia unable to carry out its important policing role in the Horn of Africa.

Another scenario ropes in regional trouble spot Eritrea, Ethiopia's arch-foe. The two countries fought a deadly border war in 1998-2000, with death tolls estimated to have reached 100,000.

They both maintain hundreds of thousands of troops in the border town of Badme, which Asmara accuses Ethiopia of occupying.

Eritrea could use multiple techniques to weaken Addis Ababa, including by propping up more rebel groups. Somali, Oromo and other rebel groups are currently based in Asmara, long a source of angst for Mr Meles.

Eritrea could also wage all-out war if the TPLF leadership is seen to be in disarray.

On the other hand the TPLF could also attack Eritrea in an attempt to unite Ethiopians behind a war and impose emergency rule.

The third scenario involves pseudo-compromise, where the TPLF could allow a non-Tigrayan party to come to power, while maintaining its grip on the military and intelligence arms.

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