Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi died on August 20 after months of speculation about his health. Meles Zenawi, a former guerrilla leader, had come to power in 1991, when he became interim President after his Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), aligned with other groups in the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), ousted the military regime of Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam. A few years later, he became prime minister, a position which he held until his death. During the past years, criticism against his government’s increasing repression and the political lockdown had been growing as the EPRDR was strengthening its grip on power, demonstrated by the party’s election victory in May 2010, when the EPRDR, together with allied parties, landed almost all parliamentary seats. A government spokesman has announced that Meles Zenawi’s deputy, Hailemariam Desalegn, will replace him until the next elections, scheduled for 2015.

Impact on country risk

The death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi will likely have a major impact for the country and the wider region. After all, Meles Zenawi was a spokesman for the continent and under his rule Ethiopia had been active militarily in Somalia while hosting peace negotiations between Sudan and South Sudan. Moreover, he was Ethiopia’s undisputed strongman. Hence, his death seems to open a power vacuum, making the political transition uncertain. Desaleng’s chances to remain prime minister in the longer term are rather slim, as he is reported to lack significant support of Ethiopia’s powerful army and to be an outsider within the ruling EPRDF, not originating from its main Tigrayan ethnic group. However, while half a dozen of senior EPRDF figures are tipped as potential longer term successors to Meles Zenawi, a clear successor has not yet emerged. In the meanwhile, the country’s existing challenges such as high poverty, religiously motivated protests, regional instability in the Horn of Africa and international criticism against the poor human rights record and limited democracy may further complicate the transition.

Analyst: The Risk Management Team, l.vancauwenbergh@credendogroup.com