ETHIOPIA: Meles Zenaw’s Succession, a tightrope act

The Indian Ocean Newsletter N°1338 | August 25, 2012

While his sickness did not give Prime Minister Meles Zenawi time to prepare for his succession, he was nevertheless able to sow the seeds of it in the ministerial reshuffle that followed the general election in May 2010. At the time, he promoted the Southerner Haile Mariam Desalegn to the posts of deputy chairman of the EPRDF (ruling coalition), minister for foreign affairs and Deputy Prime Minister. Desalegn has now taken over as acting Prime Minister, possibly until the election in 2015, provided that he can impose his will on the executives of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF, hard core of the EPRDF). You can find out more in our special report “Zenawi’s death leaves a ticking time-bomb” (see below) on

Haile Mariam Desalegn, the temp

A qualified engineer who did not participate in the EPRDF’s armed struggle to gain power, Haile Mariam Desalegn symbolises a generation break in the Ethiopian leadership. But he has neither the historical legitimacy nor the political experience of a Meles Zenawi who purged the TPLF of its extreme nationalists in 2000, forcibly sidelined the opposition and won the 2010 election, before promoting Haile Mariam Desalegn as his potential successor.

All this while keeping tabs on him and maintaining the TPLF’s hold on the army and the security organs. Meles therefore appointed a colleague to Haile Mariam Desalegn to do this, namely a Tigrayan as Secretary of State for foreign affairs, in the person of the former ambassador Berhane Gebre-Kristos. Today, Meles’s partisans should do likewise, in backing the appointment of Haile Mariam Desalegn as EPRDF chairman and Prime Minister, but in taking Berhane Gebre-Kristos or another Tigrayan as vice president of the governing coalition and Deputy Prime Minister.

Azeb Mesfin in a bad position

The scenario above, which aims to better guarantee the interests of the Tigrayan elite (a minority in the country), hits against the ambitions of certain TPLF leaders who want the post of Prime Minister and EPRDF chairman to remain in the hands of one of their number. Several TPLF leaders could be attracted by this idea and could well see themselves as potential candidates to succeed Meles Zenawi, namely Arkebe Okubai, Abay Tsehaye, Tsegay Berhe and the minister for health, Tewodros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. But splits in the TPLF risk neutralising their possible attempts to do so.

The main looser in the new situation will be Meles Zenawi’s widow, Azeb Mesfin, a Member of Parliament and member of the TPLF executive. She underwent a rapid political rise during her husband’s lifetime, but since he was hospitalised in July, the Ethiopian senior civil servants have not been quite so servile towards her. A sign that does not lie! Close to army high command, General Samora Younis and other senior officers promoted by her late husband, Azeb Mesfin will have to fight hard to not be sidelined from power. But her positions are ultimately under threat, because she is little appreciated by the grass roots TPLF activists and hated by certain TPLF veterans like Sebhat Nega (see p.3) who will be tempted to make her pay the time they have spent in the long grass.

More collegiate leadership?

Meles Zenawi’s level of involvement in the country’s day to day government and security activity has been too substantial for it to be taken over by any single successor. Not even Haile Mariam Desalegn would have the required calibre. His appointment as acting Prime Minister last week by the EPRDF was intended mainly to calm down the coalition’s internal divergence and to pull the rug from under the feet of the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO, member of the EPRDF) which wanted a new Prime Minister to be chosen from among their number.

During the two decades that Meles Zenawi reigned politically, the Oromo (OPDO) and Amhara (ANDM) parties in the ruling coalition have been systematically kept at arm’s length and brought to heel by the TPLF, even though their ethnic communities are the largest in the country. Unless the new Prime Minister is drawn from among their ranks, these two parties will apply pressure for political and economic power to be shared in a manner better balanced to their advantage. The TPLF leaders will have to find a way of complying with this aspiration and remain unscathed. A difficult tightrope!

Meles Zenawi’s death leaves a ticking time-bomb

August 24, 2012 | ION

The death of Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi on the night of Aug. 20 will amount to no less than a time-bomb for the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and for its hard core, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) because it will ignite previously restrained ambitions of his would-be successors.
Haile Mariam Desalegn, former adviser to the Prime Minister and current vice prime minister, was named as acting leader. But there’s no saying Desalegn, an engineer from southern Ethiopia who was Meles Zenawi’s favorite, will be able to impose his authority in lasting fashion on TPLF bosses from the north of the country.

Despite an appearance of calm, the fight for power has already begun behind the scenes. Some TPLF leaders like Meles Zenawi’s widow, Azeb Mesfin, whose political ambitions grate on others in the party, could seek the top post for themselves or for one of their own. The leaders Amharas and Oromos from EPRDF are calling for the post to fall to a non-Tigrean. This report will help you examine the complicated equation of Meles Zenawi’s succession.

Indian Ocean News Letter (ION)

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