Ethiopian Succession Battle May Test Stability of Key U.S. Ally

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s death may cause a succession battle that could test the stability of one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies and a key ally in the U.S.’s war against al-Qaeda.

The 57-year-old premier died Aug. 20 from an infection after recuperating at a hospital in an undisclosed location from an unspecified illness. Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn is serving as acting prime minister.

Competition to succeed Meles may fracture the unity of the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front and embolden opposition groups frustrated by years of government suppression, said analysts including Jennifer Cooke, director of the Africa Program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. That may jeopardize a state-driven program that generated average economic growth of 11 percent over the past seven years, while placing at risk Ethiopia’s role as a peacekeeper in the Horn of Africa region.

“Meles has played such an outsized role in the country’s leadership that there’s no obvious successor or power broker within the EPRDF who will now take firm charge,” Cooke said in an e-mailed response to questions yesterday.

Meles’s administration mixed government spending on infrastructure like roads and hydropower plants with investment by companies including Amsterdam-based Heineken NV (HEIA), the world’s third-biggest brewer, and those owned by Saudi billionaire Mohamed al-Amoudi to spur the economy. Growth in Africa’s biggest coffee-producing nation may slow to 6.5 percent in 2013 from 7 percent this year amid the global economic slowdown, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Western Ally

Ethiopia under Meles also benefited economically from its partnership with Western allies on security issues. It’s helped fight insurgencies in Somalia, where Meles sent troops for the second time in December to help drive out al-Qaeda-linked militants, and its forces patrol Abyei, which is claimed by both Sudan and South Sudan. In 2011, the country was Africa’s biggest recipient of foreign aid, totaling $3.53 billion, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Meles came to power after building a coalition of rebel groups to overthrow Mengistu Haile Mariam’s Marxist military junta in 1991. Since then he has consolidated power by purging potential rivals and promoting those loyal to him. He also strengthened the authority of the ruling party by cracking down on opposition parties and using counter-terrorism legislation to jail reporters and dissenters.

‘Significant Tensions’

“The current government’s suppression of any kind of democratic process or debate means that there are significant tensions and resentments within the country that have had no outlet or expression,” Cooke said. “If the ruling coalition is distracted or weakened by infighting, opposition parties will see an opportunity to press their case.”

Potential successors in addition to Hailemariam include the State Minister for Foreign Affairs Berhane Gebrekristos from Meles’s Tigray People’s Liberation Front, or TPLF; Amhara Regional State President Ayalew Gobeze; and Health Minister Tewodros Adhanom Gebreyesus, who is a TPLF executive committee member, said Terrence Lyons, associate professor of conflict resolution at George Mason University in Virginia.

The TPLF forms the core of the EPRDF coalition, which in 1994 ushered in a constitution that divided Ethiopia into nine ethnically based federal regions and two autonomous cities. Besides the TPLF, the Oromo and Amhara communities and a grouping of smaller ethnic communities from the country’s south each have parties in the coalition. The Oromo make up 35 percent of Ethiopia’s population, the Amhara 27 percent and the Tigray 6 percent, according to the U.S. State Department.

Chosen One

Hailemariam was Meles’s chosen successor, Seeye Abraha, a former executive committee member of the TPLF, turned political opponent, said in an e-mailed response to questions. Hailemariam is deputy chairman of the EPRDF that along with its allies controls all but two of the seats in the nation’s 547-seat parliament. He is a Wolayta, one of three main ethnic groups in the politically fragmented southern region.

Hailemariam may not “wield much power” because officials from the TPLF will retain control of the security services and key ministries, said Michael Woldemariam, an assistant professor in the Department of International Relations at Boston University in Massachusetts.

Seeye, who served as defense minister from 1991 to 1995, was one of 12 individuals purged from the TPLF leadership in 2001 after criticizing Meles for perceived weaknesses in his handling of a two-year border war with Eritrea that ended in 2000 and cost 70,000 lives.

‘Smart Politics’

The next leader will “have to come from outside the TPLF” because of Tigrayans’ minority status, former U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia David Shinn said in an e-mailed response to questions. “It is simply smart politics for the EPRDF to share the top spot.”

“Instability may occur if new splits emerge within the TPLF,” Woldemariam said in an e-mailed response to questions yesterday. “If the TPLF can retain its unity and integrity, then I think a slide into instability is unlikely. A split in its upper echelons would likely infect the EPRDF’s other coalition partners as TPLF factions vie for support.”

A rupture in the Tigrayan group may also cause unrest in the security services it controls, he said.

Several insurgent groups operate in Ethiopia, including the banned Oromo Liberation Front, which withdrew from the government in 1993, and the Ogaden National Liberation Front that fights for more autonomy for the ethnic-Somali Ogadeni people.

Muslim Protests

Over the past 10 months, the government has also faced demonstrations by Muslims against government interference in their community in Addis Ababa and other towns. About a third of Ethiopia’s 94 million people are Muslim, according to the CIA World Factbook.

The regional importance of Ethiopia, Africa’s second-most populous nation, in fighting al-Qaeda makes the U.S. “deeply concerned at the prospect of a destabilizing or uncertain transition in Ethiopia,” Cooke said.

Ethiopia received $6.23 billion in assistance from the U.S. between 2000 and 2011, according to the State Department.

To contact the reporter on this story: William Davison in Addis Ababa via Nairobi at pmrichardson@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Antony Sguazzin in Johannesburg at asguazzin@bloomberg.net.

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