Center for Strategic Communication

Ethiopia Location MapIn the wake of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s unexpected death on August 20, 2012, there has been much speculation as to the effects his loss will have on regional security and stability in the Horn of Africa.

Zenawi was a controversial leader, evolving from a medical student to a rebel who eventually led his party to seize power from the Communist regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991.  Assuming the post of Prime Minister in 1995, Zenawi established himself as a capable and transformative strongman who was alternately lauded by the development community and criticized by human rights advocates.   Despite the duality in his leadership, Zenawi proved to be one of the most reliable allies in the US war on terror, and his passing raises concerns for whether his successor will be so capable and steadfast in support.

Zenawi’s technocratic leadership is credited for bolstering Ethiopia’s human and economic development through infrastructure projects, poverty reduction, and large-scale public health and education efforts. Today, Ethiopia’s economic growth outpaces that other African nations with its GDP projected to grow 5% in 2012.  However, as the human rights community notes, it is easy to command a country where freedoms are limited.  Zenawi’s government adopted a hardline stance against dissent; crackdowns on political opposition and journalists, including the use of arbitrary detentions are frequent.  A broad anti-terrorism law, enacted in 2009, could be seen as facilitating this repression, but may arguably have contributed to the country’s capabilities in the counterterrorism operations in which it participates throughout the region.

Zenawi was an staunch ally in the war on terror and the Ethiopian government has been a key player in US counterterrorism efforts in the African Horn.  Ethiopia has acted both individually and cooperatively in combating the Islamist extremism of Somali-based Al Shabaab.   A 2006 military operation conducted by Ethiopian forces, together with Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG), drove the extremist Council of Islamic Courts from Somalia.

In late 2011, it was revealed that the Ethiopian government had given the US permission to use the Arba Minch airport as a base for Unmanned Aerial Vehicle operations targeting suspected terrorists in Somalia.

The threat of a power vacuum following Zenawi’s passing has been curbed by the accession of Hailemariam Desalegn to the position of Prime Minister, a title he will hold until elections in 2015.  However, as a relative unknown in Ethiopian politics, Desalegn must act immediately to consolidate his power if he is to overcome the loss of Zenawi’s leadership.  Of particular concern is the approach Desalegn’s leadership will take toward regional security objectives, specifically in combating Somali-based terrorism.

Zenawi’s death and Desalegn’s succession come at a critical moment in Somali domestic politics.  The day of Zenawi’s death also saw the first convening of Somalia’s new parliament.  The Parliament is expected to elect a speaker and the new Somali President in short order, marking the end of the nation’s transition from failed state to democracy.  Many analysts are skeptical of the new political arrangement, however, citing concerns for systemic corruption in the electoral process.  A breakdown in the Somali political framework could present an opportunity for extremists, such as those of Al Shabaab, to rebuild operations and influence in the country.

In the short-term, the US can only cautiously monitor developments. There are currently too many unknowns for officials to consider a change in strategy or relations, if one is needed at all.  While “most analysts do not expect any sudden moves,” in Ethiopia, domestic developments in Somalia are a persistent threat to regional security.  It remains to be seen whether Desalegn is able to consolidate his power, and if so, whether his leadership will be as favorable to cooperation with the US as was his predecessor’s.  Similarly, the new power structure in Somalia must consolidate and develop its own approach to dealing with terrorism both inside and beyond its borders.

Meanwhile, much rests on the joint military operation in the Somali port city of Kismayo, where African Union, Ethiopian, Kenyan, Ugandan, and Somali forces are fighting to wrest control of the city from the hands of Al Shabaab militants.  Kismayo is considered the last stronghold of Al Shabaab in Somalia, and the success of the operation could carry significant ramifications for the security environment of Somalia and the Horn of Africa, more broadly.