East Africa: Meles Zenawi – An Indelible Figure Who Leaves Mixed Regional Legacies

By Bezawit Bekele and Mahlet Mesfin



The condolences pouring in from all corners of the world by different world leaders following Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s death at the age of 57 had one similar feature. They all appreciated his diplomatic clout at regional and international level.

Ban Ki-moon, United Nations’ (UN) Secretary General, mentioned Meles’s advocacy on African issues within and outside the continent as well as his support of UN peacekeeping efforts. Barack Obama, President of the United States, on the other hand, appreciated Meles’s service for peace and security in Africa, his contribution to the African Union (AU) and his service as the voice for Africa in the world stage.

The late Prime Minister’s involvement in Somalia and his fight against terrorism in the conflict ridden Horn of Africa region had strengthened his ties with Washington. Indeed he had had a variety of roles to play in the continent during his 17 years as Prime Minister.

He has served as chairman of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in the early days of his tenure, from 1995 to 1996. He was chairman of Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) for five years.

He was also a spokesperson for Africa on the issue of climate change, during summits held at Copenhagen, Denmark; Cancun, Mexico and Durban, South Africa in 2009, 2010 and 2011, respectively.

He played an instrumental role in bringing the issue of climate change to the forefront, unlike previous times when it used to reach only Ministers and experts, by proposing that it was important enough to be handled at the heads of state level.

The Committee of African Heads of State and Government on Climate Change was born out of this proposal at the AU Summit in Sirte, Libya, for which he was appointed chairman.

The Copenhagen meeting at which Meles presented the common position of Africa on climate change was supposed to come up with the final binding documenfficials such as Hailemariam Desalegn,t on the issue. Some African leaders had criticized Meles, then, because they felt their position was compromised. While expectations were much higher, the amount of funds for climate change adaptation and mitigations proposed by Meles was 50 billion dollars by 2015 and 100 billion dollars by 2020.

Meles stood his ground amidst this criticism arguing that even if the money was lower, his position would in the long run provide sustainable funding and allow developing countries to manage the funds, themselves. With his argument, he won over his critics and represented Africa at subsequent climate summits.

Serving as the chairman of the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) was also one of the things that would be notable in Meles regional legacy. It would be his conspicuous absence at the NEPAD meeting in July, 2012, that first alerted Ethiopians of his ill health that would soon lead to his death. Representing him at the meeting in Addis Abeba was Senegalese President Macky Sall who explained that Meles was not able to attend due to health reasons, while Ethiopian o now acting Prime Minister, remained tight lipped.

The Prime Ministers death was announced early Tuesday morning this past week. Since then a lot of international and regional observers have been analyzing what his absence would mean to issues ranging from security to economic development.

Ethiopia’s major involvement at the regional level focused mainly on the volatile horn of African countries, with which it had a long standing relationship. For Meles, involvement in the region was a necessity to ensure regional stability.

One of the regional challenges that Meles had to face came from Eritrea, with whom his government fought a two year bloody war since 1998. Ethiopia’s long standing acrimonious relationship with Eritrea had continued during Meles’ time even though for he was an advocate of the seceded country’s sovereignty and independence.

This was because the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) and the Tigrian People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) had fought together united by a common cause to oust the Dergue regime, which they managed to do in 1991. However, after ensuring that Eritrea seceded through a referendum in 1993, and relationships continuing to be harmonious for a short while, things broke down as Eritrea claimed some territories from Ethiopia as rightfully its.

War subsequently broke out between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Although many analysts argued that the war was triggered by many factors, including economic causes, the issue finally ended up being a border conflict.

After a two year war, which had claimed the lives of more than 70,000 people, Ethiopia officially declared victory, which was followed by the Algiers Peace Agreement signed on December 12, 2000. In the agreement, the countries agreed to set up a neutral commission of arbitration to consider the issue and give a final and binding decision.

The Ethio-Eritrea Boundary Commission, an independent body with its seat at the Hague, Netherlands, decided that the contested area of Bademe should be given to Eritrea.

Meles’s involvement in this arbitration dispute resolution mechanism is, however, criticized by some experts who argue it was not necessary to go to arbitration as a country which has won the war.

“The decision to arbitrate might have come from Meles’ emotional attachment to Eritrea,” one of the experts explained.

The negotiations were not entirely in Ethiopia’s interest, as was not the final outcome of accepting the decision of the commission.

Tensions still remain between the two. The most recent incident occurred in January, 2012, when tourists who were visiting the volcanic area in Afar Region of Ethiopia were attacked by unknown militants, which the Ethiopian government claimed were trainees of the Eritrean government. The attack led to the reported death of five tourists and serious injuries to others.

The death of the Prime Minister comes in this scenario. Some experts argue that his presence was critical and that Eritrea might be a threat. For these experts, Eritrea may consider the death of Meles as an opportunity, especially having in mind the personality of Eritrea’s leader.

“Ethiopia has to know that Eritrea is led by Isayas Afewerki, who is very irrational and opportunistic,” one of the experts claimed. “He definitely will take Meles’s death as an opportunity, for sure, suspecting that there might be some division in the party, which might be true. Since he is a mercurial leader, the ruling government should see him with suspect.”

Experts argue that Eritrea might not wage a war but has a potential to create instability in the country using various methods including bombing by using various groups.

On the other hand, other experts argue that the relationship of the two countries is institutional so that Meles’ absence is not a worry for Ethiopia as long as there are no changes on the foreign policy of Ethiopia.

“The dispute is between Ethiopia and Eritrea and not of Issayas and Meles,” argues Jean Bosco Butera (PhD), director of University for Peace and project assistant at the Institute for Peace & Security Studies (IPSS).

Regarding policy changes, Bereket Simon, Government Communications Affairs head with ministerial portfolio, announced that there would not be any change in both internal and external policies of the country following Meles’ death, on Tuesday, August 21, 2012.

“It will be a terrible mistake for Eritrea, if they reduced the issue of the two countries to a personal level,” Butera argued. “But if they do, it will be a misread of Ethiopian situation as the Ethiopia will respond as strong as it has done before.”

The experts also cite the weakened position of Eritrea as a result of tough sanctions imposed by the international community to substantiate that Eritrea will not be a threat.

One of the effects of the Ethio-Eritrean war was the loss of the opportunity to use the ports of Assab and Massawa, which Ethiopia had been using as major outlets for its imports and exports. This, in turn, led to the strengthening of a tie with Djibouti.

Ethiopia, a landlocked country, made a contract for the use of the Port of Djibouti on paying port-services fee annually. The benefits for Djibouti are enormous; in 2008 alone, Ethiopia had paid around 700 million dollars.

Although the relationship of the two countries is mostly based on economic benefits, experts claim that the late PM had played a major role in developing the relationship.

“The mutual and peaceful friendship that Meles has cultivated for 21 years has a huge impact for the two countries to stay in peace for long in the horn,” an expert said.

Ismail Omar Guelleh, the current president of Djibouti since 1999, has close ties with the late Meles for the past 21 years.

“Such a long relationship had effects in reversing some decisions of Djibouti which might have been a disadvantage to Ethiopia,” the expert said.

Meles, upon hearing that Djibouti had intentions to increase port handling fees by as high as by 22pc in 2008/2009, sent a delegation to Djibouti which had made successful negotiations; that increment has not been made until now.

However, the expert is of opinion that the countries relationship will continue as it was even in the absence of Meles for the countries have strong economic ties, which is stronger than just personal ones. Nonetheless, they still warn that the coming PM should nurture the already cultivated relationship and create a positive influence in order to maintain the country’s interest.

By the time the EPRDF with Meles at the helm took power in Ethiopia, the country had already had two fully fledged wars with Somalia between 1977 and 1978. Under Meles’ rule, Ethiopia would again be engaged militarily with its eastern neighbor.

In 2006, Ethiopia sent troops to Somalia to aid the transitional government under Ali Mohammad Gedi from being taken over by the Islamic Courts Union (ICU). This action had gotten approval from the United States which also had interest in Somalia related to its anti-terrorism policies.

After the ICU’s defeat by Ethiopia’s military forces, the group has splintered spawning a terrorist cell known as Al-Shabab. This group has been known to have links with Al-Qaeda forces and has since come at odds both with the United States and Ethiopia.

Opinions are divided over whether the intervention was a smart choice for Ethiopia to make. The intervention is one of the failures of Meles Zenawi as Prime Minister, having in mind the amount of money it cost, the loss of human life and the fact that nothing in the sense of permanent stability has been achieved, an anonymous expert on East African politics argued.

However, he admired the smooth exit strategy of Ethiopia and thinks the nation handled the trickiest part of an intervention very well.

But to Mehari Tedla Maru (PhD), program manager of Conflict Prevention & Risk Analysis at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), the intervention was necessary to make sure that forces in Somalia understand the concerns of Ethiopia and other countries and to offer support for the TFG.

In addition, there is no doubt that the intervention had helped Ethiopia to develop close ties with the United States, Mehari argues.

“It has increased its diplomatic clout with Westerners.”

Meles’ involvement in Sudan takes on a more personal nature, playing a major role in the negotiation between Sudan and South Sudan. Meles was a trusted figure both by Khartoum’s Omar al-Bashir and Juba’s Salva Kirr Mayardit.

Following the announcement of his death, a state mourning has been declared in South Sudan for three days and the flag was to be flown at half-mast.

When South Sudan became independent in 2011, there were still unsettled issues between the two countries. The Abeyi region was an area of contention, but the two decided to allow Ethiopian troops to ensure that this border area remained demilitarized.

Meles had been helping the two countries negotiate various concerns including oil. Upon independence, 70pc of Sudan’s oil reserve went to the South Sudan and they had failed to reach an agreement over compensation. In the beginning of August the parties reached an agreement, in the presence of Thabo Mbeki, former President of South Africa who is another figure involved in the negotiations.

Meles’s death leaves behind many unanswered questions for South Sudan including problems at the border, according to Sunday Okello Angoma ( PhD), senior researcher and analyst at African Peace & Security Studies.

The expert on East African politics shares Angoma’s view. More than other issues, Meles’s personal involvement and the trust they put on him and the fact that his absence comes at a critical time in the negotiations, make it an issue which should be handled delicately.

Meles’ influence in East Africa is not limited to peace and stability issues. He was also involved in infrastructure and power integration in the region. Ethiopia had already begun exporting electricity to Djibouti and recently began test to Sudan while there is an agreement with neighboring Kenya, as well.

The export is expected to develop when the hydroelectric dam projects underway and planned are completed.

On April 2, 2011, Meles inaugurated what could possibly be his biggest legacy, if completed, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Despite the existence of a 1959 agreement between the two upstream countries, Egypt and Sudan to use the Nile amongst themselves, to the exclusion of the downstream counties, Ethiopia which is the source of 85pc of the Nile waters, had been asserting that it, too, had a right to use the Nile. The assertion has not been, however, transformed into action.

For years, Egyptians had been threatening that they would not hesitate from using force if it comes to tampering with the rights it had on the Nile, while Ethiopians held the position that they have equitable right to use the water of the Nile.

In one of his memorable speeches Meles took a stand.

“If Egypt was to plan to stop Ethiopia from utilizing the Nile water, it would have to occupy Ethiopia, and no country on earth has done that in the past”.

That was his master stroke, an action paralleled by the surprise when a magician pulls a pigeon out of a hat, according an expert who wants to remain anonymous.

Egypt was hit by the Arab spring uprising, only a few months earlier, in February 2011, President Hosni Mubarek, who has ruled Egypt for 30 years had stepped down from power. The decision was opportunistic in the sense, first the Egyptians were occupied by internal affairs to oppose the project, and internally it was a perfect method of diversion as most African countries were afraid that the Arab uprising may expand to their countries too, according to the expert.

Would the Egyptians use the same and consider the death of Meles as an opportunity undermine the GERD and reaffirm the upstream countries rights? Experts say that it will depend on the internal situation in Ethiopia.

Although the construction of the dam was initiated by Meles, it is a project which should be followed by a successor with determination and resolution, said Solomon A. Dersso (PhD), senior researcher at the Peace & Security Council Report Programme.

He does not expect major foreign policy changes in Ethiopia, even though Ethiopia has to watch out for what is going on in Egypt, as they may not act any differently, having in mind their own internal problems.

Solomon’s opinion about the fact that a foreign policy change is not expected is shared by other experts in the field of security and politics.

The personal qualities of Meles Zenawi, which made him an avid diplomat, will of course be missed but even he has shown maturity from the first years he was in power to the later years so whoever is elected should be given opportunity to prove himself, although the way two different people handle situations will be different, experts argue.

“In the issue of Eritrea, it is better to keep the status quo as long as no moves are made from Asmara; fruitful relationships like the ones with Kenya and Djibouti should be continued, and [Ethiopia] should keep an eye on the moves of Somalia and Egypt. But the negotiation between Sudan and South Sudan should be a priority for the next in line,” the East African political expert explained.

Despite the praise and criticism on the influence of PM Meles Zenawi in all aspects of regional and global forums, it is now time to see a new face as the parliament is expected to elect a permanent premier soon.

“Of course, the new comer has big shoes to fill, it is guaranteed; but we will see a different style of leadership,” Butera said.

And Yemsrach Legesse


Posted by on Sep 4 2012. Filed under top stories. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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