Jerome Starkey, Africa Correspondent
World leaders paid tribute to Ethiopia’s controversial leader Meles Zenawi yesterday and pondered the future of a country left rudderless by the death of one of their most steadfast allies.
State television said that the Prime Minister died late on Monday night from an infection picked up in a foreign hospital, where he had been battling an undisclosed illness since June.
David Cameron said that Mr Meles, 57, was an “inspirational spokesman for Africa” who set an example for the region by lifting millions out of poverty. President Zuma of South Africa said that he was an “exceptional leader”.
Mr Meles was fêted by the West after toppling a communist junta in 1991. He led an economic renaissance but had a ruthless approach to dissent. His anti-terrorism legislation, which was used to jail two Swedish journalists, has been criticised by rights campaigners.
Mr Meles’s deputy, Hailemariam Desalegn, is to be sworn in as chairman of the cabinet, but analysts said that it was unlikely that he would fill the prime ministerial role permanently.
“[Mr Meles] was more than just a party leader. He had become the ayatollah of the political establishment,” said Medhane Tadesse, a political analyst in Addis Ababa. “There is no strong individual to automatically replace him.”
Raila Odinga, the Kenyan Prime Minister, warned of instability. He said that Ethiopia was “fairly fragile” with “a lot of ethnic violence”.
There had been widespread speculation about the Prime Minister’s health after he failed to attend an African Union summit in Addis Ababa, the capital, last month. Diplomats said he was being treated for a blood disorder at a hospital in Brussels.
State radio announced that his deputy, Hailemariam Desalegn, would be sworn in as chairman of the Cabinet but analysts said it was unlikely he would ever fill the prime ministerial role permanently.
Berhanu Nega, the mayor of Addis Ababa, and Azeb Mesfin, the late Prime Minister’s wife, have both been mooted as possible successors but analysts warned the process may take weeks. Elections aren’t scheduled until 2015.
Ethiopia under Mr Zenawi remained a key US ally, particularly in terms of counter-terrorism co-operation, and his death raises the prospect of fresh instability in an already volatile region. Ethiopian troops are currently deployed inside Somalia, where they fought against the islamist militants al-Shabaab.
A former US ambassador to Ethiopia, David Shinn, said Mr Zenawi was a meticulous planner who would have tried to engineer a handover if he had known about his illness.
Yet Zenawi’s demise was sudden. He was last seen in public in June, a few weeks after he addressed a closed session at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. A guest who saw him taking questions said he showed no signs of ill health and that his mind was “sharp as a tack”.
At the meeting he said he planned to take a long vacation when his term ended in 2015. He also said he hoped to work within the party’s training wing to develop a new cadre of leaders who would keep the EPRDF in power.
Mr Tadesse said that process had been “prematurely interrupted” by Zenawi’s death, raising the prospect that veteran members of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TLF), which formed the rump of the Prime Minister’s power base, would seek power.
“The EPRDF is a coalition but most of the coalition members are not strong enough on their own,” he said. “At least in terms of transition the dynamic maybe worked out through the TLF. It’s going to take time.”
He said it was unlikely that Zenawi’s wife would take over. “Whatever influence she might have had must have been closely linked to Meles. I’m not sure she will have the necessary political clout, credibility and political constituency to play a major role,” he added.
A businessman in Addis Ababa said the Government had increased the number of guards outside the homes of prominent opposition activists.
Bereket Simon, the government spokesman, said there were no guards and he denied reports that the army was on standby along the disputed border with Eritrea. He said it was “the same old peaceful situation”.