Death of Ethiopia leader expected to affect region
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ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia -- Ethiopian leader Meles Zenawi, who during 21 years of repressive rule transformed his nation into a regional powerhouse, has died of an unspecified illness, depriving the United States of a key ally in the battle against al-Qaida-affiliated rebels in Somalia.
News of Mr. Meles' death in Brussels late Monday broke here early Tuesday after weeks of rumors surrounding the 57-year-old prime minister's prolonged absence, including persistent conspiracy theories that he had already died.
His ruling party moved quickly to quash speculation of an internal power struggle over who would succeed him, and the capital remained calm, if subdued. Government spokesman Bereket Simon said Mr. Meles' deputy prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, would serve as the country's leader until 2015 elections.
Mr. Meles' Tigray rebel movement took power in 1991 from what had been a Soviet-backed regime. Over the next two decades, Mr. Meles aligned his country with the United States and became a major influence in the volatile Horn of Africa and the wider African continent as well. The African Union is headquartered in Addis Ababa, and the capital under Mr. Meles became a hub for conferences and events made possible by a Chinese-fueled, state-led construction boom.
His death is likely to have an immediate impact on conflicts in Somalia and between Sudan and South Sudan, both ongoing crises that are near the top of U.S. policy priorities in Africa.
Ethiopian troops late last year invaded Somalia, and Kenya -- which also invaded Somalia last year -- is negotiating with Ethiopia on how Somalia will be governed if and when al-Shabab, al-Qaida's Somali affiliate, is driven from Kismayo, its last stronghold.
But it is Sudan and South Sudan where Mr. Meles' personal engagement might be irreplaceable. He is the only regional leader to maintain strong relations with both Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and South Sudanese President Salva Kiir. Mr. Meles often personally mediated meetings between the two foes.
"If Meles is not engaged, there will be less Ethiopian involvement in the problems of Sudan and South Sudan," said David Shinn, a former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, describing Mr. Meles' role in the region as "outsized."
Mr. Meles' apparent successor, Mr. Hailemariam, may find it difficult to gain enough internal support to hold the position permanently. Unlike Mr. Meles and most of the regime's northern elite, Mr. Hailemariam is from southern Ethiopia. He is also the first Protestant to lead Ethiopia, where the ancient Ethiopian Orthodox Church remains a powerful force.
First Published August 22, 2012 12:00 am