Change in Ethiopia: Meles' death has ramifications for the U.S.
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The death Monday in Brussels of Ethiopian strongman Meles Zenawi after 21 years in power raises the usual succession issues and ends another chapter in U.S. relations with such leaders.
Mr. Meles came to power in 1991, after Ethiopian leaders who followed Emperor Haile Selassie after his overthrow in 1974 had taken the country through a difficult period, including a major flirtation with the Soviet Union. The United States was delighted to re-establish through Mr. Meles' regime what had been its traditional close relationship with Ethiopia in what was still a Cold War context.
Mr. Meles was a typical African tribal leader, putting the members of his own minority Tigrayan ethnic group, only 6 percent of 85 million Ethiopians, firmly in power. Another minority, the Amhara, had been in the catbird's seat when the emperor ruled. Ethiopia, with a relatively large area and population but few resources, had become the epitome of African countries plagued by drought, starvation, poverty and warfare.
Before the split last year of Sudan and South Sudan, Ethiopia was the only African country to have experienced part of its territory seceding. The independence of Eritrea in 1991 resulted in Ethiopia's becoming landlocked, and launched what has become a long-standing border war between the two countries. It sputters to this day in spite of international efforts to end it.
The United States found Mr. Meles' Ethiopia a partner in attempted military solutions to problems in Somalia, providing it some $800 million in annual aid, much of it military. U.S. forces aided Ethiopian invasions of Somalia in 2006 and 2011 with air, drone and other support. The interventions have not brought order to Somalia, the ostensible U.S. goal, since Ethiopia is Somalia's traditional enemy.
One problem will be the Ethiopians' choice of a successor. A second will be the maintenance of unity in the country after the succession. A third will be the looming problem of possible starvation while economic development is pursued in tandem with high military expenditures. A U.S. role in Ethiopia focused less on the military and more on development would be more beneficial to Mr. Meles' nation and its people.
First Published August 24, 2012 12:00 am