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Ethiopian officials: No major change after Meles Zenawi's death

August 21, 2012 | 12:13 pm

EthiopiaJOHANNESBURG -- After the death of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, Ethiopian officials attempted to reassure the world Tuesday that there would be no power vacuum or major changes in policy.

“I assure you everything is stable and everything will continue as chartered by the prime minister,” government spokesman Bereket Simon said.

Meles’ deputy, Hailemariam Desalegn, will serve as acting prime minister, and many analysts predict he will emerge as the ruling party’s chosen successor.

While Meles’ lengthy illness meant he had time to plan a smooth succession in Ethiopia, his departure deprives the U.S. of its closest counter-terrorism ally in the region, a man Washington knew could get things done.

Ethiopia’s military drive against Islamic radicals won’t change, analysts predict, nor will it pack up and leave Somalia, where its forces are fighting Shabab, a group linked to Al Qaeda. Patrick Smith, editor of the analytical journal Africa Confidential, predicted that Ethiopia’s military and ruling party leadership would not change tack on hitting Islamic extremists hard.

“They’re absolutely agreed that Ethiopia should be in Somalia and they should go in and out of Somalia when they feel like it. And that is not going to change with Meles’ death,” he said.

Former U.S. Ambassador David H. Shinn said Meles’ death raised concerns in Washington, simply because the longtime leader made Ethiopia a linchpin of security in a highly volatile region.

“I think the U.S. has a good relationship with the deputy prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, who has at least temporarily been named prime minister,” Shinn said. “Even if he doesn’t end up in that position, I think the relationship will continue pretty much as before.”

In Meles’ more than two decades in power, opposition leaders and journalists were harassed and jailed, and independent voices of dissent were crushed. Hundreds were killed in a crackdown after the 2005 election when the opposition made significant gains, and since then, Meles strategically silenced his opponents.

Former opposition leader Merera Gudina called on the ruling party Tuesday to allow political dissent. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International also called on Ethiopia’s new leadership to abandon its repressive policies.

But Africa Confidential’s Smith predicted the government is more likely to crack down on dissent in coming months.

“I think the regime is going to feel pretty vulnerable without this grand strategist. I think there will be a clampdown,” he said. “I would not see any early liberalization.”


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-- Robyn Dixon

Photo: Ethiopian government spokesman Bereket Simon announces the death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in Addis Ababa on Tuesday. Credit: Jenny Vaughan / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images