The death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who had not been seen in public for several months, was announced on 20 August 2012 by Ethiopian state television.
The passing of the man who has been Ethiopia's epicentre for 21 years will have profound national and regional consequences. Meles engineered one-party rule in effect for the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) and his Tigrayan inner circle, with the complicity of other ethnic elites that were co-opted into the ruling alliance, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). The Front promised freedom, democracy and ethnic devolution but is highly centralised, tightly controls the economy and suppresses political, social, ethnic and religious liberties. In recent years, Meles had relied ever more on repression to quell growing dissent. His successor will lead a weaker regime that struggles to manage increasing unrest unless it truly implements ethnic federalism and institutes fundamental governance reform. The international community should seek to influence the transition actively because it has a major interest in the country's stability.
Despite his authoritarianism and poor human rights records, Meles became an important asset to the international community, a staunch Western ally in counter-terrorism efforts in the region and a valued development partner for Western and emerging powers. In consequence, Ethiopia has become the biggest aid recipient in Africa, though Meles's government was only able to partially stabilise either the country or region.
Ethiopia's political system and society have grown increasingly unstable largely because the TPLF has become increasingly repressive, while failing to implement the policy of ethnic federalism it devised over twenty years ago to accommodate the land's varied ethnic identities. The result has been greater political centralisation, with concomitant ethnicisation of grievances. The closure of political space has removed any legitimate means for people to channel those grievances. The government has encroached on social expression and curbed journalists, non-governmental organisations and religious freedoms. The cumulative effect is growing popular discontent, as well as radicalisation along religious and ethnic lines. Meles adroitly navigated a number of internal crises and kept TPLF factions under his tight control. Without him, however, the weaknesses of the regime he built will be more starkly exposed.
The transition will likely be an all-TPLF affair, even if masked beneath the constitution, the umbrella of the EPRDF and the prompt elevation of the deputy prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, to acting head of government. Given the opacity of the inner workings of the government and army, it is impossible to say exactly what it will look like and who will end up in charge. Nonetheless, any likely outcome suggests a much weaker government, a more influential security apparatus and endangered internal stability. The political opposition, largely forced into exile by Meles, will remain too fragmented and feeble to play a considerable role, unless brought on board in an internationally-brokered process. The weakened Tigrayan elite, confronted with the nation's ethnic and religious cleavages, will be forced to rely on greater repression if it is to maintain power and control over other ethnic elites. Ethno-religious divisions and social unrest are likely to present genuine threats to the state's long-term stability and cohesion.
The regional implications will be enormous. Increasing internal instability could threaten the viability of Ethiopia's military interventions in Somalia and Sudan, exacerbate tensions with Eritrea, and, more broadly, put in question its role as the West's key regional counter-terrorism ally. Should religious or ethnic radicalisation grow, it could well spill across borders and link with other armed radical Islamic groups.
The international community, particularly Ethiopia's core allies, the U.S., UK and European Union (EU), should accordingly seek to play a significant role in preparing for and shaping the transition, by: tying political, military and development assistance to the opening of political space and an end to repressive measures; encouraging the post-Meles leadership to produce a clear roadmap, including transparent mechanisms within the TPLF and the EPRDF for apportioning the party and Front power Meles held and within parliament to lead to an all-inclusive, peaceful transition, resulting in free and fair elections within a fixed time; and helping to revive the political opposition's ability to represent its constituencies, in both Ethiopia and the diaspora.