When Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi missed an African Union summit this past weekend, rumors spread that he was ill. News agencies reported yesterday that Meles was in “critical condition” in Brussels. By late in the day the Ethiopian government had announced that Meles was “in good condition.” Under Article 75 of the 1994 Ethiopian constitution (.pdf), Deputy Prime Minister (and Minister of Foreign Affairs) Haile-Mariam Desalegne will act on the Prime Minister’s behalf in his absence.
Meles, a former rebel leader who took power in 1991, has previously stated his desire to step down when his current term ends in 2015. If Meles leaves office, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front will almost certainly retain power, but Meles’ absence would represent a significant political change for Ethiopia.
Indeed, Meles’ illness potentially foreshadows a coming period of political change (specifically the installation of new heads of state) for several countries in the greater Horn of Africa. Change could occur in several ways.
First, there is retirement. Meles is not the only leader in the region who has said he will step down in 2015 – Sudanese President Omar al Bashir made the same promise during a small wave of protests in early 2011, and Djibouti’s President Ismael Guellah has stated that he will step down in 2016. Some observers have doubted the sincerity of these pledges, but Meles in particular sometimes seems fatigued and ready to give up the job, an appearance that this illness underscores.
Elections will bring changes in leadership elsewhere in the region. Many observers expect Somalia’s ongoing political transition, which includes presidential elections next month, to produce a government fairly similar in personnel to the current Transitional Federal Government. But in Kenya, presidential elections set to take place in 2013 must produce a new head of state. President Mwai Kibaki, who has reached the limit of two five-year terms, cannot run again, leaving the field open to a number of major politicians, including current Prime Minister Raila Odinga and current Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta.
Other transitions, as Meles’ case reminds us, could come about because of sudden illness or death, a grim possibility but one that must be mentioned. These leaders are not old: indeed, all of them (not counting Kibaki) are short of seventy – Meles was born in 1955, Bashir in 1944, South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir in 1951, Somalia’s President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed in 1964, Eritrea’s President Isaias Afewerki in 1946, Djibouti’s President Ismail Guellah in 1947, and Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni around 1944. Yet four of them have been in power for over nineteen years (Museveni came to power in 1986, Bashir in 1989, Meles in 1991, and Isaias in 1993). The high stress of being head of state seems to accelerate aging in some leaders. There remain only six African leaders who have been in office longer than Museveni.
Finally, no leader in the region has faced a monumental threat from mass protests, but significant anti-regime protests have occurred in the last two years in Sudan, Uganda, and Djibouti. If nothing else, such protests add to the pressures these heads of state face in other areas.
It is possible, of course, that in three or four years only Kenya, out of all the countries in the greater Horn, will have new leadership. But a combination of factors could produce transitions in Ethiopia, Sudan, Djibouti, and elsewhere, potentially shaking up, within a relatively short period of time, what has long been a fairly stable roster of leaders.