Ethiopia: Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s Illness and Potential Political Changes in the Greater Horn

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.

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A Glance at the Eritrean Opposition Online

Yesterday AFP broke the news that an Eritrean opposition figure has disappeared:

An Eritrean opposition party official has been missing for two days in eastern Sudan and there are fears he may have been kidnapped by Asmara’s security agents, the party alleged on Thursday.

Mohammed Ali Ibrahim, a member of the People’s Democratic Party central council, left his house in Kassala town at 8:00 am (0500 GMT) on Tuesday and has not been seen since, the party said in a statement emailed to AFP.

See a map of Kassala here.

Eritrea, which took official independence from Ethiopia in 1993, is infamous for the tight control that the regime of President Isaias Afewerki exercises over the country’s politics, media, and economy. Human Rights Watch has called Eritrea a “giant prison.” Eritrea is a pariah in the regional politics of the Horn, and its neighbors have accused it of supporting rebels, such as Somalia’s al Shabab.

The story about Mohammad Ali Ibrahim’s disappearance made me curious about the Eritrean opposition. Given everything that one hears about the political repression inside Eritrea, it is not surprising that a figure like Ibrahim had taken up residence outside the country. It is also not surprising that the Eritrean opposition has made substantial use of the internet for broadcasting their message. What did surprise me was the sophistication of their websites and the speed with which they are updated – by last night, the Eritrean People’s Democratic Party (EPDP), to which Ibrahim belongs, had already posted a story, in English, about the fears of a kidnapping.

The EPDP was established in 2009/2010. It is a union of three parties, the Eritrean People’s Party (EPP), the Eritrean Democratic Party (EDP), and the Eritrean People’s Movement (EPM). The EDP still has its own functioning website, and the EPM’s is online but apparently not functional. The EPDP emerged out of a pre-existing opposition umbrella group, the Eritrean Democratic Alliance (EDA), which also has a website. This cluster of websites is impressive, but I imagine it is only the beginning, as far as Eritrean opposition activists’ online presence is concerned.

The websites of the EPDP, the EDP, and the EDA all have content in English, Arabic, and Tigrinya, one of the main languages of Eritrea. Clearly the proprietors have multiple audiences in mind, national, international, and diasporic.

That the EPDP seeks an international audience is even clearer in its Frequently Asked Questions, a document that emphasizes (in English) the party’s commitment to electoral democracy, nonviolence, secularism, media freedom, human rights, and capitalism. I believe that the party holds these values, and I do not want to sound overly cynical, but I also believe that these values are carefully presented with an eye toward winning Western governments’ sympathies.

Since at least the 1990s (see Arjun Appadurai’s Modernity at Large), observers have been thinking about the powerful ways in which diasporic flows and new media might change/are changing local and global politics.

In some ways, nothing has changed. Opposition figures in exile have used the cutting-edge media of their time to distribute political messages for decades (think Khomeini and casettes). But the Eritrean opposition’s heavily diasporic character and strong online presence exemplify the new kinds of political strategies that are emerging. If nothing else, the movement of ideas and people is getting faster. And I think that the internet has brought ways of addressing multiple audiences at once that are new.

Controlling events on the ground, physically, has not lost its importance, and I do not believe the Eritrean opposition’s sophistication online means it is anywhere close to toppling Afewerki. But if one needs a sign of the importance of the internet, there is the fear it inspires in governments. For example, during periods of protest in Burkina Faso and Uganda last year, those governments attempted to block text-messaging. And if it turns out that the government in Asmara did kidnap Ibrahim – despite an imbalance of power that strongly favors Afewerki – then it may indicate that the Eritrean opposition, confined to exile and the internet though it partly is, still worries the president.

A Shift in Eritrean Regional Policy?

Barry Malone at Reuters says Eritrea is taking a less confrontational line toward its neighbors:

In recent months, some analysts say they’ve detected a “softening”.

[President] Isaias [Afewerki] reached out to Djibouti and a peace deal was struck. He sounded more conciliatory tones towards neighbours in interviews. His foreign minister went on a serious hand-shaking spree on the sidelines of an African Union summit in Uganda.

And, last weekend, a meeting took place that surprised many. Isaias welcomed UN special representative for Somalia, Augustini Mahiga, to his capital Asmara for talks. The Eritreans could not have been more diplomatic in their statement afterwards.

“President Isaias pointed out that the UN has a higher responsibility to find a peaceful solution for the Somali issue and expressed Eritrea’s full support for the initiatives being taken by the world body,” a statement posted on an Eritrean government website said.

“Moreover, President Isaias expressed his conviction that the Somali issue would be resolved in a politically inclusive manner and emphasized the UN’s responsibility in creating conducive grounds for the Somalis to resolve their differences.”

Some analysts see the moves as proof that Eritrea – on the brink of a potentially lucrative gold mining boom – is worried about becoming isolated. It has also tried to forge friendships with Qatar, Iran, Israel and Egypt.

Malone asks whether the shift is purely tactical, echoing a statement that Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi gave to him. My questions would be, rather, how much of a shift has occurred? And if a major one, then why? It strikes me that most of the changes relate in some way to Somalia (Djibouti hosts French and American soldiers, after all). If thousands of Ugandan troops are going to pour into Mogadishu, and if America is going to increase its involvement in Somalia, perhaps the Eritrean government wants to make sure it ends up on the right side of the struggle. Is Eritrea just putting a finger to the wind?