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.

Africa Blog Roundup: Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria, Chad, Niger, and More

As the civil war continues in Cote d’Ivoire, a number of bloggers are offering helpful perspectives on life during conflict.

  • Andrew Harding of the BBC continues to write vivid reports from Abidjan. In this post, he compares the city – chillingly – to Mogadishu. 
  • Christian Science Monitor‘s Scott Baldauf profiles an Abidjan hospital struggling to cope with wounded arrivals.
  • At Reuters, Mark John reflects on the “role reversal [between Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara] which, even by the standards of recent Ivorian history, defies belief.”
  • A Bombastic Element flags some American conservatives’ support for Gbagbo.

Inside Islam looks at shari’a in Nigeria.

The State Department details efforts to fight malnutrition in Chad and Niger.

The official results of Djibouti’s Friday elections are giving incumbent President Ismail Omar Guelleh around 80% of the vote.

And finally, here are some updates on Nigeria’s elections. Citizens in most parts of the country cast their votes in legislative elections yesterday. A few bombings and other incidents of violence occurred.

  • CNN discusses some of the violence, including bombings in Maiduguri, the base of Boko Haram.
  • VOA reports on the vote counting.
  • Maggie Fick blogs from Jos.
  • Al Jazeera has a video report, embedded below.

Africa Elections Updates: Djibouti, Nigeria, Benin, Mauritania, and Chad

With so much news coming out of Africa this week – ongoing civil wars and foreign interventions in Libya and Cote d’Ivoire, a diplomatic transition in Sudan, and a tragic plane crash in Congo – I want to make sure there is some coverage of elections taking place in West and East Africa, including but not limited to Nigeria’s vote.

The calendar runs as follows:

  • April 8: Presidential elections in Djibouti
  • April 9: National Assembly elections in Nigeria
  • April 16: Presidential elections in Nigeria
  • April 17: Parliamentary elections in Benin
  • April 24: Senatorial elections in Mauritania
  • April 26: State elections in Nigeria
  • May 8: Presidential elections in Chad (there are conflicting dates for this vote, but I am following All Africa’s electoral calendar, available on their homepage)

Here is an outline of the major issues at stake in each country:


Presidential elections in Djibouti are nearly guaranteed to return two-term incumbent Ismael Omar Guelleh to power, and this prospect has sparked a protest movement that aims to place this small Horn of Africa nation in the company of Egypt and Tunisia. Yesterday, Human Rights Watch called on Djibouti’s government to “allow peaceful protests.” For two different views on the meaning of the elections, see pieces by Gabriel Constanza and by Awate (a website run by Eritrean dissidents).


This weekend’s decision to delay elections in Nigeria continues to draw criticism and stoke fears of potential disaster. A number of commentators have spoken on the elections, but I found these words from journalist Tolu Ogunlesi, writing for Think Africa Press, particularly thoughtful:

I think that what we are seeing in Nigeria at the moment is not so much a “deepening of democracy” (i.e. in terms of a transformation of democratic institutions: police, judiciary, executive, legislature, political parties etc), as it is an ‘awareness-transformation’ on the part of citizens. It is important to realise that democracy, as a system of government, is useless when citizens do not realise the extent of the power it offers them. Various interlinked factors including technology (mobile phones, social networking, a computerised voter database), the 2008 Barack Obama story (of change, and limitless possibilities), the North African uprisings and a general yearning for good leadership after 12 unimpressive years of civilian rule have combined to enlighten, inspire and empower Nigerians and to transform their understanding of what genuine democracy is all about (power in the hands of the people). So while the Nigerian judiciary remains embroiled in corruption, the Police Force continues to be as ineffective and compromised as ever, and the political parties continue to lack vision or ideological basis, what is happening is that citizens are realising that they have more power than they thought they had: the power to say “No”, or “Yes.”

For other reactions, see the Economist‘s Baobab and Amb. John Campbell.


In Benin, presidential elections took place on March 13. Incumbent President Boni Yayi won re-election with 53% of the official vote, eliciting a court challenge from the opposition. Benin’s constitutional court refused to hear the case, and has certified Yayi’s victory. Opposition leader Adrien Houngbedji has, according to the latest report I could find, refused to concede. Parliamentary elections are thus approaching in an atmosphere of tension. David Zounmenou of the Institute for Security Studies explores some of the issues at stake in the election, and asks what the election means for democratization in Benin, here.


In Mauritania, major opposition leaders Messaoud Boulkheir and Ahmed Ould Daddah, who respectively placed second and third in the 2009 presidential elections, are calling on the government of President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz to delay the senatorial elections scheduled for later this month.


Problems with Chad’s parliamentary elections on February 13 (elections the ruling party won) have provoked opposition boycotts and played into the uncertainty surrounding presidential elections that have already been delayed at least once. The elections will likely return President Idriss Deby to office, but may leave unresolved political tensions behind.


What is your take on these elections?

Djibouti: President for Life?

Yesterday, the parliament in Djibouti voted unanimously to remove presidential term limits. President Ismail Omar Guellah is serving his second term, and his mandate was due to expire in 2011. I will be curious to see whether France, the United States, of China decries this move, as they have when other African leaders moved to extend their time in office. All three powers have a major presence in Djibouti:


Djibouti, a former French colony which separates Eritrea from Somalia, hosts France’s largest military base in Africa and a major U.S. base. Its port is used by foreign navies patrolling busy shipping lanes off the coast of Somalia to fight piracy.

Dubai World has a deep-sea base at Djibouti port, which serves as the principle access point for goods entering and exiting land-locked Ethiopia.

Last month, Guelleh told Reuters China would be Djibouti’s biggest investor next year and in 2012 and that he planned to make Djibouti port the biggest hub in the region at a cost of nearly half a billon U.S. dollars.

Guellah has expressed his willingness to run for a third term, and has framed the constitutional amendment as a response to popular demand in Djibouti. Opposition politicians warn of the consequences to removing term limits, and are planning to unite in a broad coalition for upcoming elections. If I had to guess, though, I would say that Guellah is here to stay.