Meles Zenawi, the repressive but visionary prime minister of Ethiopia, died on Tuesday after months of speculation on his health. His death has created a power vacuum in the Horn of Africa and will undoubtedly have numerous implications for the region. This development prompts several questions with which international observers will now grapple; yet the question receiving the most attention may be what impact his death may have on the situation in Somalia.
Under Meles, the Ethiopian government has played a major role in the Somalia conflict. In 2006, when Somalia was briefly under the rule of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), it was Meles who claimed that the ICU were associated with al-Qa`ida. This led to a U.S.-supported Ethiopian invasion of Somalia, resulting in what many experts call the destruction of Somalia’s greatest hope of restoring peace and order since 1991. Although the Ethiopian invasion inaugurated a new phase of conflict and destruction in Somalia, Meles played a central role in the regional and sub-regional organizations that attempted to stabilize Somalia, including but not limited to the Inter-governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the African Union (AU). Without Meles, Ethiopia’s political and diplomatic leadership in these organizations may not be as pivotal as it once was.
Since Ethiopia’s withdrawal from Somalia in 2009, Ethiopia has returned to fight the al-Qa`ida affiliated al-Shabaab both inside Somalia and in the region adjacent to its common border with Somalia. Yet unlike the previous invasion, Ethiopia’s recent involvement has been less antagonistic not only due to the population’s exposure to al-Shabaab’s violent extremist ideologies, but also due to Ethiopia’s increased reliance on Somali proxy militias this time around. But, will Ethiopia’s military involvement in Somalia diminish with Meles’ demise? This will depend both on whether Ethiopia’s security forces will be needed to quell any instances of internal instability or cross-border incursions from Eritrea, as well as on the continuation of military assistance that Ethiopia receives – mainly from the United States. Nonetheless, considering the importance of Somalia in Ethiopia’s regional calculus, it is likely that the country’s military involvement in Somalia will continue along its current trajectory.
Lastly, one must not forget the implications for the Somali Regional State (SRS) in Ethiopia’s largely Somali populated Ogaden region. Will the SRS, the second largest state and the region with the most unprecedented economic growth in the country, have a strained relationship with the center? Realizing the need to reconcile with Ethiopian Somalis in this state, Meles has afforded the SRS a level of political autonomy under the controversial figure of regional President Abdi Mohamud Omar. The SRS’ mostly technocratic local government has shown significant economic development vis-à-vis Jigjiga (the capital of SRS) centered growth, and has proven to be of economic importance due to its potential for energy resources. Many have stressed that this amicable relationship with the SRS is Ethiopia’s best hope for establishing peace with the separatist rebel group, the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF). Meles has played a key role in most of these developments with the SRS. The new prime minister, Hailemariam Dessalegne should continue to play a positive but stern role, similar to that of Meles, with the SRS in order to avoid any desires of the state to secede from Ethiopia.
Rahma Dualeh is an independent consultant who works on the Horn of Africa’s political, socio-economic, and security risk analyses. She can be reached at email@example.com for comments.