Smooth transition likely after iconic Ethiopian leader's death
The Ethiopian parliament is holding an emergency session to swear in Hailemariam Desalegn as the country's new prime minister after the death of Meles Zenawi earlier this week.
The government in Addis Ababa announced the death of ill 57-year-old earlier this week. His ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front has been in power since 1991.
Mr Zenawi had always dismissed the idea that foreign aid was entirely effective in alleviating poverty and encouraged domestic industry instead.
While his human rights legacy may not be as strong as his economic successes, his tenure is being mourned by thousands in the streets of the capital.
Mr Zenawi achieved a double-digit growth rate in 2006, an enormous milestone for any country, especially sub-Saharan. A close trading relationship with Chinese construction businesses and other industries opened Ethiopia up to a willing Asian investment market.
His successor has had extensive foreign and internal government experience in Africa’s second most-populous country. Ethiopian officials are posted throughout rural Ethiopia as there are no quick travel options into Addis Ababa, so it may take some days for power to fully transition to Mr Desalegn.
A party election will ensure the final decision is ratified, but this may take some weeks. But Desalegn is likely to make an uncomplicated entrance, nonetheless.
Ethiopia is one of the most stable countries in East Africa and the reaction to Mr Zenawi’s death has been measured, some would even say calm. As in many developing countries, the capital is the seat of power and the rest of the country is largely autonomous.
The diverse ethnic landscape makes it difficult for any ruling party to entirely represent the majority of Ethiopians. Many simply recognise regional governors of tribal chiefs rather than central authority.
Poverty is still present in the city but affluence and education is noticeable. Freedom of the press may not meet Western ideals, but many people have updated and current Facebook accounts.
Africa considers the city to be the political capital of the continent and many international agencies and embassies are based there.
In fact, the US embassy in Addis Ababa is one of the most heavily guarded facilities in the city, its perimeter walls jutting out rudely on to the street hundreds of meters from the building.
After September 11, 2001, US embassies worldwide were given extra protection. Although the omnipresent blue and white taxis can pass right outside the gates, any militant attack would struggle to do significant damage.
This imposing, fortified structure reflects the unique relationship between the US and Ethiopia – one not replicated anywhere else in East Africa.
Since the collapse of the Communist regime, Addis Ababa has worked closely with Washington. America backed Mr Zenawi’s military interventions in Somalia and Ethiopia has agreed in turn to host US drone aircraft at many of its airfields.
It is the instability in Somalia, and the threat of spreading Islamic militancy, that binds the two countries together.
Interestingly, statistics suggest that Mr Zenawi’s own ethnic group, the Tigray, make up roughly the same percentage in the country as Ethiopia’s present belligerents, the Somalis.
The percentages hover around 6.5% each – minorities in any stretch of the imagination – but the difference between the two groups could not be starker.
Ethnic Somalis in Ethiopia are usually refugees. They come across the border to escape the fighting ravaging the Horn of Africa. They generally gravitate to specific suburbs, creating pockets of Somali-majority shanty towns in many cities.
It is not uncommon to hear ethnic Ethiopians speak badly of such suburbs. Tourists are advised not to travel through these areas because of high crime rates and cultural strains.
The refugees are considered a dangerous warrior-race in Addis Ababa and Ethiopian citizens find it difficult to trust them and there are simmering tensions.
The 2006 invasion of Somalia by the Ethiopian military was in a sense a move to address the instability there and force thousands of refugees back across the border.
The aim was to eject Somalia's Islamic Courts Union, the precursor to the Islamic militant group al-Shabaab.
Somalia has been an open wound for Ethiopia for many years. As al-Shabaab imposed a strict form of Sharia law on south-eastern Somalia, their attacks near the capital Mogadishu increased markedly and the group quickly seized more territory.
However, as the group conducted bombings against Ethiopian and Kenyan targets – and began sending militants further abroad – the African Union and the United Nations fast-tracked a military intervention known as African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).
Assisted by the late Mr Zenawi, the operations in conjunction with Kenya, Uganda and other African countries has seen limited but sustained success.
Recently evicting the militant group from their stronghold in the southern Somali city of Kismayo, AMISOM has been able to establish a working transitional government.
This relative calm in Somalia leading up to Mr Zenawi’s death is likely to ease the power transition in the next few weeks. The Zenawi legacy will be controversial, but the man himself will be missed by his people and his international partners.
Ethiopia is fast becoming a critical diplomatic player and a responsible East African nation in a dangerously unpredictable region.
Whether or not the Somali instability continues to boil, the new Ethiopian Prime Minister Desalegn will be entering an office well prepared by his predecessor to deal with both internal and external issues in the short to medium-terms.
Nathan Smith has a Bachelor of Communications in Journalism from Massey University and has studied international relations and conflict. He has spent time doing aid work in Ethiopia.