Zenawi: The Titan Who Changed Africa
Will the death of Zenawi destabilise the Horn of Africa and derail the African Union's agenda for peace and security?
At 23:40 local time, the Ethiopian prime minister was declared dead, the consequences of a mysterious infection that had international policymakers and Ethiopian citizens concerned about his health for weeks. The disappearance of the man who had ruled from Addis Ababa for the past two decades - having come to power through guerrilla war against the communist Derg regime - has unleashed speculation regarding likely successors and an internal power struggle inside the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Less attention is being paid to the regional fallout of the death of this African titan - though the consequences of Meles' demise for the future of millions of Africans could be profound.
The food crises of the 1980s and hundreds of thousands of dead exemplified how the nation that was once Africa's pride - having never been colonised by white Europeans - found itself on its knees when the ERPDF established its hegemony in May 1991. Disintegration of the country and a further meltdown looked like real possibilities, in conjunction with bloody wars raging in Sudan and Somalia. Yet, within ten years, Ethiopia's new rulers put the state back on its feet and went from being a marginal regional player to an international force to be reckoned with.
Meles rapidly became an international statesman: He was hailed by Bill Clinton as the prime exponent of "Africa's new generation of leaders" in 1998; he sat on Tony Blair's Commission for Africa in 2004-2005; and represented the African Union in climate change negotiations since 2009. Boosted by relative political stability and spectacular - if deeply uneven - economic growth at home, the former guerrilla leader from Tigray transformed Ethiopia from an object of international pity into a powerful actor that has commended increasing global attention.
Controversial foreign policy
Meles' controversial foreign policy has been anchored in a vision of a resurgent Ethiopia, "finally" fulfilling its historical destiny to cast off the shackles of poverty and lead the African continent: domestic and regional ambitions were always closely entwined in the mind of the premier and his ERPDF coalition. On the one hand, Meles understood that forging regional alliances and acquiring international legitimacy would boost the Ethiopian economy and consolidate ERPDF rule in Addis. On the other hand, he saw a domestically secure Ethiopia as uniquely capable of masterminding Africa ridding itself of the epithet "the hopeless continent".
Despite his Marxist-Leninist ideological heritage, Meles established a crucial partnership with Washington in the early 1990s, becoming America’s junior sheriff in the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia played a key role between 1995 and 1998 in the US regime change strategy for Sudan, committing thousands of soldiers to fight with the rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M) against the military-Islamist regime in Khartoum.
Later, during the "war on terror", Ethiopia manipulated Washington's fears about failed states and Islamism to get US backing for an invasion of Somalia to quash the Union of Islamic Courts which was trying to reunite the country. Today, the US is reportedly using military facilities in Southern Ethiopia for drone operations against the extremists of al-Shabab. Hundreds of millions of dollars in bilateral aid have been Addis' reward for this alliance; no wonder Meles once called the war "something of a godsend" in a conversation with Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter.
Tens of thousands of people died as a result of the wars of the ERPDF - in Sudan, in Somalia and in the 1998-2000 conflict with Eritrea, the "war of brothers" between Meles Zenawi and Eritrean President Issayas Afewerki. Zenawi and Afewerki are relatives, former comrades-in-arms and intellectual rivals; the confrontation between Asmara and Addis was not solely caused by the bitter competition between two of Africa's most intelligent and ruthless heads of government, but it was certainly intensified and prolonged due to this animosity.
Meles Zenawi remained a communist guerrilla fighter in his politics and occasionally paraphrased Joseph Stalin: once you have resolved what your political ends are, the means to get there are also justified.
Yet Meles' legacy is not just one of domestic economic resurgence and conflict in the Horn of Africa. In recent years, he also emerged as a regional peacemaker, an invaluable broker between seemingly irreconcilable enemies. Many observers agree that Ethiopia's role in Somalia has become more constructive, contributing to a more effective handling of al-Shabab and new hopes for the fragile government in Mogadishu.
Strong Ethiopian agenda
Above all, Meles has personally overseen extensive diplomatic efforts to peacefully manage the secession of South Sudan. Since 2010, military-Islamist Khartoum and the SPLA/M from Juba have been talking to each other in Ethiopia, with Meles' patronage as a powerful force backing African Union mediation efforts. When all-out war threatened to re-erupt over the region of Abyei, Ethiopian peacekeepers poured into a conflict theatre where few others dared to thread, stabilising the most explosive part of the north-south border.
The Ethiopian leader, whose long standing personal ties with the Sudanese protagonists date back to the 1980s, was the only regional interlocutor respected and listened to by both Khartoum and Juba. If total war between Sudan and South Sudan still hasn't materialised, Ethiopian diplomacy deserves considerable credit for that.
No contemporary African leader was considered more impressive by his African Union peers than Meles. Underpinning his new push for peace and security in the Horn of Africa was, as always, a strong Ethiopian agenda. Meles envisaged the emergence of Ethiopia as regional hegemon through energy diplomacy.
Ethiopia's hydropower potential is estimated around 40,000 to 45,000 megawatts. The office of the prime minister led the development of a hyper-ambitious dam programme that would electrify the nation and enable the export of thousands of megawatts to energy-hungry neighbours such as Kenya, (South) Sudan and, yes, Egypt.
For decades, Cairo, Khartoum and Addis were locked in geopolitical proxy wars - with the former two trying to maintain their disproportionate share of Nile waters at the expense of the latter. Meles' peace and security agenda was the crowbar he needed to launch his energy diplomacy strategy.
Regional integration through tying the Horn of Africa to Ethiopia via electricity connections will be financially lucrative, if Addis can get the devilish technical aspects of the mission right; it would also shift the regional political point of gravity to Ethiopia for years to come.
The EPRDF elite is at pains to stress that the death of the prime minister does not in any way imply that his vision of a strong Ethiopia in a strong Africa will be altered. Both his immediate successor, Hailemariam Desalegn, and Meles' long-time de facto deputy Seyoum Mesfin (co-designer of the security and energy policy as minister of foreign affairs for almost two decades) fully supported Zenawi's grand ambitions. Ethiopia's skilled corps of diplomats is well placed to continue working for the Pan-Africanist ideas set out by the deceased leader.
However, this vision will now have to be pursued without its creator and chief implementer - a man in whom many outsiders and insiders trusted personally to deliver the quasi-impossible. Ethiopia's objectives will probably remain the same for the foreseeable future, mixing domestic priorities with international manoeuvring.
But it is doubtful whether Africa's oldest nation will be as successful in achieving them without Meles Zenawi and his outstanding intelligence, shrewd political skills and uncanny ability to navigate different worlds without much difficulty. Meles was always one of the ERPDF's greatest strengths. The vacuum he now leaves behind also reveals the dangers of Ethiopia's - and the African Union's - dependence on him in leading the region's turbulent politics.
Harry Verhoeven teaches African politics at the University of Oxford. His research focuses on conflict, development and environment in the Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes Region and he is the convenor of the Oxford University China-Africa Network (OUCAN). Outside academia, he has worked in Northern Uganda, Sudan, India and Democratic Republic of Congo.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.