By Katrina Manson in Nairobi and William Wallis in London
The prolonged absence of Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s usually hyperactive prime minister, has sparked a covert succession struggle at home and prompted fears farther afield for a future without one of east Africa’s diplomatic and security linchpins.
Government officials say Mr Meles, who has not been seen in public since mid-June, is recovering from a serious illness, but they deny opposition rumours that he is dead or dying at a hospital in Brussels.
An African Union official said Mr Meles had been in regular contact with Thabo Mbeki, South Africa’s former president and AU envoy to Sudan, during recent negotiations between Sudan and South Sudan. He has told AU officials he will be back next month to play a more hands-on role in the next leg of negotiations.
His absence has nevertheless launched a covert succession struggle that threatens to fracture the regime and expose ethnic faultlines at home at a time when the Horn of Africa is struggling to stave off fresh conflicts and overcome terrorist threats.
"We are very concerned about developments in Ethiopia, knowing how fragile the politics are there and the fact there is no clear successor,” Raila Odinga, neighbouring Kenya’s prime minister, told the Financial Times. He admitted that he and other regional leaders were in the dark on Mr Meles’s state of health.
While Ethiopia is a small contributor to regional blocs such as the AU in financial terms, the Ethiopian premier’s vision and diplomacy has ensured the country has remained central to security affairs in a region threatened by terrorism and conflict. He has also become the voice of Africa on wider issues such as climate change and development.
"The competence vacuum [without Mr Meles] will be serious,” says Mehari Taddele Maru at the Institute for Security Studies in Addis Ababa.
"Ethiopia plays an important role of balancing,” says Mr Mehari, pointing to Ethiopia’s pouring cold water on Uganda’s backing for South Sudan earlier this year, a provocation that threatened regional havoc after South Sudan had invaded a Sudanese oilfield, Heglig.
Mr Meles’s government has twice sent troops into Somalia to fight Islamist militants with US support and regularly brokers deals between fractious neighbours.
"Imagine if that influence is not maintained . . . Will there even be consensus on Somalia at the AU without him? If it was not for Ethiopia, the Sudan/South Sudan border conflict that erupted on Heglig could have turned into regional war.”
The Ethiopian leader’s adroit diplomatic abilities, honed in the 21 years since he led a Tigrayan guerrilla army to power in Addis Ababa, have furthered his pan-African role and he remains able to muster international support despite grave misgivings over his human rights record at home.
He presents a determined front welcomed by the west even though the regime has long suppressed dissent, closed newspapers and in 2005 shot dead dozens of protesters after elections marred by fraud returned him to power.
"Ethiopia avoids becoming a pariah like Burma because it’s so important to the west in the fight against Islamic terror in Somalia,” says a senior western diplomat who knows Mr Meles. "It is a dictatorship which will keep the people essentially close to the poverty line but charms people like Tony Blair and Bill Clinton.”
Mr Meles announced his intention to retire from office several years ago and had been preparing to step down before the next elections, according to regime insiders. But they say his continued stay has been motivated partly by his desire to outlive his arch-rival, Issaias Afewerki, president of neighbouring Eritrea.
Even government-associated officials now acknowledge Mr Meles may have to step down sooner, saying the deputy prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegne, who is also foreign affairs minister and a technocrat groomed by Mr Meles, would take over.
The country is led by a notional coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, in which Mr Meles’s Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, the guerrilla group from northern Ethiopia with whom he came to power, holds sway.
"There will be no power vacuum, no political problem in the absence of the party,” insists Abel Abate, a researcher at a state think-tank in Addis Ababa. "Due to the federal system of government, no group or person will take over power. There is no strong man just like Meles in the front.”
But while regime stalwarts insist the party is stronger than Mr Meles himself, critics stress he has constructed an almost exclusive hold on power, firing senior military figures and stacking the military and intelligence echelons with young officers loyal to him alone. Succession is likely to bring strife to Ethiopia’s elite.
Other possible contenders for leadership include Dr Tewodros Adhanom, the minister of health who is popular in the west, Berhane Gebre Kristos, an Ethiopian diplomat and senior TPLF cadre member, and Azeb Mesfin, Mr Meles’s wife.
The TPLF leadership is "campaigning against each other right now”, says Hailu Shawel, an opposition leader previously imprisoned by Mr Meles’s regime. "When somebody has moved the country from a party base to an individual person [Meles], how can you overcome that? Everybody wants to be that dictator.”