Strongmen in power can be useful allies. They make decisions fast and can impose their wills. But when they depart, more often than not, they leave chaos or something close to it in their wake. So Meles Zenawi’s recent vanishing act raises concern for one of Africa’s most complex and volatile regions.
The ruthless, usually omnipresent, 57-year-old prime minister of Ethiopia has not been seen in public since mid-June. He is recovering from a serious illness, officials insist, and will be back soon. But they have provided no details of where he is or what is wrong with him. As elsewhere in Africa, the health of the leader is still an unhealthy taboo.
In the 21 years since he led his guerrilla movement to victory following a long war against the murderous Mengistu regime, Mr Meles has proved himself a reliable ally to the US in particular and west in general. His adroit diplomatic abilities have proved invaluable in Sudan, where he has been a relatively neutral interlocutor between north and south at times of conflict. He has built Ethiopia into a regional superpower that combats terrorism and imposes military solutions – notably in Somalia. For this, western donors and allies have been willing to overlook human rights abuses and a lack of political freedom at home.
As Rwandans like to say about their own autocratic leader, nothing much grows in the shadow of big trees. Mr Meles has stamped his authority on a fractious and ethnically diverse nation with an iron fist. He has stripped the government and ruling party of potential rivals, and moved steadily over the years from consensual to more personalised rule. In intellectual stature he has no obvious successor at home, where discontent, as in much of the nearby Arab world, bubbles beneath the surface, kept there by an authoritarian state.
Equally, there is no obvious replacement for him in the region or on the international stage where he has skilfully championed Africa’s cause on climate change and other pressing development issues. Yoweri Museveni, the Ugandan president who has been in power two years longer, is a fading force. Rwanda’s Paul Kagame packs a punch, but his tiny country lacks geopolitical swagger.
Mr Meles may indeed return to take up the reins. But the need for a clear succession plan and transition to more inclusive rule can be in little doubt. His allies must see that relying on a strongman rather than strong institutions, while avoiding instability today, risks merely storing it up for the future.