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Winds of change in the Horn of Africa


All change in East Africa. Somali president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and Ethiopian prime minister Haile Mariam Desalegn. Photos: VOA and World Economic Forum, reproduced under Creative Commons licenses.

On 20 August the Ethiopian authorities announced the sudden death of the Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, who had been at the helm of Ethiopian politics for twenty-one years. At the age of 57, Meles still seemed to be at the height of his powers but had announced his intention to step down from the leadership in 2015. He was admired internationally for his intellectual brilliance and had spoken of his hopes for a second career as an academic. Despite Meles’ promise to quit office, few observers of the Ethiopian scene expected that he would cease to be the main force in politics for the foreseeable future. His sudden departure has prompted reflection on a complex legacy. His undoubted success in making Ethiopia a top development partner has been tempered by a record of intolerance and increasing political repression at home.

Just three weeks later in neighbouring Somalia, another 57 year-old man, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, came to sudden prominence. Against all expectations, Hassan Sheikh emerged successfully from a parliamentary election process to become the President of Somalia. He faced twenty-two opponents in the contest. Many of them had gained notoriety as members of the deeply discredited Transitional Federal Government that had done so little to restore peace and order in the country. Hassan Sheikh, on the other hand, is well known in Mogadishu as a man of integrity. His background as a peace activist in civil society and a respected academic has raised expectations that the long political nightmare unfolding in South Central Somalia might at last be coming to an end.

The political fortunes of Ethiopia and Somalia have coincided once before: in 1991 both countries saw off military dictatorships and started a new chapter. Their political trajectory since then could hardly be more different. Ethiopia has shaken off its humiliating 1980s image of famine, starvation and extreme poverty. The country is now feted as an exemplary development partner, DFID’s biggest bilateral aid recipient, boasting real progress on the Millennium Development Goals and ‘double digit’ percentage economic growth figures. Somalia, in contrast, appeared to have lost its way, a failed state, known internationally only for warlordism, violent conflict, famine, corruption and anarchy. Ethiopia’s attempt to forcibly impose a government of its choice on Somalia in 2006 only made matters worse, fuelling the radical extremism of Al Shabab.

The dramatic developments of recent weeks could start to change the outlook for both Ethiopia and Somalia. Ethiopia, with a long history of indigenous statehood, has robust institutions but the country has never yet experienced a change of leadership that did not involve some turmoil and violence. For now the ruling party is playing the lead role. On 15 September, Haile Mariam Desalegn, Meles’ former deputy, was elected party chairperson. This is a prelude to his inauguration as prime minister by parliament, an assembly with only one member who does not belong to the ruling party.

Somalia’s state institutions have been largely eroded, but its democratic and participatory political traditions are stronger than those of its powerful neighbour. The election of Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and his inauguration as president on 16 September marks a much needed break with the past. He is neither part of the corrupt political establishment nor under the sway of foreign powers. He stayed in Mogadishu through all the hard times, established a successful university there and worked consistently for reconciliation among Somali factions. His challenge is to bring this approach to the national stage.

The outside world will miss Meles, a pro-Western regional ally in a dangerous neighbourhood. But there is room to hope that the momentous changes in the Horn this summer will include a positive transformation for Somalia.

Sally Healy is a fellow of the Rift Valley Institute.

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