The patriarch’s death sets the stage for another succession struggle among rival church groups while also opening a new chapter of an already bizarre succession drama surrounding the Prime Minister, one kicked off by his unexplained disappearance nearly two months ago.
Meles Zenawi, whose illness and whereabouts remain a mystery, was last seen in public on June 26. Insiders close to the ruling elite say a power struggle has been underway to replace him.
Paulos, who hails from the Tigrean province of Adwa, also home to Ethiopia’s ailing Prime Minister, lived in New York City after fleeing persecution by military rulers under the Dergue. He assumed the position of the patriarchate, head of the Orthodox Church, the largest religious congregation in Ethiopia, in 1992 following the fall of the Dergue.
Opponents saw His holiness as a big figure within the ruling Tigrean elite that dominated Ethiopia since 1991. Breaking church tradition, he replaced a living patriarch and that was seen as a political move by the TPLF to control the church, a role usually reserved for the Amhara—an unspoken rule of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which until the revolution of 1974 was the official state religion.
Two weeks ago, in recognition of the patriarch’s role and to mark his 20th year as head of the church, an illustrious event, attended by high ranking government officials, including the Deputy Prime Minister, ambassadors, and supporters from all over the world, was held at the lush Sheraton Addis.
In a related story, the ruling party seems to have finally settled on naming HaileMariam Desalegn as an acting PM during the upcoming parliamentary session due to start in mid-September. This was made clear by interviews the VOA, Deutsche Welle, and the opposition radio ESAT held with Sebhat Nega, the founder and senior elder of the ruling party.
According to well-placed sources, the plan is to wait until 2015, when the term of the incumbent administration officially expires, to anoint a real PM. Pundits say the party wants to use the time to rebuild and decide on the next prime minister itself. After winning the 2010 national election by 99 percent, the ruling party controls all but one of the 547 seats in the rubber stamp parliament.
However, analysts note that even the best laid out top leadership succession plans are disrupted by unexpected difficulties. To make matters worse, despite claiming that it has already groomed successors from the new generation to substitute aging leaders, apparently the ruling party did not have a clear succession plan.
Moreover, the system is facing a myriad of snags that may disrupt this intention. These include increasing and widening protests by the Muslim community, which has grown into the biggest political challenge faced by the regime in years as well as an economy losing its steam. The economy represents an even more ominous threat because it was the economy stellar performance that has lately served to legitimize the continuing rule of the party that governed the country since its victorious entry into the capital twenty one years ago.
An economist close to the ruling party, who chose to remain anonymous for fear of retributions, said the economy, after booming impressively over the last few years, is showing grave signs of cooling down. Foreign currency reserves are dwindling to dangerously low levels.
As a result, businessmen are unable to secure foreign currency. There are also reports of large capital flights. Contrary to assurances by the communications chief, Bereket Simon, and Mr. Nega that there is no leadership vacuum, projects approved to go ahead are being held up because no one from the PM's office could sign off on them.
The Financial Times reported this week that uncertainty about Zenawi's health may further harm and destabilize the economy already struggling from high inflation and the effects of the global financial crisis.