“The immediate impact of Zenawi’s death will be a delay in the government’s decision on the issue. The acting PM will have other, more pressing, issues to attend to and won’t prioritize this,” Tronvoll told The Local on Tuesday.
Zenawi, who has been Prime Minister of the African country since 1995, died while recuperating from illness in hospital late Monday night after a sudden infection struck, Addis Ababa announced shortly after his death.
He has been temporarily replaced by deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, according to the Ethiopan national broadcaster. At the moment, the fate of the two Swedes rests with him.
Freelance reporters Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson were arrested in Ethiopia’s Ogaden region last summer in the company of what the government says were rebels from the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF).
The pair was detained after illegally crossing the border from Somalia, and after a long and controversial trial were jailed for 11 years by an Ethiopian court in December 2011 after being found guilty of supporting terrorism and entering the country illegally.
The journalists both denied terrorism charges and testified they were in Ethiopia to report on the activities of the Swedish oil company Lundin Petroleum in the Ogaden.
The case has been highly controversial in Ethiopia with significant international pressure put on the country to release the two Swedes. All negotiations regarding their pardon had so far been handled by Swedish representatives and late Prime Minister Zenawi.
With the case not being very popular in Ethiopia, Tronvoll also stressed that pardoning the two Swedes in the middle of political upheaval could well jeopardize the appointment process of a new would-be Prime Minister.
“The acting PM will most likely not use up his political capital on an issue which many in Ethiopia are highly critical of. That could backfire against his own permanent appointment,” Tronvoll said.
After the death of the PM, Tronvoll thinks that Sweden should lie low for the moment and not push too hard for the pair’s pardon.
“Sweden needs to respect the time of mourning for the government and the country. They would achieve nothing by pushing for a pardon right now, in fact, it would most likely backfire on them if they did,” said Tronvoll.
What effects the death of Zenawi will have in the long run for Schibbye and Persson, Tronvoll thinks depends on who is ultimately elected Prime Minister of the country.
“It is still an open question, and it depends on if a moderate candidate, like the current acting PM, will be appointed or a hard-liner. If it is the latter it is always possible that they will take the line that ‘they are getting their just deserts’,” Tronvoll said.
However, Tronvoll thinks that the death of Zenawi isn’t likely to mean that the process will be permanently halted.
“It is too early to say if this will complicate the process indefinitely, but in principle that isn’t likely. Whoever gets appointed PM will sooner or later have to find a solution as Ethiopia is under significant international pressure to free the jailed Swedes,” Tronvoll told The Local.