By Aaron Maasho
ADDIS ABABA, Aug 21 (Reuters) - After weeks of absence, Ethiopia announced on Tuesday the death of long-serving Prime Minister Meles Zenawi after he succumbed to an undisclosed illness.
So who might succeed him? The Horn of Africa country has kept a tight lid on the affair but here are a few names that have been widely touted:
Soft-spoken and humble, yet politically shrewd is how some diplomats in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, describe the 47-year-old deputy to Meles.
A former university dean, Hailemariam will be sworn in as acting prime minister by parliament, before the ruling party holds a congress meeting to select a successor. A date has not yet been set.
Hailemariam quickly rose through the ranks when he turned to politics, serving as president of the Southern Nations, Nationalities and People's Region in the south west of the country from 2001 to 2006 prior to being named as an advisor to Meles.
His pick as Meles' deputy in 2010 was a major surprise, partly due to his relative young age. He is widely seen as the late leader's protege.
He also replaced Meles as chair of a number of parliamentary committees in the past few years, a tell-tale sign of grooming, diplomats say.
The wife of Meles and mother of his three children, Azeb's rise from closely-guarded first lady to a workaholic politician and activist has inevitably raised speculation that Ethiopia would do "a Kirchner" - in reference to Argentina's experience in which the current leader Christina replaced her husband upon his death.
A member of parliament, she has won numerous accolades for her anti-HIV/AIDS campaign in the past few years and is chair of a parliamentary body on social affairs.
She remains a polarising figure, however, with some members of the country's ferociously anti-government Diaspora often criticising her business activities.
TEWODROS ADHANOM GHEBREYESUS
Educated in Britain, Tewodros has been health minister since 2005 and has a string of achievements under his belt - including a significant reduction in Ethiopia's child mortality rate - that have won him international respect.
Tewodros has an outside chance for the posting. He told Reuters in 2010, when Meles announced short-lived retirement plans, he did not want to be prime minister. But he is also a popular figure in his party, the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front.
Alemayehu is seen as a possible compromise candidate.
Alemayehu, currently head of the OPDO party that is allied to Meles' EPRDF, is an Oromo, an ethnic group which, though Ethiopia's largest in number, have never taken centre-stage politically.
Meles was a Tigrayan, an ethnic group that accounts for just 6 percent of the population but came to dominate the political establishment under Meles.
The Amhara ethnic group traditionally ruled the country and are likely to lobby for one of their ruling party members to take over after Meles' death. (Editing by Richard Lough and Anna Willard)