Ethiopia: Political Dominoes Topple in Ethiopia

Addis Ababa — The dominoes keep falling in Ethiopia, with one of the most significant crashing down.

Just over a month after the Ethiopian government’s surprise decision early January to close a notorious prison and release political prisoners, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn announced on Feb. 15 his shock resignation in another apparent bid to placate the turmoil that’s plagued the country for more than two years.

He was the first ruler in modern Ethiopian history to step down – previous leaders having been overthrown or dying in office. The day after the announcement, another state of emergency was declared in Ethiopia – a preceding 10-month state of emergency, the first in 25 years, having ended in August 2017- casting further uncertainly over the second most populous country in Africa with one of the continent’s fastest growing economics, a staunch ally of the West in the fight against terrorism, and a country that has previously managed to hold out as a relative oasis of stability in the Horn of Africa as countries around it have descended into anarchy.

“There is no guarantee that Ethiopia will not descend into further chaos and violence,” says Awol Allo, an Ethiopian lecturer in law at Keele University in the UK and media commentator on the protests. “There is no magic formula here that doesn’t exist in other African countries. After all, we share a large measure of cultural and institutional similarities.”

Some have seen Hailemariam’s resignation as a desperate act of self-preservation by a tiny Tigrayan ethnic elite accused of using Hailemariam to continue and entrench since the end of the country’s civil war in 1991 the domination of its Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) within the ruling Ethiopia People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) four-party coalition, and thereby over Ethiopia itself. Others, however, say this misses the point about the scale of change forced on Ethiopia’s political space.

Having succeeded Ethiopia’s long-term and charismatic ruler Meles Zenawi who died in 2012, Hailemariam never managed to shake off accusations of being a caretaker figure without real power; there to implement the orders of more influential figures in the army and in the TPLF.

A more sympathetic analysis is that Hailemariam, a proclaimed and committed Christian, was always surrounded by a viper’s nest of a government and was increasingly caught between a rock and a hard place.

Concessions he has made have emboldened protesters, while hardliners in the party have bristled at the speed and scale of such concessions. On top of which, as the protests have continued, the EPRDF has become increasingly riven by divisions as its Oromo and Amhara wings have fought back against the Tigrayan over-lordship.

Rumors were circulating widely that he would resign after the party congress scheduled for this month. Some observers say the early resignation was brought forward because the ruling party wants a more assertive person in charge during a time of crisis when the Ethiopian equation that underpinned previous decades of stability is proving increasingly hard for the government to square.

Ethiopia has aped the Chinese developmental state model of providing its populace with material gains to offset curtailments of civil liberties. But after a decade of double-digit growth, based largely on state investment in infrastructure, growth in Ethiopia has slowed in recent years amid severe droughts and social unrest. Furthermore, even during that growth most Ethiopians felt entirely excluded from material benefits that they could see being relished by only a small minority, the disparity made even more galling by the all-pervading restrictions on basic freedoms compounded by economic pressures such as rising prices and stagnant wages.

That bundle of iniquities finally came to a heard with the Oromo protest movement erupting at the end of 2015. Having not lost steam during a repressive crackdown when no concessions were made, it seems even less likely to stall now, while its future course could have existential implications for Ethiopia as a nation state.

“It is time for Ethiopians to decide whether they want the former empire that is Ethiopia to be one country or several countries,” says Sandy Wade, a former European Union diplomat in Addis Ababa during the protests. “If they want one country the current obsession with ethnic nationalism needs to change because it will lead to several countries not one.”

That said, some in Ethiopia note there’s a limit to what protesters will endure, added to which Ethiopia’s security and military apparatus remains potently capable. Hence all eyes are on who will succeed Hailemariam – March 11 has been set as the date on which deliberations to choose a successor will begin–and whether the new prime minister will continue to pursue rapprochement with disaffected segments of society or initiate a crackdown.

“If TPLF implemented reforms as it said it would and EPRDF elected a leader from the restive region of Oromia, the nerve center of the protests and activism, things would have changed for the better,” Awol says. “The current situation suggests that things will continue to unravel.”

Who such unraveling might benefit, if anyone, is hard to say, but the opposition certainly feel that the wind is in their sail.

“Stopping the protest is impossible now,” says Jawar Mohammed, a prominent US-based Oromo opposition activist commanding a huge social media following, and a hero to some and villain to others. “It is possible to prevent them further intensifying and over-running the regime by taking bold concrete action very, very quickly that should include appointing a capable, popular prime minister with proven reformist credential.”

But Ethiopia has a long history of being led by authoritarian strongmen figures–before Meles Zenawi it was the military dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam and before him Emperor Haile Selassie, continuing back to the 19th century and Emperor Tewodros who began building the empire that became modern Ethiopia.

If the EPRDF chooses a figure from its old guard rather than a rising politician with greater public support, it’s feared this will lead to more, perhaps worse, unrest. But whoever is chosen, even if acceptable to the protesters, will be faced with a gargantuan task.

“Once appointed the new prime minister should quickly hit the ground [running] making it clear he would lead the country to transition, meet with opposition, begin charting a roadmap for transition,” Jawar says.

This must include, Jawar and others note, rapidly liberalizing the political sphere so that opposition groups and the media can build their capacity to play a role in building durable democracy, the establishment of the latter being ultimately, most commentators highlight, what will put an end to the protests.

Ethiopia has always viewed itself as different to, even separate from, the rest of Africa. But there remains enough concern it could repeat the same mistakes and disasters seen too many times on the continent, or that so deep runs vitriol and resentment among the competing elements that emotions will fuel actions that prove self-defeating for everyone.

“You have to understand one thing about the Ethiopian mentality, it is circular,” Abebe says. “Our churches are circular, our mosques are circular, the injera we eat is circular–everything is circular. With such a mentality you go on and on arguing the thing, but you never reach a decision.”

The influences of key donors and international partners such as the US, UK and European Union could have an impact, although previously international diplomacy has long appeared to specialise in tip-toing around the Ethiopian government for fear of upsetting it, and, beyond releasing somewhat admonishing embassy press releases, has appeared unwilling to bring much of tangible persuasive effect to bear. The impact of the heavily influential Ethiopian diaspora opposition, especially in the US, could well swing matters, proving far more decisive, harbouring the potential to call for compromise or further stoke tensions.

“The possibility of real inter-ethnic problems, based probably on jealousy, is there,” Wade says. “Some people are undoubtedly going to die in low level ethnic clashes encouraged by irresponsible, and probably criminal, people who are acting only out of self-interest.”

 Read the original article on IPS.


  1. Jawar is dreaming. He says:
    “Once appointed the new prime minister should quickly hit the ground [running] making it clear he would lead the country to transition, meet with opposition, begin charting a road-map for transition.”
    My understanding is that role of a prime minister is highly exaggerated by people who are unable to see the inherent weakness in the system as to how the position of prime minister is circulated among four organizations via assignment.
    What’s worrying is a trend has been established in the last twenty years in violation of the constitution.
    Until a few years ago, a TPLF/EPRDF leader who is praised as “charismatic” in the article published above held it to be succeeded by a leader of Southern organization/EPRDF until he was forced to resign not long ago. Next in line (without necessarily reflecting order) seem to be leaders of OPDO/EPRDF and ANDM/EPRDF. The other organizations from other five regions that form the federation are out.
    The leaders of the regional organizations viz. TPLF, OPDO, ANDM, Southern organization are elected by a small number of people from the central or executive committee of the respective organizations without the involvement of the rank and file members via representatives.
    Another small group of people that come from these organizations elect the leader to the EPRDF who then becomes the prime minster of the country. In reality, the fate of the prime minister is dependent on the few people who elected him than the entire members of EPRDF and the general population.
    The small group of people who elected the prime minister can also remove him after unfavorable evaluation (gemgema). The other requirement to meet is election to HPR (federal parliament) in remote local district of few thousands of people.
    The internal workings of EPRDF to pick the prime minister and a very limited mass base he has by being elected in a single wereda is totally undemocratic way of putting a chief executive to the highest office in the country.
    Here is a concrete example. A few months ago, less than forty people who form the central committee of TPLF (including some who were said no more in the committee) removed their leader and crowned another.
    Through what process the removal and replacement done? Through evaluation (gemgema).
    Assuming that TPLF has a million members in Tigray, in the country and abroad, was there any mechanism by which the million strong participated to elect whom they call their leader? None whatsoever.
    -There was no leadership campaign among members and supporters in which candidates present what they will do if elected to lead the party.
    -There were no delegates (at least ten thousand of them for a million members) who were to vote for the leader and back his plan at all stages of implementation and support him in case the top leadership is not happy with what he is doing.
    -Nobody knows what the leader elected in closed doors plans to do. Not party members, not supporters, not the Tigray people.
    The process is like an appointment of a civil servant whose tenure is dependent on evaluation of his immediate superior. And the immediate supervisors in TPLF case are the few who elect the leader.
    That kind of election might have been reasonable during the civil war due to security concerns, but to maintain it for years after security risk is removed is undemocratic and meaningless. It is a corrupt system that encourages loyalty to few groups of people rather than to the entire population. If it exists anywhere in the world, it might be only in China. Since our country is not China, it needs a democratic way of electing party leaders.
    So, how the post of the prime minister is “given” makes the person weak
    Personal strength and weakness might improve or exacerbate situation, but to expect change, even a serious reform that involves transition including charting out a road-map and meeting with opposition is unrealistic.
    As Jawar wishes, if and when the leader of OPDO/EPRDF becomes the prime minister, he will be weak due to the inherent weakness in the system. A bad legacy from TPLF, OPDO got its leader without saying what he wants to do, without competing with others for leadership and the expressed support of members of his party and the Oromo people. He becomes a prime minister by few “king makers” to whom he will be loyal until they throw him out.
    I can’t wait to hear Jawar’s comment once OPDO/EPRDF guy walks in Menelik palace with his family without knowing what to do. People tell you he will implement EPRDF’s program, but that’s not enough. I can’t also wait to confirm how the system of filling the office will undo him because he can’t say no to the king makers.
    If you’re waiting for change or reform under such administration, forget it.
    Get this Jawar, look at the bigger picture. Look at the system and how it operates. The role of individuals is less important compared to a system that facilitates or hinders their performance.
    Drop unnecessarily raising people’s expectations.

  2. James. Jeffrey seems ignorant of Ethiopian politics. PM Hailemariam was the symbolic leader. Power resides in TPLF. That is why nothing happened since the resignation of Hailemariam. In fact Hailemariam is a criminal that cooperated to be ridden by TPLF people. As a result of that many Ethiopians were arrested, tortured and killed. So James, do not lecture us about first ever power vacating by Hailemariam in the first place and second Ethiopia had two PMs vacating office before Hailemariam.

  3. Hullabaloo Dinaw,
    I agree with you that ” . . . a trend has been established in the last twenty years (in which the position of prime minister is circulated among four organizations without any democratic process) in violation of the Constitution”.
    This is simply to make a comment on your observations related to the established trend in filling the position of prime minister and the constitutional requirement that’s violated which I believe you have not dealt with at length.
    I will start with the Constitution. The pertinent provision to the practice is Article 38 which is entitled “the right to vote and to be elected”. Sub Article 3 of the said article provides:
    “Elections to positions of responsibility within any of the organizations referred to under sub-Article 2 of this Article (viz. political organizations, labour unions, trade organizations, or employers’ or professional associations) shall be conducted in a free and democratic manner.”
    As indicated above within brackets, the Constitutions sanctions “elections to positions of responsibility” in political organizations which is to be conducted in a free and democratic manner. Positions of responsibility in political organizations are essentially about positions of leadership.
    This is where I agree with Hullabaloo Dinaw’s comment on the complete absence of free and democratic elections of political leaders in our country. Leaving aside the legal opposition aside for now, let’s see the practices of TPLF-EPRDF. As Hullabaloo said, there is no open nomination and debate among prospective leaders on issues in TPLF-EPRDF camp. Without departing from the TPLF-EPRDF program, there were issues that candidates could have presented and debated to get support of members and supporters and of the general public.
    Democracy is about debating issues and giving opportunity for the idea that has won support of the majority to be implemented. The person who authors the winning idea is the one who takes over. And this is to be done in a free manner. I have not seen or heard of any debate on issues and free election of leaders within TPLF-EPRDF. And that’s one of the reasons the party has problem reforming itself or accept reform in the country.
    TPLF/EPRDF lacks internal democracy and open exchange of ideas and debate. Centralism is excessively applied to the extent that members muzzle themselves from discussing ideas. Article 38 was intended to limit such a development in the political sphere and emphasise that the public has interest and right to know internal workings of political organizations.
    The National Election Board from time to time interferes in the elections of leaders of opposition political parties, but not in the practices of TPLF/EPRDF. Maybe it will have to look into this problem before the next election of prime minster.
    There is no doubt that TPLF/EPRDF camp ignored Article 38 in the last twenty years. Because the practice repeated itself for so long, not many are questioning it. Better raised late than to have not been raised at all. Last week, in an interview with the VOA, Prof. Beyene Petros has raised it. We should follow in his footsteps and hold TPLF/EPRDF and the Election Board to task. Artcle 38 should be respected.
    Finally, Hullabaloo Dinaw should be thanked for his original observation.

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