Few among the African Heads of State knew before hand what awaited them upon landing in Finfinne/Addis Ababa for the 19th African Union summit; none would have guessed the venue for their meeting will be a city on the edge.
Unbeknown to them they walked right into the eye of a perfect storm.
They arrived in town on the heels of an Ethiopian court’s sentencing of a prominent journalist, along with about two-dozen political opponents, to years of imprisonment for writing critically against the regime. That is enough to nag the conscience of any sane person, even if such a feeling is a rarity among the crowd. To make matters worse, the host country’s leader is gravely ill, facing an unknown future. His novice deputy, a dour politician with a skin deep veneer of legitimacy just like his bewildered colleagues, is doing his level best to display all the trappings of power, extending the hospitalities and courtesies due heads of state. Although some have already begun to address him as the Acting Prime Minister, it is quite apparent that he shows no signs of being in charge.
Worse yet, an estimated half a million Muslim protesters have congregated at the Grand Anwar Mosque, turning it into Ethiopia’s Tahrir Square, braving beatings by the riot police. Like the dawn of Tahrir Square, the police have established a cordon around them. Like Tahrir Square, throngs of Christians spent the day yesterday and today ferrying fresh water and food to the protesting brothers and sisters. If rather than being good Samaritans, they chose to directly partake in the protests; the incumbent regime would find it irresistible to politely ask its guests to head home.
Four features make the increasingly assertive Muslim political activism different from Tahrir Square. For one thing, Muslims constitute only about of half of Ethiopian population. To savor the fruits of their revolution, they would need the participation of their Christian brothers and sisters. For another, the movement in Ethiopia is not confined to one square. Initially it was Awalia, an Islamic school. Then, the Grand Anwar Mosque. Third, the protesters are yet to camp out permanently. Having staged spectacular demonstrations, they disperse. Fourth, the protesters in Ethiopia have not yet made their political demands known, such as change of regime. Until now they are demanding the right to freely elect their own mosques’ leaders, not the country’s.
Fenced behind brick walls, the TPLF honchos, in total limbo, are contemplating the future without the only leader they had known for three decades. There are quite a number who are still optimistic that Meles would survive his illnesses and ride out the political storm, as he has done time and again. This makes it difficult to launch an earnest succession planning.
Cognizant of the gravity of the situation of a sick leader and what is happening only a dozen blocks away, where part of the city is teeming with tens of thousands of protesters led by an enterprisingly clever foe unlike any they had ever faced in their two-decade in power, the Tigrean ruling elite is silently deliberating even if unsure of how to proceed. As if completely caught off guard by the fast evolving events, the authorities are desperately trying to keep the lid on a host of volcanoes with a mixture of threats and entreaties while putting on a brave face to their African guests of honor.
It is true that the governing party had broached the idea of succession but it was more of an empty bluster rather than serious deliberation, more of a formality rather than the kind of discussion one makes about something imminently inevitable. The EPRDF has contingency plans on how to deal with popular action but it never entertained the prospect that a popular movement would be launched right in front of their nose, from among a community long accustomed to playing second fiddle. The regime’s attention was focused on the regular culprits, diaspora-based groups whose many calls for protests went unheeded.
The TPLF is in a quandary. It has allowed Meles to place a non-Tigrean as his deputy. None expected he was serious about making him his actual replacement. Their Tigrean base is ill prepared for the prospect, which many see as an ominous portent. To make matters worse, it is not clear how the other “partners” in the coalition would react, let alone an angry public showing signs of readiness to shed its two-decade old docility.
The senior leaders of the TPLF are largely sidelined and dispersed. Seyoum Mesfin is in Peking, and Abadi Zemo in Khartoum, to mention but two. Moreover, their relations have been strained following years of power politics to displace and replace each other by ingratiating themselves to the paramount leader. The breaches of trust are too wide to be lightly circumvented. The gulf is too many to be dismissed or easily bridged even in this difficult of times.
Among the stalwarts, Abbay Tsehaye is considered incompetent and almost a none entity. The populist Arkabe Oqubay is no member of parliament and to thrust him to the high office would fly in the fact of their official rhetoric of formality in the EPRDF hierarchy. The elderly Sebhat Nega is too tainted by allegations of corruption and mischief to offer himself or offered by anyone else as a viable consensus candidate. Azeb Mesfin is too traumatized by her husband’s sudden and spectacular deterioration of health as to aimlessly walk the halls of power ready to point accusatory fingers at all and anyone who showed any semblance of ingratitude for the fallen leader or break down in hysteria.
Bereket has his own health problems to worry about. While some in the too- decimated and undermined satellite parties are fervently loyal to the ailing Prime Minister, some are entertaining, at least informally, ambitions of elevating one of their own to the high post.
The opposition has been busy demolishing each other and devouring themselves to offer an alternative. The Western patrons of the state were too engrossed with the Prime Minister to even contemplate alternatives. Tewdros Adhanom, whom Washington wants to prop up, has no base of power, be it among the jittery public or the dejected members of the ruling party itself. Despite the ease with which he throws out catchy phrases, which have earned him awards from such prestigious places as the Yale School of Public Health, music to the ears of his benefactors, he has a poor grasp of the complexity of the situation.
The reality is not different on Ethiopia’s northern border, either. The motive to influence the future direction is obviously palpable. But Isayas is too immobilized by his own health problems, and regional and international isolation, and general sociopolitical malaise to throw up a second Barentu surprise.
These factors would combine to make another perfect storm to which Ethiopians are long familiar with: A messy transition. One consistent truth that becomes evident is that if one goes back 200 years in Ethiopian history, no single formally presumed successor managed to consolidated power. Being the person on whose heads all the poisoned and pointed arrows of palace intrigue are arrayed, few survived, both literally and metaphorically.
One need not peek deep into the distant past to understand the allusion here. It would suffice to start with Menelik II, the founder of the state, who willed his only grandson to be the legitimate heir to the throne. However, the imperial court began to subvert his wishes as soon as his demise became certain. It took more than two decades, myriads of intrigues, and a bloody power struggle for things to stabilize down to allow the diminutive and unlikely Haile Silassie to ascent to power. Unlikely for various reasons one of which was his mixed ethnic heritage not fitting for a throne long dominated by “the chosen tribe of Judah.”
Haile Silassie had named a successor, his heir apparent, Prince Asfa Wessen. After the latter was sullied by a coup, the emperor named Lij Leul Silassiebut did so in a way thatleft the line of succession as murky as when he inherited it by sheer will and guile.
He was brought down by the most unlikely of forces, his own palace guard and army. The later deposed the emperor in a bloodless coup d’état but the revolution was soon drenched in the blood of tens of thousands of innocents in literally all corners of the country. Mengistu was not able to stabilize the situation until after five long and bloody years, a blood that continued to flow until his unceremonious departure ahead of Zenawi’s fast advancing army.
Meles Zenawi assumed power with total military dominance. He had the full might of the Eritrean army behind him, not to mention a country and a population weary of war. However, his army was active a year into his new reign battling Oromo insurgents. It was not until after five years that he was able to emerge as an unquestioned leader.
This too did not last long. In 1998, he faced renewed war with Eritrea. Being pulled and pushed left and right in the middle of an unwanted war, he was soon faced against rivals in his party. The aftermath of the war saw a nasty break up in 2001 with his former comrades in arms, the likes of former Defense Minister turned opposition leader Siye Abraha, and another challenging period ensued.
If Zenawi’s continued rule is ruled out, a big, the fate of his legacy is uncertain. It is doubtful if EPRDF’s “strong institutions” could outlive Meles. There is this talk that the EPRDF has built a solid structure stretching all the way to the remote rural villages. The argument goes that the cadres would have a vested interest in sustaining the system and some would die to save their posts. The fact is that if given the opportunity, a majority of the Amharas wishes to do away with it. In today’s Amhara, Oromo, and Tigray regional states devised by the current constitution, the Amhara see parallels with the situation preceding the so called Era of Princes (Zemene Mesafint), a period marked by close to a century-long power struggle that sapped the very life of the country and the people.
The Oromo and the South clearly want to make the rhetoric and facade of self-rule more meaningful, real, and functional. In the Amhara rhetoric of a return to one-nation-one-language-indivisible under one God, the Oromo and South visualize a repeat of a century of Amhara domination that followed Zemene Mesafint, a history they would rather forget than repeat. The tens of thousands of Muslim protesters who have been staging a sustained struggle for the last eight months would particularly find talk of “under one-God” more than objectionable.
Unless the plethora of parties vying for supremacy in Ethiopia eschew their deeply ingrained zero-sum view of politics, Ethiopia is indeed headed, at least in the eyes of a realist, into heady winds. The storm was gathering momentum even without Zenawi’s illness. Dictatorship is a volcano that simmers inside. It is only a matter of time before it explodes. Meles might overcome his illnesses. He very well might. However, whether Meles survived this bout of trouble makes no difference. We have entered an uncharted territory. How long the storm would last only time would tell.Fasten your seat belts; the ride will be long and rough.