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Ethiopia Post-Meles: Prospects for Change and Stability

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Written by Hassen Hussein

Part one of this series asserted that while the Ethiopian regime left behind by Zenawi faces little organized opposition to endanger its hold on power in the short-term, serious turbulence lie ahead.

Part two explored the potential for a nonviolent strategy not only in eroding TPLF/EPRDF’s absolute dominance but also laying the foundations for a more durably democratic order. This section focuses on the internal dynamics of the Ethiopian regime.

What does the actions of Zenawi’s successors since Zenawi’s absence, and their behaviors at the state funeral on Sunday, tell us about the internal dynamics of the ruling party?

The plethora of eulogies from African autocrats; the likes of “Field Marshal” Omar al-Bashir and the two last standing member of “the new breeds of African leaders” Paul Kagame and Yoweri Museveni, Addisu Legesse‘s meandering obits, and a slew of speeches given by deliberately chosen “representatives” of Ethiopia’s minority groups offer sufficient cues. The regime’s visible uneasiness on the question of who has officially succeeded Zenawi adds more light to illuminate the situation. The evident back door jockeying for power provides a more conclusive indication of where things are headed.

Rwanda’s Kagame was right on the point: “we all fear the magnitude of the gap he [Meles Zenawi’s death] has left.” In fact, by lionizing Zenawi, the ruling party has inadvertently made the gap even wider. It has set itself up for failure by casting Meles as an “irreplaceable leader” and attributing all their successes to his political acumen, intellectual prowess, and hard work.

Addisu Legesse, the former Deputy Prime Minister and a long time member of the party’s top hierarchy who disappeared from the scene following the reshuffle in the aftermath of the 2010 elections was slated to talk about the personal side of the fallen leader. However, he endlessly repeated familiar talking points and failed to break any new grounds. One of the most boring speeches heard at the funeral, Legesse’s “tribute” has nuggets of information that reveals the state of EPRDF.

Legesse demonstrated that Zenawi was the sole brain behind EPRDF’s victory against the Dergue; stay on power, and its future. Even if one takes account of expected generosity for the dead, the speech makes abundantly clear that Meles had been the party’s frontal lobe, its Queen Bee; and that the party’s role was to carry out his ideas, effectively his legs and arms. Subsequent speakers basically reinforced Zenawi’s indispensability and irreplaceability.

The pool of domestic speakers itself suggests a lot. For one thing, it shows that the question of who among the three traditional contenders of power in Ethiopia–the Amhara, Oromo, and Tigre—represents the most serious threat to the stability of the post-Meles regime is unsettled. The fact that the calendar was studded with speakers from minority groups strengthens this hypothesis. For another, from the lineup, one can deduce that the consensus within the Tigrean oligarchy about the future is skin deep. In fact, it does not seem to go beyond preventing the rise of an Amhara or Oromo Prime Minister. The prominent slot accorded to Addisu may not indicate the rising influence of the Amhara in the post-Meles era. Since he is viewed in some circles as a senior statesman and a “close friend” of the late prime minister, it is possible that Bereket Simon brought him up to buttress his own future claims to the high position.

The wisest thing for the ruling party to do under the circumstances would have been to bury Zenawi as soon as possible and quickly pass the baton to a new leader. However, by dwelling too much on Zenawi, it is becoming increasingly self-evident that EPRDF is a party that looks to its past rather than its future for solutions. Zenawi’s successors have no vision of their own but expect his glory to guide them from the grave. Addisu’s reappearance and tirade underscores the depth of this void.

For those who know TPLF/EPRDF full well, it is impossible to believe that the grand send-off party for the late Prime Minister was meant merely to honor Zenawi. But it is more plausible to note that the funeral bash was designed to ensure continuity of the regime by taking the opportunity to mobilize the party’s membership and grassroots support base around the party’s sole common denominator: Meles Zenawi. The turnout spoke to EPRDF’s ability to mobilize, but it also opened up a hole: what and who would unite the party?

The four EPRDF coalition partners as well as the party’s cadres saw Zenawi as their genuine leader. His command was law on to them. However, none of the remaining leaders, least of which is Hailemariam Desalegn – the deputy or according to Susan Rice the acting PM – command the kind of broad-based respect, undivided loyalty, legitimacy, and felt devotion to govern, something Zenawi mischievously earned after being at the helm for three decades.

To complicate matters, Zenawi protected his position by cultivating rivalry and competition among his lieutenants, not to mention the grandiose cult of personality around himself. Worse still, several of high-level party officials suffer from health problems to offer fresh alternatives or have the ambition to start afresh. Besides, despite EPRDF’s oft-repeated claims of training a new breedofleaders to take the helm, Zenawi’s passing exposed the lack of any wider succession plan to replace aging senior leaders.

Now that Meles is gone, none of the higher ups that are quietly jockeying for the position are ready to accept orders from one another. Until a person more equal than others emerges, collective leadership—a more dysfunctional leadership model in times of turmoil—will be the order of the day. Azeb Mesfin’s, the late PM’s wife, speech indicates that competition now is who would best preserve Zenawi’s legacy. She presented herself as the most puritan choice.

Contrary to the calm public appearance, the Tigrean base is terrified of Hailemariam, to say the least. Many are openly claiming that he did not earn his position. Others question why they have to elevate an incompetent person without any political base while the TPLF still maintains absolute control of the military and the security forces; has the support of other “partners” and while EPRDF is not facing any public pressure to do so. Abay Waldu, Meles’ deputy in the TPLF, seems to have taken a back seat. Some are hoping the likes of Arkebe Oqubay and Tewodros Adhanom would come to the fore to rescue the ship. However, already tainted by factional bickering, neither is seen to have acted in the past the fray as to emerge as a unifying figure. The question of how acceptable the two are to the other parties in the coalition is also tricky.

However, uneasiness about Hailemariam’s premiership is not limited to the Tigreans. There is not much enthusiasm among the ANDM crowd, either. It appears that Bereket Simon, who is the de facto head of ANDM, is nursing his own ambitions for the highest office. In fact, there are some among the TPLF hardcore that look at him as the only person ruthless enough to navigate the party out of the gathering storm to safety. The trouble is that he lacks Zenawi’s finesse and comes out as inflexible, abrasive, and brash.

The matter is altogether different among the OPDO, the Oromo reps in the hotchpotch coalition. The party has been decimated since 2010. The ouster of Abadula Gamada from the chairmanship at the urging of the TPLF and ANDM had left a bitter taste, especially among the professionals who joined the party en masse on account of his professed motivation to remake the party. His replacement, Alamayo Atomsa, had been too ill to mend fences or establish his authority. As a result, the party—which still boasts having four million members—has been unable to regroup and is in total disrepair.

OPDO’s top leadership is too factionalized and lacks the internal cohesion necessary to elevate one of their own to the premiership. It appears that the TPLF and ANDM are determined to prevent Abadula to the party’s chairmanship. Their preferred candidates are reportedly Kuma Damaqsa (the funeral emcee), Aster Mamo, and lately Diriba Kuma. Neither is likely to gain traction, be it among the party’s operatives and its constituents.

TPLF and ANDM’s worry that after being a pariah among the Oromo for the first decade of EPRDF rule, Abadula has since refurbished his image and gone on to earn grudging support even from among his former detractors. There are also some who allege, albeit without any evidence, that Abadula appears like a person who has had enough of playing second fiddle to TPLF honchos and Bereket Simon’s ANDM. He is visibly bored being Speaker of the Housein the single party parliamentwhere nothing happens. Consequently, it is difficult to envisage how the TPLF and ANDM would ease him out of the contention. Doing so could set off a crisis that might risk unraveling the coalition.

SEPDF, an amalgamation of many small parties, is the newest member of the EPRDF coalition representing the very diverse and numerous peoples of the South. Hailemariam hails from the Wolayita, the second largest group in the South. The Sidama, the largest ethnic group in the South, openly entertains the idea of breaking from the Southern state and forming a Sidama state. There is no strong indication that SEPDF is fully backing the candidacy of Hailemariam for Prime Minister.

Aside from those who are afraid that passing Hailemariam might trigger a backlash, the only pressure to install him as Prime Minister thus far seems to be solely originating from the diplomatic community. This was evident on Sunday. While all domestic speakers and the state-run media consistently referred to Hailemariam as Deputy Prime Minister, all the African heads of states, the UN representative and the US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice referred to him as Acting Prime Minister. The only exception was Thabo Mbeki, who according to a Financial Times report maintained regular contact with Meles even from his deathbed.

From the above, it is clear that the future EPRDF won’t be as united as under Zenawi. Despite the misgivings from several quarters, Hailemariam would still assume the Prime Minister’s position—while others would try to manage him from behind (most likely Birhane Gebrekristos as his deputy). However, there is fear that Desalegn may not prove to be as malleable as originally taught, a concern, which has fueled the desire to delay his swearing-in. Until a de facto leader emerges, the jockeying for power is therefore likely to continue. One possibility is that we might see the immense power formerly concentrated in the Prime Minister’s office divided up.

There is already talk of different individuals assuming the post of EPRDF chairmanship and Prime Minister. As a result, who becomes the head of TPLF, OPDO and the Deputy Prime Minister might be more important than who becomes Prime Minister, for whoever that might be; his tenure would likely be short-lived. Who becomes the chairman of ANDM is not as important because he is likely to defer to Bereket Simon, the de facto head of the party. Besides, unlike TPLF and OPDO, ANDM has not experienced any signs of internal rivalry and factionalism. The choice of who becomes chairman of SEPDF is also not as crucial either because it is difficult to conceive a scenario in which Hailemariam would be deposed and replaced by Shiferaw Shegute, a Sidama who’s currently the President of the Southern regional State.

The first test of the regime is how it would deal with Muslim protesters who had staged protests running for nine months. The weekly demonstrations were suspended as a courtesy to allow Zenawi to receive proper burial. Given the nervousness within the regime, one cannot rule out the possibility of a more determined effort to crackdown on protesters. The problem is that the movement has passed the stage where it could be intimidated into submission. The other test is what happens on the first day of the upcoming parliamentary session. The Prime Minister would have to be approved by the parliament. Since EPRDF effectively controls all the seats, any snug could only come from internal differences. The delay in swearing-in Hailemariam points to some lingering tensions.

The other question is whether parliament will convene before the parties hold their conferences. Given the heated jockeying for power, it is likely that, potential contenders will be weeded out on these forums. Who stays, who is promoted, and who is let go will give us a good indicator of what the road ahead would look like.

In conclusion, a smooth transition in Ethiopia looks as elusive as ever. The succession battle is far from over. Support for Hailemariam seems to be tepid at best and unenthusiastic at worst. There is still no danger of imminent implosion but the more the uncertainty drags on, the more cracks within the EPRDF would become unavoidable.

Aside from the Muslim protests, the most lethal threat for the regime is internal disharmony. The biggest danger is however the fact that the “new bosses” lack a vision of their own. Vowing to follow in the footsteps of Zenawi is not as reassuring as it sounds simply because the problems that would confront the party going forward are likely to be qualitatively different. Instead, as implied by Azeb Mesfin, the competition to determine who would be the best guardian of Zenawi’s legacy is in full swing. The regime is unlikely to open up the political system, which points toward the risk of more polarization. The house Zenawi built on an ostentatious foundation and a façade of invincibility will gradually unravel, if not crumble in the immediate future.

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About the author

Hassen Hussein

Hassen Hussein, a writer, teaches Leadership and Management courses at the Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota and can be reached at hxhuss10@smumn.edu.

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