by Leta T. Bayissa
I would like to start by congratulating Ethiopia’s newly appointed Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, on breaking that country’s political glass ceiling, and achieving an unforeseen success. Desalegn’s meteoric rise to the highest office in the land is historic in many respects.
Desalegn hails from a marginalized ethnic minority, the Wolayta, who occupy low social status and are seen as inferiors by powerful groups from the north. Given his marginal political base within the ruling elite, protestant background, and Ethiopia’s history where political power is dominated by Orthodox northerners, Desalegn’s emergence is inconceivable.
Hailemariam’s prominence is credited to the late dictator, Meles Zenawi. But in a lot of ways, his selection by Zenawi’s heirs was also a political gamble. By appointing Zenawi’s deputy, EPRDF, Ethiopia’s ruling party, is seeking to register a rather unusual history of peaceful transfer of power in Ethiopia. The exercise, they say, marks the dawn of a new era for Ethiopia by sending a signal that Ethiopia’s multi-ethnic federalism is now deeply rooted.
EPRDF’s posturing is also aimed at cementing the end of a long-drawn succession talks and rumors of power struggle. However, the TPLF, Zenawi’s mother party, didn’t really choose Hailemariam out of its own volition. Desalegn was needed to placate the mounting anecdotes of likely fallout among core TPLF elites.
Zenawi’s divided legacy
More than a month before Zenawi’s death was publicized, several diaspora-based media outlets were abuzz with gleeful claims of his death. Among the overwhelming majority of Ethiopians and its neighbors, when Zenawi’s demise was officially announced — relieved that he is finally gone — there was no shortage of carousing.
Amid the euphoria and orchestrated public mourning, many believed that Zenawi’s death might indeed usher in a new era of political, economic and social equality in Ethiopia, and a much-needed stability in the greater horn of Africa. The theory goes, Zenawi’s departure serves as an opportunity for his heirs to make a break with the past where the people of the Horn faced an indescribable human suffering.
On the contrary, skeptics warned Zenawi’s untimely demise raises immediate and grave concerns for security in an already multifarious, fragile and unpredictable part of the world. This view presupposes, under Zenawi’s reign, Ethiopia played a crucial role in bringing calm to a very volatile region. Western donors share this view. In death, as in life, Zenawi was praised for helping spur economic progress in one of the poorest countries in Africa, and for his role in routing out the al-Qaeda affiliated militant group, al-Shabaab, in neighboring Somalia.
Following his death on August 20, while partial western assessments of Zenawi on the basis of their own geopolitical interest captured the spotlight, much less has been written about his 21 years of rein characterized by fear and horror as he sought to tighten political screws.
Zenawi’s regime saw hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians subjected to gross and systematic violations of human rights. A close ally of the West and architect of the U.S. war on terror in the Horn, Zenawi himself was born out of terror. He took over the reins of power by fighting against an equally tyrannical regime of Mengistu Hailemariam.
However, after assuming power, Zenawi turned violence into a political tool bludgeoning those perceived as enemies – real or imagined – in his attempt to control the military and state power.
Meles’ Ethiopia witnessed many tragedies; border and intra-state conflicts, and purging of critiques who dared to speak out against injustice and growing alienation in their own country. The controversial legacy he left behind will continue to divide the nations and nationalities in Ethiopia for some time to come. By manufacturing the politics of fear, division and despair, Zenawi ruled uncontested pitting rival groups against each other.
Therefore, for the West to portray a mass murderer and ironfisted dictator as a hero is not only wrong but also it is morally and ethically impermissible.
Succession row and Hailemariam
Starting mid-July when Zenawi fell ill, succession talks dominated EPRDF’s several closed-door meetings. Rumor has it that there were strong sentiments against efforts to install Hailemariam as Zenawi’s successor alleging that the new PM lacked experience and political capital needed for the top job.
But Zenawi’s protégé’s, like Bereket Simon, believed that Hailemariam’s promotion diffuses tensions about TPLF’s domination of Ethiopia while non-recognition of Hailemariam would be a blow to unity within EPRDF which could have serious repercussion.
A glimpse at Hailemariam’s approach validates fears of his incompetence. In his recent public appearance, Desalegn looked weak and nervous. And an apparent paranoia about looking weak might have made him look even weaker.
Hailemariam is yet to come up with his own policy initiatives or doesn’t seem to have any inclination to do so. In his inauguration speech before parliament, Desalegn vowed to continue policies and projects initiated by his predecessor — “without any change.”
The challenges he faces trying to fill Zenawi’s big-shoe are expected. Unlike Zenawi, he can’t rely on the military to shore up political support, even if he tried, the TPLF-dominated military bras would give him a cold shoulder. He also lacks the resilience and cunning articulation to inspire base support cobbling together the coalition that helped Zenawi consolidate power for two-decades.
There is no doubt Hailemariam has a challenging task ahead. But instead of resetting the tone and moving to heal the political rift created by Zenawi, on day-one as PM, Desalegn denounced the ongoing Ethiopian Muslim’s nonviolent resistance. Hailemariam should have the valor to initiate dialogue with the Muslim community and listen to their legitimate grievances. But by continuing on the path charted by his predecessor and powerful Tigrean oligarchy, Desalegn will pre-maturely lose even the goodwill of those who see his election as a break from Ethiopia’s past.
Ethiopia is at crossroads. Zenawi had dismantled the opposition and free press. It is crucial to rethink the future of Ethiopia. Political stability does not come through international pressures, and elections are not the end results of democratic enlargement.
Insofar as Ethiopia’s long history of aggression and violence continues, the relationship between the people and the state will remain a political stalemate.
The wider fear is that if Hailemariam chooses to serve merely as the public face of a wicked system, as he has vowed to defend it, his ascent to premiership could just be the start of another bloody era for Ethiopia. I hope, against hope, that Hailemariam would use his conviction and courage to bridge the rift among Ethiopia’s multi-ethnic groups, open up the media environment, and release all political prisoners. No, it is not too late.
Leta T. Bayissa is a graduate student at the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.