Meles Zenawi is Dead, Long Live “Who?!”


By Olaana Abbaaxiiqii*

Meles Zenawi is dead. Hailemariam Desalegne is now the acting Prime Minister, or so we are told, at least for the time being. The country is stunned and silent in disbelief.

The Tigrean Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) is in disarray. Bereket Simon, the information minister, and Azeb Mesfin, the late Prime Minister’s wife and a high level official herself, left many veteran TPLF supporters in the cold, be it in formally mourning for the deceased and naming his successor–further stoking more struggle for power.

 The opposition that had been emasculated is impotent to act. This time around, the change is not comparable to the time when Mengistu was chased away by the TPLF, and Meles ruled for 21 years thereafter. Neither is it similar to the time when the Derg disposed the Emperor, and Mengistu stayed in power for 17 years. It will also not be similar to the time when Haile Selassie came to power after the death of empress Zewditu, and reigned for over half a century. This transfer looks very much like when Eyasu came to power after Menilik.

The similarity is not only in terms of a peaceful transfer of power from one ruler to another. It is similar mainly because just like when Eyasu was appointed as heir apparent, as a safe alternative to all the others, Desalegne is also appointed only for convenience and also to keep at bay the real contenders to power. Just like the short-lived reign of Eyasu’s era, Desalegne’s era will also be short-lived.

Abyssinian history could be summarized as a history of crisis in succession. It’s very seldom that power had peacefully transferred to the next ruler in Ethiopia. The Ethiopian empire system had not managed to come up with a clear succession scheme in its long history. History dies hard, and the Derg that came after the demise of the feudal system and the TPLF/EPRDF that followed suit did not also resolve the problem.

The EPRDF constitution, or any law that came after that, are silent or have no clarity on the question of who should replace the prime minster if he were to die in office. The power of the deputy prime minister is confined to temporarily acting on behalf of the prime minister in the absence of the prime mister.

The term “on behalf” as used in the constitution, and synonymous with “representing” implies that the prime minister is acting through his deputy in such circumstances. This implies that the prime minster should be a living breathing person at the time when this power is exercised by the deputy prime minster; in exercise of political power unlike in property right expressed in wills one cannot act on behalf of the dead. Therefore, this provision (Article 75) of the constitution is not a succession provision.

Be that as it may, now Desalegne the deputy prime minister, had been named a prime minister. He was named prime minister, not because the constitution says so, but for convenience to abort any constitutional crisis. More interestingly, the appointment is made by the Council of Ministers. The opinion of the rubberstamp parliament was not sought, either. Even before Meles came down with sickness, the TPLF that had been ruling Ethiopia for the last 20 years were concerned with whom to name as prime minster after the next election. They knew that after monopolizing the position for the last 20 years, it would be extremely difficult to justify naming the next prime minister again from Tigray. For the more thinking head of the TPLF that would have been an out right official confirmation of a total Tigray rule, which the TPLF always tried to deny. Therefore, they had been looking in earnest for the last couple of years now for a replacement of Meles from other ethnic groups. They were looking to recruit a good non-Tigrean candidate to do the Tigrean thing for them.

At least in name EPRDF is a coalition of ethnic organizations. This organizational model presupposes that power be distributed and shared based on ethnicity. If this is pushed to its logical conclusion, this also means power should be distributed based on the ethnic group’s size. However, in practice, clearly everybody knows real power is totally concentrated in the hands of the TPLF. TPLF tried to justify this on the fact that because they borne the brunt of the struggle to overthrow the Mengistu regime, they should be entitled to the lion’s share of the booty. However, they know that this justification could not continue ad infinitum, and at one point should come to an end. It’s with this purpose that they started to find a surrogate successor to their throne.

Anyone who has the slightest cursory knowledge of TPLF’s history and the people they represent would easily understand that the transfer of the premiership position to a non-Tigrean person will not be to enhance democratic governance or was not motivated by equity or fair play. It is only logical from their position that if they could not or did not want the next prime minister to be from Tigray, at the very least they should find a prime minister they could fully control from behind. TPLF had a wealth of experience in this. In most of the executive branch that are headed by non-Tigreans, there is always a Tigrean deputy behind the scene who wields real power. The Ethiopian history is a history of national or ethnic struggle. At the center the struggle had been mainly tripartite power struggle between the Amharas, Tigreans, and the section of the Oromos that were more or less assimilated to the Ethiopian power structure. At the other end it’s a struggle of the occupied people, mainly the Oromos, Somalis, Sidamas, and peoples in Gambela against the central Ethiopian government.

So in consideration of who to anoint as the next prime minister, the ethnic identity of the individual was prominent in the thinking of the TPLF kingmakers. It’s not by his individual merit or by coincidence that Meles handpicked Dessalegn, who is a Walaita from southern nations, to be his deputy. And it’s not by coincidence that the TPLF is now making him a prime minister. It’s a continuation of a Machiavellian scheme hatched by Meles before his death. From all the considerations Desalegne was found to be the best bet to elongate the TPLF power and serve them as a surrogate.

An Amhara, even one that is their supporter, cannot be trusted with the position of a prime minster. Making an Oromo, even a loyal OPDO, a prime minister is a gamble. What if he turns against them? If a person with such a powerful position as a prime minister dares to question the authority of the Tigreans and venture to take a bold action against their interest after being put there by them, TPLF could be out of real power.

To make matters worse, power was exclusively invested and concentrated in the person of the late Prime Minister. Even a puppet prime minster were to inherit even a small piece of that power, he wields a significant power by virtue of being in this position, and TPLF can never trust a non-Tigrean with a significant power that could explode on its face.

Control freak that they are, they cannot let anyone in that position unless they for sure know they have absolute control over the person. Given the history of the power struggle in the country, Oromos and Amahras always pose danger to TPLF, even when serving them. The Tigreans know this, and they do not want to take the risk by naming any Amhara or Oromo as a prime mister, who once in power could rally their huge population around themselves if they disagree with their TPLF underwriters. It’s with this calculation that Girma Birru, who was groomed by Meles and long rumored to be the next prime mister after him, was asked to conveniently pack and leave for Washington DC as a diplomat.

So the number one criteria that Desalegne met to be a prime minster was not being an Oromo or Amhara. Meles and his cronies had become adept at divide and conquer. Even when courting the Amharas and Oromos, they have always tried to mobilize other minority ethnic groups around themselves posing as champions of minority groups, and also frightening them about the potential threat of the two larger groups, the Oromos and Amharas. This did not work in all the circumstances. The situations in Ogaden Somalis, Sidamas and Hadiyas in SNNPR, Anuak in Gambella, and the Gurages, are cases in point. In other circumstances they had managed to garner substantial support. Thus besides being non-Oromo or Amahra his being a Walaita is also a plus.

Besides meeting the ethnic criterion, Desalegne also meets the submissive personality that the TPLF as well as Bereket, Azeb & company wanted in him. In the last two years the TPLF cadres under the guidance of Meles had tried to groom him. Lately the rumor machine had it that they became unsatisfied with their pick. Even if they want a submissive non-Oromo or Amahra individual, they all the same wanted a more capable individual.

To many, Desalegne is an embarrassment as a deputy prime minister, and would even be more embarrassment as a prime minister, and this is not good for TPLF. It was while they were looking for a replacement of him that Meles fell sick and died. Once he died, the TPLF was divided whether to go ahead and name Desalegne as prime minister or to look for another replacement. What made things more complicated was that some in the ranks of the TPLF wanted to reverse the course charted by Meles and appoint another TPLF as a prime minister to replace Meles.

For them the original plan should now be modified because the death of Meles had changed the equation. Unconfirmed reports from inner circle indicate that this issue is still unresolved. Should the TPLF take a bold action and name a Tigrean as a permanent replacement or confine itself with controlling Desalegne from behind is the question that is tearing apart the TPLF.

Whatever the outcome of this conflict, one thing for sure is that with the departure of Meles for good, TPLF will not be the same again. With Meles they have not only lost their statesman and their thinker, but more importantly they have also lost their unifier. Autocratic rule has price not only for the subjects, but also to its closest inner circle.

Even if they tried to convey an appearance of collected leadership, through time TPLF rule had become a one-man rule. Especially since the 2001 purge of its senior leaders, TPLF had become a one-person show. And when such a person leaves the political scene of necessity a huge vacuum is created. Because dictatorship does not allow a second man comparable in stature to the person on the helm of power, the autocrat is usually surrounded with mediocre humbug yes-men. And when such a person dies, those around him are incapable of replacing him. This is exactly what is happening to TPLF.

TPLF currently has no one who could put them in line. There is no one amongst them that all respect and take order from. Thus, even as little issues as whether to retain Desalegne as prime minister or replace him with a TPLF member, could spin out of control and land them in a real crisis. TPLF veterans who understand this problem and also understand the danger that division within the rank of TPLF could pose to them are trying to bring back the old guard to stabilize things, but this is vehemently opposed by some TPLF members who consider this as going against Meles’ legacy. Even if they agree to name a Tigrean as prime minister, there is no consensus who to select. It is not clear how this deadlock could be broken, however, undeterred the veterans are working day and night to find solution to the problem. Whether a compromise could be found is anybody’s guess.

While this drama is brewing, the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM) and the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization (OPDO) leaders are observing closely what is happening. They are seeing how the once formidable lord of them the TPLF is melting under their eyes. It’s inevitable that this will make them worry about their positions. They are no longer certain that the TPLF rule will continue indefinitely. Should they abandon the sinking ship or wait for a while? With the crisis in TPLF and with the death of Meles the respect and fear the OPDO and ANDM leaders have for the TPLF is diminishing or will diminish by the day. Once their fear is diminished, their eyes will be open and they will start seeing the truth. They will start to see that the Emperor is without cloth, and who knows one among them will dare utter the truth, and the moment of truth may dawn on them, and then they may demand power in accordance with the people they represent. And if I were a TPLF, I don’t want to be there when that happens.

It’s amazing how the next power struggle will be waged between the components of the EPRDF. The so-called legal oppositions have effectively been made out of commission mostly as a result of the TPLF regime’s repression and also due to their own doing. They have already lost the confidence of the people they claim to represent. Whether they could regain that confidence in the short period of time is questionable, however, because crisis brings about unpredictable outcomes, no one knows for sure what role they may play in the upcoming power struggle.

Unfortunately for the Oromos, this crisis could not have come at the worst time. The OLF, that once venerable organization of the Oromos, is not only fractured into several warring parts, but has also lost the respect of its constituents as a result of the childish acts it had been exhibiting over the last couple of years. Moreover, beyond concentrating in their petty squabbles, none of the groups are showing vision and statesmanship to bring their acts together and get organized and concentrate on the bigger issue.

Unfortunately again, it does not appear that the peoples who started the Oromo Dialogue Forum did have sufficient time to get ready and come up with anything that could deal with the current crisis. They were right not only in correctly diagnosing OLF as being in a state of irreparable paralysis but also in articulating the need for a more realistic vision. Still, although I’m afraid it may be too little too late, they represent the only serious Oromo alternative force with great potentials. However, one may have to settle to the sad fact that as in the past, the Oromos could again be left out.

The only consolation is that nationalist elements within the organization that was once a tool for the occupation of Oromia for the TPLF, the OPDO may this time around be a redeemer for the Oromos. If they are able and wise enough to tap into the huge Oromo resources, human, intellectual, and what have you, that were estranged from it during the last 21 years, they could be a force to reckon with. OPDO’s track record inspires no confidence that it’s a force, let alone one capable of redeeming itself. The possibility is only a wish, a remote one at that, a wise one makes when the alternative is despair.

*The writer, Olaana Abbaaxiiqii, can be reached at



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Olaanaa Abbaaxiiqii

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