Ethiopia is moving into an uncertain new era. With the death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi who had ruled the country since 1991, the country is moving into the realm of the unknown with regards to politics and leadership, and internal divisions within the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) – the main part of Ethiopia’s ruling coalition the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) – are already revealing themselves.
Hailemariam Desalegn, the relatively unknown deputy prime minister, has taken over the reins of power in the interim. The United States is reportedly advising the TPLF to support the premiership of Desalegn, a Wolayta from southern Ethiopia, but it is believed that some TPLF loyalists would prefer the leadership to remain in the hands of a Tigrayan.
Under Meles, Ethiopia and the US have enjoyed a close relationship. Ethiopia is a key strategic ally in the US’ ‘War on Terror’ and one the largest recipients of US aid, receiving $6.2 billion in US government assistance between 2000 and 2011.
This marriage of convenience benefited both parties, but with questions increasingly being asked, the US may not be able to approach Ethiopian politics in quite the same way after Meles. In the last few years of his reign, the once untouchable PM witnessed intensifying scrutiny from human rights organisations, growing opposition, and a critical diaspora media getting better at countering TPFL propaganda. There was also growing acknowledgement that Meles was repressive and undemocratic amongst once admiring Western media, and after his death many major networks described him as a dictator.
Many leading Western politicians and economists ignored the dark side of Meles’ rule, allowing themselves to be mesmerised by his mastery of economics and intellect, but this is unlikely to be the case under Meles’ successor. How US policy towards a post-Meles Ethiopia might change remains to be seen, but there may be some indications in the US’ actions over the past days.
After Meles’ death, the US pushed for Hailemariam Desalegn to take over the reins of power. President Barack Obama called Desalegn personally, and urged him to assert himself and promote "development, democracy, human rights, and regional security".
Desalegn’s ethnicity is significant and attractive to the US as he is neither Amhara nor a Tigrayan, two ethnic groups that have a history of rivalry in Ethiopia. The fact that Desalegn is Wolayta, a somewhat marginalised group on the periphery of Ethiopian society, is perceived to be an asset that could give Desalegn broader legitimacy, insulate him from criticism, and allow him to present himself as an underdog protected from the historical baggage of the Amhara and Tigrayans.
Having another Tigrayan at the head of Ethiopian politics could contribute to instability and endanger security in the region including Somalia, which convened its new parliament on the same day as Meles’ death. Many see the appointment of Desalegn as a solution to growing opposition at a fragile time.
Although now holding the role of interim prime minister, Desalegn appears to be little more than a figurehead. Ethiopian political analyst Jawar Mohammed described Desalegn’s appointment as mostly symbolic and believes Desalegn is a puppet. Meanwhile Berhanu Nega, mayor of Addis Ababa and former political prisoner, dismissed him as a political novice and compared his role with that of Dmitry Medvedev as president of Russia under Vladmir Putin. In the case of Ethiopia, Putin is a group of TPLF power brokers who operate in the shadows. These influential political actors have mostly shown reluctance at the idea of Desalegn as the new prime minister.
The rank and file in the TPLF object to losing the premiership to a non-Tigrayan and many back Azeb Mesfin, Meles’s wife, to rise to premiership in due course. Seyoum Mesfin, a TPLF veteran, former foreign minister and current ambassador to China is, however, reportedly the main power behind the scenes. Under pressure from the US, he may have accepted Desalegn as a figurehead premier but is finding it difficult to sell this to the Tigrayans within the ruling party.
Desalegn, who studied Water Engineering in Finland, was apparently well liked by Meles, but was never part of the guerrilla movement that brought Meles to power and, as a non-Tigrayan, may have difficulty gaining the loyalty of the military which largely rests in the hands of Tigrayans. Although he was acceptable as Meles’s deputy, the TPLF who control the military power, security systems and state companies may view passing the premiership to a non-Tigrayan as risky.
With all these complex dynamics to deal with, it is unclear to what extent Desalegn will be able to define an independent course, though it is perhaps telling that government communication minister has said that government policy will remain consistent under Desalegn.
Indeed, initial signals with regard to Ethiopia’s openness have not been encouraging. A few days after Meles’ death, Temesgen Desalegn (no relation of the new PM), editor of Feteh newspaper was imprisoned in a continuation of policy under Meles. Although he was released this week, there is little optimism for liberalisation or the reversal of the increasingly repressive tendencies of the TPLF.
As it stands, there is a gulf between the rhetoric of US foreign policy espousing “development, democracy and human rights” and the reality on the ground. This is in part because rather than encouraging the building of lasting institutions, US policy makers have tended to cultivate paternalistic strongmen in the region. In an attempt to maintain stability in Ethiopia, the US may be once again over-relying on the leadership of a single individual.
From inside Ethiopia, what is perhaps needed is the establishment of a truly federal political system. Strong central authority by the regime in Addis Ababa has invariably come into conflict with the regions it has sought to dominate and repression has followed. Conflict in Ethiopia has in large part been caused by the state's inability to move beyond notions of ethnic domination usually between Amharas and Tigrayans.
Federalism in a divided society like Ethiopia could work to balance and stabilise different communities and religious groups, facilitate reconstruction, and ensure the liberty of all. Whether Hailemariam Desalegn is the man for this job remains to be seen, and even if he is, his ability to affect Ethiopian political and social dynamics depends in large part on powerful actors within and outside the country.
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