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Ethiopia: What Might Desalegn's Premiership Bring?

Supported by the US but less popular with the TPLF, it is unclear if Ethiopia under Hailemariam Desalegn will see a continuation of Meles-style governance.
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Hailemariam Desalegn at the World Economic Forum on Africa in 2011. Photograph by World Economic Forum/Matthew Jordaan.

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.

US-Ethiopia relations

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.

Reception from within

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.

Development, democracy and Desalegn

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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Comments

I have to wonder if ato yohannes has a gruge with the party in charge or he has an Eritrean blood .I have a hard time when so called educated "ETHIOPIANS" want to pen their ten cents worth of comment or analysis.YOU said he grew up in ETHIOPIA ,but when was the last time he visited "his country" to give his vinom analysis.WE need to look at where the country was 20 years ago and shape our argument acordingly,for ppl who haven't contrubuted a singel penny have no place to asume or think that they should pen whatever they want.I have been reading all this crap from ppl that have the highest level of education,the old timers have a hard time beliving that ETHIOPIA has changed forever.WE SHALL PREVAL NO MATTER WHAT HATERS AND DOOMSAYERS WISHCHEERS

All Ethiopians should plant their thoughts deeply in their own history.Socrates called on Athens, when the city's fate was precarious, to "know thyself" In other words"study and find a source of strength in country's history of tribulations." This strikes the very chord of our hearts.Asked why he joined politics Hailemariam once said "while I was in a university there was a scholarship. I do belive that I deserve that scholarship however, since I am from the minority a student from the dominanat ethnic group(Amhara) were selected and I was denyed not to abroad" these are the words Hailemariam said on government TV ETV during the Nation Nationalities and Peoples Day celebration. Think a man who has a grudge on his friend totally submitted to politics.Hailemariam's word was not true He himself was educated during the Dergue time in Finland. He was the registrar of Arbaminch University. Then he had no intention to join politics with the advent of EPRDF he replaced Dr. Admassu as dean of Arbamich University -thanks to politics.

 Firstly, I do not know Mr. Woldemariam and in fact have never heard of him prior. Mr. Woldemariam's analysis is his view of the Ethiopian political landscape. I do not think he expected everyone to accept his analysis at face value and as an intellectual, I would think that he would welcome a debate/conversation regarding his assertions. He is entitled to express his views as we are all yearning for our rights to express our views. We all need to show our commitment to democracy ( tolerance and diversity of views) by criticizing ideas rather than personalities. If we cannot debate respectfully about our nationa's future, we are bound to repeat the deadly mistake of the past; demonizing those who disagree with us. Respectfully.    

To save the Ethiopian population from the danger we are facing, the struggle to save Ethiopia need to continue without giving TPLF rapists and sodomizers a chance to get their hands on innocent civilians in the name of arresting protestors like they did in 2005.Besides torture ,looting , murder , fraud ,corruption there are also  many sodomy and rape going on within the TPLF including the military directed directed at innocent civilians and kids all over Ethiopia. According to the nature of the Ethiopian culture sodomy is both immoral and illegal so most sodomy victims try to hide it without letting anyone know what happened to them.Few of the sodomy victims are contaminated and are even accepting getting sodomized by the powerful TPLF as their destiny.Few of these victims are going along with it starting to sell their bodies to those rapists for a loaf of bread, making a living out of being sodomized .They need prayer to break away from the devil TPLF that is owning their mind,body and soul all at once. I myself is one of the living victims of gang sodomy rape which happened to me by the Agazi soldiers during the 2005 election protest. It took me five plus years and rigorous mental therapy and prayer to finally admit for myself what happened to me was not my fault and start openly sharing my experience to others.As a result of the sodomy , rape and abuse I had suffered POST TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER (PTSD) and still get nightmares that keep me awake at night. The only thing that helps me keep going on in life now is having the faith that ONE DAY we will have justice in Ethiopia. I am an active member not only one or two but almost all opposition groups whether they believe in violence or not, to have justice in Ethiopia. I definitely had my justice in the best way I personally saw fit during my last visit. I will definitely continue to work hard to save Ethiopia from the worst possible hell- whole experience specially the next generation is forced to keep sinking in.May we work to save Ethiopia and the next generation of Ethiopia.Unless we do that there will be nomore Ethiopian people or  culture in the face of the earth.