His resignation wasn’t totally unexpected. Still, it led to some wild and impromptu jubilations on the streets and a collective sigh of relief. His end is partly his own making, the new circumstances, and the oldest rule of politics—that a leader without a solid base of support from which to govern is no leader at all.
Prime Minister Hailemariam had literally no political base—hailing from a small ethnic group in the south—in a country where political loyalty is defined along ethnic lines. When he assumed the reigns in 2012, many presumed that he would gradually grow out of the shadow of his predecessor, the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, and become his own man. He stayed in Meles’s cocoon till the bitter end. To make matters worse, while holding onto the formal trappings of the office, he relinquished actual power to the head of the country’s powerful security chief, Getachew Asseffa, and the equally powerful Chief of Staff, General Samora Yunus. And he watched helplessly, at times as a clueless clown, as the two deployed the full might of the state and all instruments of oppression to suppress unprecedented protests by the Oromo and the Amhara, the country’s largest and second largest ethnic groups, as well as different groups from his own home turf, the southern region. However, no amount of repression would restore control of the streets to the ruling party.
Hailemariam offered a slew of apologies and promises of reform but his generals and security operatives, no longer accountable to him or to anyone else for that matter, continued to kill, detain, and displace—nullifying his apologies and promises. The country suffered its biggest crisis in its history when over a million Oromo were displaced from their homes by the Ethiopian Somali state militia, the notorious Liyu Police, with the tacit acquiesce and support of the federal army and security establishment. That is when he formally broke with the new leaders of OPDO, who until then deferred to him out of respect for the oppressed peoples of the Southern regional state, who, like the Oromo, faced decade after decade of marginalization and exploitation by the domineering center.
Hailemariam’s fate was sealed in the recent meeting of the powerful Executive Committee (EC) of the ruling party, the real power in Ethiopia since 1991. EPRDF is a coalition of four member organizations— the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO), the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM), and the Tigrean Liberation Front (TPLF). Hailemariam has been chairman of SEPDM since 2001—making him the longest-serving head of the constituent members of the ruling party, after his mentor and benefactor, the late Meles Zenawi. As a response to the popular rejection, the ruling party promised a “deep renewal” but this remained a lip service until the relentless protests led to the abrupt and unceremonious downfall of Muktar Kedir, Chairman, and Aster Mamo, Deputy Chairman on the OPDO in October 2016—a month before the country imposed a nine-month long state of emergency. However, the effects of Oromo protests didn’t end in Oromia and with the state of emergency. In December, TPLF, the dominant group in the four-party coalition, dumped its long-time chairman, Abay Waldu, and elevated technocrat Debretsion Gebremichael. That left SEPDM and ANDM with the same leaders who oversaw the disaster that was Ethiopia since 2014. Hailemariam’s resignation signals that change has finally arrived in the South and it is expected that ANDM would do likewise.
Contrary to suggestions, the resignation doesn’t leave a power vacuum nor cause a constitutional crisis because Hailemariam has always been a nominal figure. The constitution stipulates that the Prime Minister would be elected from among members of the federal parliament. Since the latter is made up exclusively of members of the ruling party, it is the ruling party – hence the EPRDF Council of Ministers – that would render the final decision on the matter and parliament would simply rubber-stamp it. Accordingly, it is presumed that the 180-member EPRDF Council would hold an emergency meeting within days and perhaps weeks to choose Hailemariam’s successor.
Whoever the council elects will be leading a country in the grip of revolutionary fervor, which is a herculean task for anyone, let alone a ruling party in power single-handedly for over a quarter century. Few doubt that the incoming chairman of the ruling party and consequently the Prime Minister would be Oromo—and thus from OPDO. Since the election of Lemma Megersa as President of the Oromia National Regional State and Chairman of OPDO, not only has he built quite a reputation for himself as a credible and capable reformist leader that can transcend the country’s ethnic and religious divides, he has also surrounded himself with many other capable individuals including Dr. Abiy Ahmed, head of OPDO’s secretariat. To complicate matters, Lemma is currently not a member of the federal parliament and his party has to either hold a snap election to fulfill constitutional muster, name a temporary figure, or split the position of party chairman and Prime Minister. Neither option is desirable given the extraordinary situation. A country in such crisis needs a strong leader and a unified leadership with a cross-section of support from the populace as well as the opposition. Few fit that bill better than Lemma Megersa.
However, even for Lemma implementing the reforms promised and steering the country towards a soft landing – ending years of dictatorship and ushering in democracy – requires a rare caliber short of miraculous. The country urgently needs a whole host of reforms—from security sector reform to the subordination of the military under a neutral civilian leadership and making it representative of the country’s diverse population; from judicial reform and clamping down on corruption and abuse of power to rescinding of the draconian laws that made high crime and treason out of a routine exercise of constitutionally guaranteed rights; and from equitable distribution of economic opportunities to opening up the political space for the opposition, the press, and civil society. These, while the requirement of stabilizing the country. Given the heady circumstances, the future Prime Minister cannot rely on the support of the ruling party alone. He needs to reach out to the opposition – say by going as far as including prominent leaders of the opposition in his cabinet – and calming frayed nerves in all quarters, from the public to the aging aristocracy that dominated the country’s political and economic life since 1991.
EPRDF made its most lethal error in 2012 by failing to elect a credible figure as Prime Minister. It could still commit the same error. Luckily however, it would be the last error it would make as a ruling party as it would be swept away by people power in a matter of months if not sooner. Should it learn from its errors and desire to make history, its best bet lies with OPDO’s Lemma Megersa. If Lemma does indeed ascend to assume the reins, I would wish him well. May the force be with him! He needs it. AS
Ed’s Note: Hassen Hussein is Assistant Professor at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota’s Undergraduate College in Winona, Minnesota, a writer, and Ethiopia and Horn of Africa Analyst. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org