The surprise resignation of Hailemariam Desalegn as prime minister of Ethiopia has created a vacancy at the top of one of Africa’s fastest growing economies and the region’s most powerful yet closed country, offering a rare glimpse into the power arrangement in Addis Ababa.
A few hours after the shock announcement, Shiferaw Shigute, the secretary of the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) executive council said the coalition had accepted Hailemariam’s resignation but now it faces a hard test as it plans to pick a new leader from the four ethnic and regional coalition member parties.
The Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) dominates the coalition but it will not be easy to get one of its nominees accepted by the house of people’s representatives because of tensions between EPRDF member parties in recent years.
The Oromo movement
In particular, the reported death of hundreds of Oromo protesters during anti-government street protests has pitted the TPLF against the new leadership of the Oromo People Democratic Organisation (OPDO) led by Lemma Megersa.
The demonstrations were initially against unemployment, corruption, land grabbing and unfair distribution of wealth, but later took on hardline anti-government stance.
In an attempt to respond to the protesting Oromo youth, Lemma and his colleagues in the OPDO have been challenging the regime with their own party constitution calling for a principle-based reforms in the relationship among the coalition parties. Some of the demands were a stop to the arbitrary and non-constitutional interventions of the federal government in regional affairs.
Through their well-calculated actions and smart comments, Lemma and associates such as Dr Abiy Ahmed and others have managed to win the hearts and minds of the majority of the Oromo youth and many pro-unity forces from other ethnicities.
They managed to limit and prevent the interference of the military in regional demonstrations, and regulating investments within Oromia Region.
Exercising the autonomous regional state power, the new leadership also shutdown hundreds of businesses in Oromia Region, which they claimed were not operating for the benefit of their community. They shut down of 121 illegal mining companies in the past six months, at the expense of about 52,000 jobs.
By empowering Oromo youth to supply quarry to cement factories such as Dangote Cement, which has been operating in Oromia Region, the new OPDO leadership has also been using its regional television station to get the backing of the people to implement its strategies, away from the control of the TPLF-dominated EPRDF.
'Soul has no ethnicity'
The recent remarks of these two emerging young firebrands of OPDO have been applauded by many people and shared on social media, in total opposite of those of the old guards in the party who are considered TPLF sympathisers. A Facebook page associated with Lemma has more than a million followers.
Their views on Ethiopia following a recent closed-door 18-day meeting of the EPRDF and shared on social media went viral.
“Soul has no ethnicity. Whoever lives in Oromia…If he/she is Amhara…he/she is also Oromo at the same time…humanity has no ethnicity. There are people who committed crimes in the military…Whoever he is has to be accountable for the wrong doing,” Lemma said, in one of his speeches criticising those who promote ethnic politics in the country.
The rise of the Oromo movement has not escaped the attention of many Ethiopians, including exiled Oromo opposition politicians and other dissenters struggling to overthrow the regime out of their bases in Eritrea.
It is hardly surprising that Hailemariam’s resignation has cast attention on Lemma and Dr Abiy as potential candidates for the top job, at least on social media.
However, unless there is a genuine attempt and commitment from the TPLF-dominated EPRDF, it doesn’t seem that easy for the Oromo duo to take over the premiership.
First, for one to become prime minister, one has to first become chairperson of the EPRDF. With each party expected to vote for its own candidate, the two officials would struggle.
As things stand, out of the four parties in the coalition, TPLF can win a majority with support of Hailemariam’s Southern Ethiopian Peoples’ Democratic Movement party as well as some old-guards within OPDO and the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM).
It is likely that ANDM, whose leadership is not also at peace with the TPLF following the crisis in some Amhara regions resulting in a number of deaths, will favour the current regime. This is because ANDM’s Demeke Mekonnen, who is the serving deputy prime minister is considered by many as loyal to TPLF, unlike Gedlu Andargachew, who like Lemma, challenges federal government interference in his homeland of Amhara Region.
There is also speculation that because the regime is currently under pressure from demonstrations in Oromia Region, the next prime minister has to be an Oromo from OPDO to defuse tension.
However this doesn’t also guarantee Lemma or Dr Abiy the position of EPRDF chairmanship and ultimately the premiership because even within OPDO, there are older members who are loyal to TPLF-dominated EPRDF and would therefore be preferred over the firebrands.
These are Workineh Gebeyehu, the current Foreign Affairs minister, or Girma Birru, the current Ethiopian ambassador to the US or even Abbadulla Gemeda, who in October said he was resigning to protest against the suffering of his people (the Oromo) but later changed his mind.
Many agree that under all scenarios, the ball is firmly in TPLF court. For Lemma or Dr Abiy to takeover the leadership of EPRDF, the TPLF has to be genuine and committed to ending its dominance over the coalition.
If OPDO is to win
The current popularity in both opposition parties and the public, Lemma or Dr Abiy can however become the leader of a new EPRDF that does not include the TPLF, and go on to take the prime minister position and pursue a reconciliation process and genuine discussions with other opposition parties and ultimately introduce true democracy in Ethiopia where a party can no longer secure 100 per cent parliamentary control.
After securing the party leadership position, the next step will be getting parliament’s approval where with the existing internal division among the four parties, it is unlikely that the new chairman of EPRDF will get majority vote of the parliament.
Unlike the EPRDF congress or executive council, in parliament, the number of seats per party vary according to population of the regions they represent such that the Oromo and Amhara have majority seats.
Unless the new EPRDF chairman is elected genuinely without any one of the four party’s dominance (real or perceived), it is unlikely for the new chairman to get these votes and become “the real” prime minister of the country.
For many, the question, “Who will become Ethiopia’s next prime minister?” is not important. What they rather want to know is how genuine the current EPRDF is ready to reform and lead Ethiopia to a new chapter of real democracy.