The death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi on 20 August has triggered a constitutional succession mechanism which he personally designed, having led the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front for 21 years. His chosen successor, Hailemariam Desalegn, takes over in the first non-violent transition in Ethiopia’s modern history. Hailemariam was Deputy Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and Deputy Chairman of the EPRDF.
An EPRDF Executive Committee meeting on 21 August endorsed his leadership and agreed to set aside any differences for now. He had been expected to take over only in 2015, when Meles was due to retire. The next stage is the recall of parliament to confirm Hailemariam’s position as Prime Minister. Set for 23 August, this was postponed due to the funeral of the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church Abune Paulos on the same day. Now the parliamentary vote to endorse Hailemariam will take place after the state funeral of Meles on 2 September. Following that, Hailemariam will prepare to stand for the leadership at the EPRDF congress due next February and take the party into elections in 2015.
Hailemariam breaks with tradition by being a Protestant from the Southern Region, not a northern highlander or an Orthodox Christian. He is widely approved of in the party but milder than Meles and no political heavyweight. Senior officers, most of them former guerrilla fighters of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, will be the main power-brokers. The Chief of Defence Staff is General Samora Yunus, who fought alongside Meles in the 1970s and 1980s.
Many believe that the Tigrayan securocrats have yet to decide on their longer-term view of the succession and their vision for the future. Ethiopia’s commitment to the African Union Mission in Somalia and the campaign against Al Haraka al Shabaab al Mujahideen is very unlikely to change. Meles had last appeared in public on 26 June, at a meeting with President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed of Somalia. After that, he was mostly in hospital in Brussels but doing government and diplomatic business on the telephone almost to the end. His aides and ministers created a fog of disinformation about his whereabouts, to protect his personal security, and about his actual state of health. So dense was the fog that even well informed insiders in Addis Ababa were shocked by the news of his death. Sources there say that he was recovering from an operation when he succumbed to an infection.
Power struggle on hold
No succession battle was in progress as Meles died and no serious power struggles are expected in the immediate transition. The EPRDF had already launched a process of ‘generational change’. Meles had spoken of retiring earlier but was persuaded to stay on until 2015. The leadership is still nominally collective, with the party’s 36-member Executive Committee theoretically able to overrule the prime minister.
The EPRDF consists of four regional parties: the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO), the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM) and the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM). The TPLF helped to form the other three parties but its dominance has weakened somewhat.
In the middle class that has emerged under Meles, Tigrayans (with 6% of the population) have less weight than the Oromo (36%), Amhara (25%) and several other nationalities. Devolution to regional and local government structures has increased the shift of power away from Tigrayans, whose control of the police and military has been reduced in recent years. They now make up just over 18% of the army, down from well over half in the mid-1990s, and many senior Tigrayan officers have recently retired. Amhara soldiers have risen to 30% from 25% and Oromo to 25% from 21%. The Amhara opposition insists that Tigrayans run the federal government but this is no longer the case, say analysts in Addis.
A Tigrayan successor to Meles would be unacceptable, which was why Hailemariam was picked to manage the succession. He replaced the ANDM’s Addisu Legesse, who retired under the policy of ‘generational change’, as Deputy Chairman and Deputy Prime Minister. The choice of his replacement was between Hailemariam and Demeke Mekonnen, the new ANDM leader, who was supported by his own party, while Hailemariam got the votes of the SEPDM, TPLF and much of the OPDO. The TPLF seems to have calculated that a southern candidate would provide a balance between the Amhara and Oromo peoples and thus preserve Tigrayan influence; the ANDM wanted Demeke to come out on top, restoring the Amharas’ ‘rightful’ place as traditional rulers of the country.
Many in the OPDO wanted an Oromo Prime Minister, because they inhabit the largest regional state, are the largest ethnic group and contribute the largest mineral and agricultural resources. However, the OPDO had no acceptable candidate and stood by Hailemariam largely because he is not Amhara. Some analysts, though, say the TPLF could yet decide to assert itself in the EPRDF, through its still substantial dominance of the security establishment. Tigrayan politicians may allow further democratisation in society and within the EPRDF but are likely to use their dominance of the security establishment to ensure that the reduction of their political and financial influence is mitigated.
The big problem is inflation, which persists – as does economic growth – for the past eight years at 10%-plus, according to the government, or 8.9%, according to the International Monetary Fund. Growth is unlikely to hit the planned 14% target.
Twenty years of EPRDF rule have not abolished ethnic feelings and factions. A big TPLF split in 2001 involved dissenters from Tembien and Enderta against the areas of Adua, Axum and Shire, from which Meles came. Some analysts think that the dissenters will return to prominence now that Meles is gone and may move against his widow, Azeb Mesfin, a former fighter and powerful businesswoman controlling several large companies.
Regional differences linger in the ANDM. Politics in the south reflect rivalries among its 56 ethnic groups; the Sidama people want their own state; the Wolaita are their traditional competitors; the Gurage and the Silte were recently recognised as a separate nationality. Hailemariam, a Wolaita, remains Chairman of the SEPDM, while the State President and Deputy Chairman of the party is Shiferawu Shigute, a Sidama. Another significant southern figure on the federal stage is Redwan Hussein, who is Silte. There is little agreement on how to include people from other nationalities, such as the Afar or the Somalis.
Meles had hoped to turn the EPRDF into a nationwide party but the idea appears to have been shelved. ‘Generational change’ will be discussed at a forthcoming congress, postponed until early next year. In the ANDM, some suspect that the newer recruits are not properly committed to the party’s ideology. With Bereket Simon, Minister for the Government Communications Affairs Agency, about to retire, and Kassa Tekleberhan, Speaker of the House of Federation, likely to go in 2014-15, some Amhara believe the party will be under-represented at senior federal level.
The OPDO has both religious and regional problems, with tussles in the Supreme Islamic Council, whose elections start on 26 August. The Oromo Regional State spans evangelical Christian and Islamic areas, and the divide is reflected in politics. The rivals for the OPDO chair in 2010 were Alemayehu Atomsa, from largely Christian Wollega, and Mukhtar Kedir, an advisor to the Prime Minister, from largely Muslim Jimma. Despite Meles’s support, Mukhtar ended up as Deputy Chairman and Alemayehu took the chair of the party and the presidency of the region.