Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn has effected at least two major cabinet reshuffles in less than nine months, the latest in July.
Just months ago he fired the Minister of Justice, Berhan Hailu over what the PM’s office described as “gross incompetence”. He also expanded the governance threshold with the creation of two new deputy prime ministerial positions and the establishment of a ministry of environment and forest protection. There are ongoing redeployments in key defence and security formations, including the leadership of the Federal Police Commission where the chief, Workneh Gebeyehu was re-assigned to the Ministry of Transport.
Nor has the prime minister retreated in the fight against corruption. In May, the overly-confident and avuncular head of the Ethiopian Customs and Revenue Authority (ECRA), Melaku Fente, and a dozen of his senior aides, were arrested on corruption charges and are still behind bars.
Fente is a high-ranking member of the ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a four party coalition which has ruled the country since the fall of Mengistu Haile Mariam 23 years ago and was headed by Meles Zenawi until his death in August last year.
Politically, Hailemariam has had to move with the dexterity of a cat to retain power. First, as acting prime minister following Meles’s long hospitalisation and eventual death, and then after being confirmed and sworn-in as the substantive prime minister by parliament on 21 September, 2012, Hailemariam had to contend with various levels of resistance to his rule. His swearing-in followed weeks of wrangling and covert manoeuvres by potential rivals and those vehemently opposed to his ascension to power for reasons so mundane yet as old as Ethiopia itself.
Constitutionally it was clear. As deputy prime minister he would succeed the prime minister in case of incapacitation or death. But for a country that has not experienced a constitutional transfer of power, let alone a peaceful one, from one person to the next in the last two centuries, Meles’s 20-year experiment with Ethiopia as a democratic republic governed by a constitutional authority, with equality of all citizens before the law, could have ended with his death.
There were many who, as with Caesar’s death, had come to bury Meles and not to praise him. Allowing Hailemariam to succeed was praising Meles, who had single-mindedly appointed him as deputy prime minister and groomed him as his potential successor. Hailemariam negated all the ethnic, religious and cultural norms that have characterised leadership of Ethiopia, from emperors and military dictators to elected prime ministers, but fitted perfectly into Meles’s vision for the future of his country. Many independent observers see this as a mark of leadership that stood Meles ahead of his peers. PM Hailemariam is a Wolayta from the southern minority nationalities that have never before been considered for leadership positions, and a Protestant Christian of the Apostolic faith in a predominantly Orthodox Christian majority population.
He is also not of the revolutionary generation that ousted the dreaded communist (Dirg) regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam. Hailemariam is a product and beneficiary of Meles’ project of Ethnic Federalism which devolved power from the centre to all the ethnic nationalities of Ethiopia under one federal constitution guaranteeing freedom and equality for all, and the right to secede from the federated unit should such rights or freedoms be denied or threatened from the centre.
Without the Ethnic Federalism concept, Hailemariam would have had to come to power through any other means but the constitutional route.
Being groomed as heir apparent by Meles, in a sea of sharks, from the majority ethno-religious power players who dominated both the security and economic levers of the state, Hailemariam had to choose his friends carefully and know his enemies even better if he was to survive.
Thanks to the almost universal sense of grief and loss that gripped the nation following the announcement of Meles’s death on 21 August, 2012, sympathy for a man who sacrificed his entire adult life from age 19 when he abandoned university and joined the liberation movement, was genuine and palpable. For once, in almost a century, Ethiopians could mourn a leader who, for good or evil, transformed the shape and future of their country forever. This shocked even his staunchest enemies to silence.
Quite naturally, popular sympathy for Meles and his ideas by implication meant acceptance of his chosen successor. Those who had wanted to bury Meles now had to join the chorus of praise, which gave Hailemariam the opportunity to consolidate power, with the full backing and guidance of Sebhat Nega, a political dinosaur from Meles’s Tigray ethnic group and one of the founders of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the strongest faction of the ruling EPRDF coalition, and in whose ranks Meles grew to the top.
A seemingly reclusive elder statesman with a mastery of Ethiopia’s political and security landscape, Sebhat Nega was to play a crucial role in not only ensuring a smooth transition, but equally that the new prime minister was not undermined by the prowling ethnic irredentists in the security services and within the ruling EPRDF party where Nega still holds sway, even though he resigned from all party positions in 2010.
To succeed a man who had such gargantuan ambitions and an almost limitless desire to pursue them, getting out of Meles’s shadow and being his own man could prove more difficult for Hailemariam than the challenges posed by his political rivals within his own party, let alone an opposition that is yet to create space for itself within Ethiopian politics since the bloody 2005 crackdown. So for now at least, the prime minister’s stature can only grow as he is seen to be walking in Meles’s footsteps. He talks tough on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam being constructed on the Nile, knowing how his predecessor staked national pride on the project and dares anyone to try to stop him.
He assumed the African Union presidency in time enough to preside over the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the OAU and has even dabbled on issues of climate change where Meles had distinguished himself as Africa’s leading spokesman.
He has challenged Isaias Afewerki of Eritrea to a duel, but has to move carefully here, or risks being sucked into another bloody conflict by northern hawks within his own circles spoiling for a fight. But become his own man sooner or later he must, as dead men do not win battles for the living.
With his emergence as the undisputed leader of the ruling EPRDF during elections at the party’s 9th general convention, which was held in the northern city of Bahir Dar on the shores of Lake Tana at the end of March this year, Hailemariam is guaranteed another two years in power until 2015, when the next general elections are due. He is firmly in the driver’s seat
now and has to decide whether to continue in Meles’s shadow, which still looms large but may eventually engulf him no matter what.
Alternatively, and indeed necessitated by the demographic and economic realities of Ethiopia, Hailemariam will have to step out onto his own turf and take bold leadership decisions, especially on the economy
and the media, that will unlock the potential of the country’s greatest resource, its people.
Too many young, dynamic and entrepreneurial Ethiopians at home and abroad are spectators in the economic growth being experienced in the country. A system that allows for a strong and very powerful government running an economy largely in the hands of a small group of predominantly men and a few women, who pass as successful business and private sector leaders, when in reality they are just benefiting from government patronage and cronyism, cannot be sustained for much longer.
Opening up and guiding Ethiopians into a new and competitive world where they can hold their own, is the inevitable and next logical step towards advancing a post-Meles vision. That should be Hailemariam Desalegn’s focus.