When Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn announced his resignation in a televised press conference, it didn’t come as a surprise to many. His resignation came a day after Ethiopia was forced to free thousands of political prisoners including high profile opposition figures and journalists following a two-day strike in the Oromia Region. The question on many people’s mind for some time now has been who would replace him, as the political turmoil in the East African country shows no signs of abating. Analysis by Michael C. Mammo.
“I have requested to resign from my role as Party Chairman and Prime Minister,” said the Prime Minster and Chairman of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), Hailemariam Desalegn. “The government is in the process of reforming itself to find a solution to the current crisis, and it’s better that I step aside.”
Since he ascended to the top most government position in August 2012 following the death of the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, Desalegn’s tenure as Prime Minster has been one fraught with massive youth protests that the top leadership is still grappling with and intra-party political rivalries. His decision to hand over power was made in light of his government’s inability to find a lasting solution to this widespread instability that has led to the loss of thousands of lives and the displacement of close to a million.
Marathon Youth Protests
Desalegn’s biggest challenge, and one that eventually cost him his job, is an incessant protest that first started in the small town of Ginchi, Oromia, in 2015 by what are now commonly referred to as the Qeerro/Qarre, Oromo word for Youth.
Subsequent sporadic protests in Oromia against a proposed government plan to expand the capital Addis Ababa into neighbouring Oromia towns quickly grew in scope and size, and protesters began to make bigger demands such as genuine regional autonomy, the opening up of the political space, the release of political prisoners and removal of federal security forces from Oromia.
Initially Desalegn’s administration resorted to brute force to quell the protests in a manner reminiscent of his predecessor Zenawi’s iron-fist rule and no-nonsense approach to popular demands. Security forces shot and killed thousands including school children as young as 15 and imprisoned thousands accusing them of staging an insurrection. That only made it worse.
The protests engulfed more and more towns in Oromia and subsequently spread to the Amhara Region, the second most populous after Oromia, and forced the government to declare a State of Emergency (SoE) in October 2016. The Prime Minister ultimately acknowledged the youth had legitimate grounds to protest and acquiesced to some of their demands promising deep-reform and improved government accountability.
Reform and Oromo-Amhara partnership
Desalegn comes from Southern Ethiopia and had been -until his resignation- Chairman of the SEPDM, one of the four regional parties that make up the ruling EPRDF party; the remaining three are TIgray’s TPLF, Amhara’s ANDM and Oromia’s OPDO. The latter two represent two-thirds of Ethiopia’s 100 million population.
Soon after the promised reform, the council of the restive Oromia region removed its widely unpopular leadership and elected Lemma Megersa, a lesser known regional legislator, as president. The newly minted president started what seemed an impossible job of winning the hearts and minds of the protesting youth, while the other three member parties went about their business without any substantive change to their leadership.
Despite the overriding public opinion that Oromia’s measure was just another cosmetic reshuffle to appease protestors, Lemma took the youth’s demands in his stride and started talking their language, promising that there would be a change of approach in the way government runs business in his region.
The president along with his new, young and assertive cabinet put in place a youth-centred development policy, started a crack-down on cross-border contraband and illegal network of businessmen, took away large tracks of unlawfully acquired investment land in Oromia, and started to demand more autonomy from the federal government. Lemma’s reconciliatory rhetoric, national vision and eloquence drew plenty of praise from the public not just in his region but in the neighbouring Amhara region. The Amhara regional government invited him to speak at a gathering aimed at improving the people-to-people relations between Oromia and Amhara states.
Unable to keep pace in rhetoric or action, the Prime Minister faded further back into the background, as Lemma’s stature grew nationally. In a drastic turn of events, protestors began to chant his name and accepted him as a genuine reformist.
Intra-party rivalry and conflicts
Lemma’s growing popularity, partnership with the leadership of the ANDM, and bold measures to eliminate illicit business networks in his region put his party OPDO in a collision course with the TPLF, the most senior partner of the four member parties in the EPRDF.
Not long after the 10-month-old SoE was lifted, the Liyu Police, a paramilitary force from the Ethio-Somali region, launched a cross-border attack on ethnic Oromos in eastern Ethiopia with the blessings of senior TPLF army generals. This led to the death of thousands and displacement of close to a million people.
For weeks, Prime Minister Hailemariam disappeared from public view as one of the biggest crises in the region unfolded under his watch. Political pundits questioned Desalegn’s authority even more, and his apathetic attitude in the face of ruthless attacks on civilians reinforced his image as a place holder and reignited public discontent particularly in Oromia.
In a high stakes intra-party rivalry, OPDO and TPLF began to trade barbs: Lemma bluntly called out the TPLF as being the origin of contraband and illicit business networks stretching to his region, while TPLF accused OPDO officials of populism. In a last ditch attempt to find a solution to the crisis besetting the country and their government, Hailemariam later announced another round of reforms following an EPRDF executive committee meeting in January 2018. Desalegn promised to release political prisoners and close Maekelawi, a detention centre used for torturing political dissidents and journalists critical of government.
Release of political prisoners
Despite the promise to release political prisoners, the only notable prisoner the government released soon after the announcement was Merera Gudina (PhD), Chairman of the Opposition Oromo Federalist Congress, while his deputy Bekele Gerba remained in prison despite his need for immediate medical care.
When the Qeerro sensed that the government was reneging on its promise, a three-day strike was called across Oromia towns demanding the immediate release of political prisoners including Bekele. The strikes totally brought government and private business activities as well as transportation to a grinding halt. The government which is already struggling to attract foreign investment and is in the midst of a severe forex crunch succumbed to the protesters demands and released an overwhelming number of prisoners on 14 February. And the Prime Minister resigned the following day.
Speculation is rife that the next Prime Minister will come from the OPDO. Lemma is not a member of the federal parliament which, constitutional experts say, bars him from taking over the helm for now. Whether an old guard or a young reformist from OPDO becomes Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, or the role goes to a different member party remains to be seen.
The 2016 state of emergency might have masked the simmering discontent and created a temporary façade of stability, but if the recent two-day strikes in Oromia have proven anything, the situation remains a ticking time bomb without a decisive and reformist leader in the Office of the Prime Minister who can take the country in a different path.
A good way to start for the next Prime Minister would be to invite the recently freed members of the opposition and discuss an all-inclusive roadmap for the future of the country as well as make good on the party’s promise to bring the perpetrators of the cross border attacks to justice.