Never was there an election fiercely contested among leaders of the ruling EPRDF as the one last week and was much anticipated by members of the public. So was the outcome a cause for public euphoria in an unprecedented manner in the near 30-year history of the Ethiopian Peoples` Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).
Unlike its reputation where its senior leaders reach into consensus on who should lead the party ahead of time, no one was certain on who was to get elected as a chairperson of the EPRDF until the last minute votes were counted. On Tuesday night, March 27, 2018, Abiy Ahmed (PhD), chairman of the OPDO, was announced as the winner after carrying a preponderance vote to chair the Front.
Grabbing 108 of the 170 votes cast, he was ushered as the third chairman of the EPRDF since its creation in 1989, with the alliance of the TPLF and the EPDM, later renamed ANDM. Formed to overcome the military government through the armed struggle, the EPRDF was a political force determined to focus on issues of land tenure and group rights as well as peace and development, according to the Front`s documents.
When the Front held its first congress in the aftermath of the collapse of the Dergue, the OPDO and SEPDM had joined, making it a political platform used to govern the country, alongside its allies in the peripheries. Last week, the largest votes that delivered the chairmanship to the 42-year, Abiy came from the OPDO and ANDM, and to some degree from the SEPDM.
The SEPDM had its chairman, Shiferaw Shigute, run against Abiy where he had received 59 votes, and Debretsion Gebre-Michael (PhD), chairman of the TPLF, got only two votes. The votes structures are signals that power dynamics within the ruling party has shifted, leading Abiy to victorious ascendance to the office of the Prime Minister.
Born and raised in Beshasha area, in Jimma Zone, Oromia Regional State, Abiy is a second generation Revolutionary Democrat, first joined the ruling coalition in 1991, shortly before the fall of the military government. But he spent much of his early years serving in the military, where he was in a radio communications before he was deployed to Rwanda for peace keeping mission under the auspices of the UN. It was in Rwanda where he met his wife with whom he has three children.
While in the army, he had joined the Information Network Security Agency (INSA), in 2007, as one of the founding directors and reached rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. An alleged disagreement with the Director of the Agency led to his departure from INSA three years later and joined politics to be elected as an MP for the Oromo Peoples` Democratic Organization (OPDO).
Briefly serving as a Minister of Science & Technology in the outgoing Prime Minister`s Cabinet two years ago, Abiy moved to the Oromia Regional State where he was to serve as its Vice President in charge of the bureau for Urban Development & Planning. Last year, he completed his PhD in Peace and Security studies, from the Addis Abeba University.
A soft-spoken but an orator, Abiy made a dramatic rise in the power echelon of the OPDO in February 2018, replacing Lemma Mergessa as chairman of the party. Amidst Hailemariam Desalegn’s resignation from the chairmanship of the Front and the Office of the Prime Minister, it was an obvious posturing of eying the highest executive office in the country held by Hailemariam for the past six years.
An engineer by training and academician in his background, Hailemariam led the ruling coalition until he decided to resign in mid February 2018. He said he would prefer to be part of the “solution to ensure enduring peace, and sustained democratic order,” hence reasons for his departure.
Born in 1965 in the Boloso Sore Hombba District of the Wolayita Zone, Hailemariam had worked as chief of the regional government in the South. Former Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, he assumed the position of the chairmanship in 2012, following the sudden death of Meles Zenawi, in 2012, and reelected three years later.
He would become the first leader who has come to office and leave without the use of force. Nonetheless, his tenure in office was characterized by a peaceful transition of power as it was mired by political turmoil. During the first three years, Hailemariam had kept the status quo, offering continuity and the economy grew uninterrupted. He had tried to lead by consensus, without rocking the boat.
However, the boat was rocked three years ago, after students in a small town of Ginchi protested the incursion by local authorities on an open field designated for playground. The confrontation between them and local police escalated to a call by students in a nearby college, in Ambo, for the federal government to drop the draft Addis Abeba Master Plan, designed to integrate surrounding towns.
The country has since been in a political turmoil, caused by frequent and widespread protests and violence, especially in Oromia and Amhara regional states. These unrests, which caused the loss of lives and damage to properties, led Parliament to pass an emergency decree, twice.
Members of the public dreaded the violence and no less the state of emergency, whose passing in Parliament was opposed by 88 MPs, mostly from the OPDO. It showed how much leadership cohesion in the ruling party has been eroded and signalled that electing a new chairman would not have been business as usual.
Last week`s election of the chairman was highly anticipated by the general public, for it was clear the unanimity of the four parties in agreeing who should lead the party was lost.
“None of the candidates was nominated by the parties,” said Shiferaw Shigute, head of EPRDF Secretariat, confirming that the outcome was not predetermined. “All of them were nominated by members of the Council.”
The EPRDF Council comprises 45 members each from the four parties and meets every half year. It listens to reports from the 36-strong Executive Committee members and elects the chairman and its deputy every two years. Last week, the Council was short of 10 members, for six of them were suspended from the Central Committee of the TPLF. Two have abstained from voting, according to people familiar to the process.
Although Shiferaw says nominations were made by Council members, no one from the ANDM was nominated after their chairman, Demeke Mekonnen decided not to run for the chairmanship of the Front, where he serves as its deputy. Pundits believe his decision paved the way for Abiy to have achieved what he has sought for long.
“The ANDM played a significant role in bringing a competent leader on board,” Nigussu Tilahun, communications head of the Amhara Regional State, posted on his Facebook page last Wednesday.
EPRDF’s decision in bringing Abiy to the front received some positivity by political leaders in the opposition, but with some reservations.
“I`m cautiously optimistic,” Merera Gudina (PhD), a founder and leader of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), and recently released from jail, said. “I presume that they are using it to tune down the massive protests, especially in the Oromia Regional State. I`m not clear if the party is ready for change.”
Not everyone is on the same page. For Abdiwasa Abdilahi, a professor of political science at the Addis Abeba University (AAU), the EPRDF has shown political maturity in bringing Abiy to the front.
“The party responded wisely to the current political situations in the country,” Abdiwasa told Fortune. “He is close to the youth and understands the current reality of the country in terms of security as he worked at INSA.”
But Getachew Reda, executive committee member of the EPRDF, argues the Front is always there to respond to questions from the public and address its issues.
“The new Prime Minister will execute the agenda of the Party,” he told Fortune.
Though Abiy managed to get a landslide win, there were one-third of the Council members who voted against him. It was an ultimate win in losing for those who did not vote for him, according to Zafu Eyesuswork, a prominent business leaders.
“He gets an acceptance by the majority of the people,” said Zafu. “He`s a leader crafted by circumstances. The current situation of the country made Abiy the best choice as a Prime Minister.”
It is a feeling shared by a large number of people in the public. The popular outpour of support is unusual for a leader of the EPRDF to get crossing divisions on several layers. Almost 60pc of the 237 people polled by Fortune, via random phone calls made residents in various regions of the country, were happy with Abiy`s election to the chairmanship of the ruling party, while they are in favor of him being the next Prime Minister. Those who said are unhappy with his election were less than one percent.
Many say he invokes hope in them that he will introduce major reforms that will take the country forward or to the least his administration will calm the country down. Coming from the restive region of the country, his ascendance to power may give many a sense of inclusion to the political process.
But it could also be a hope made against all odds. Walking a talk on reforms may not be as easy as the rhetorics, say those calling for caution.
Daniel Brehane, a blogger and founder of a website, Horn Affairs, is one of these voices. He sees in Abiy a politician riding on a populist wave.
“Unless he equivocally revises that and fortified back, things will be very difficult,” Daniel warns. “He must adequately distance himself from that; at least, that should be a bare minimum.”
Albeit few in size, there are those who see the Prime Minister-Designate as a rabble-rouser keen to impress in form than worry much in substance. They caution a structural limit to his power and ability to deliver what is highly expected by the public. Many believe what will follow needs to get more attention.
“He has a long way to go,” Zafu said.
Hearing out all the voices of the people, designing roadmap with an action plan and finally working in bringing an inclusive, free and fair election should be Abiy’s priority, according to Zafu.
Abiy will begin that journey tomorrow, after installed by Parliament as the fourth Prime Minister of Ethiopia since the fall of the military regime in May 1991.