Although his likely departure has been speculated for close to a year, the decision by Hailemariam Desalegn to resign from his role as chairman of the party and the office of the Prime Minister was least expected in its timing. It was a surprise even to members of the top leadership of the ruling EPRDF when he raised the issue as one of the two agendas tabled at the emergency meeting of the Executive Committee on Thursday, February 15, 2018.
Hailemariam would go in Ethiopia`s history as the second Prime Minister to depart office by his own choice in 46 years. In a twist of history, Aklilu Habtewold, the longest serving Prime Minister under Emperor Hailesellasie left office in February 1974, after refusing to meet the demand soldiers made for salary raise.
Prime Minister Hailemariam told members of the media last week that he would want to be part of the “solution to ensure enduring peace, and sustained democratic order.
“I believe it is appropriate and necessary to addresses the many demands the public raised,” Hailemariam told the media from his office on Lorenzo Te`azaz Road up at Arat Kilo, in his seven and a half minutes long brief statement, occasionally gazing at a handwritten note. “I`m certain that I`ll be referred to as a former Prime Minister.”
The Prime Minister described the current state of affairs of the nation as “extremely alarming” and called for “tolerance and unity.”
The reactions to the Prime Minister`s sudden announcement to depart office was mixed.
Taye Atske-Selassie, Ethiopia`s ambassador to Egypt, sees in Hailemariam`s courage and bravery.
“It`s unmatched by any standard,” Taye said in an interview with Almasry Alyoum, an Egyptian paper.
Hailemariam would go in Ethiopia`s history as the second Prime Minister to depart office by his own choice in 46 years.
Eyesuswork Zafu, one of the prominent business leaders in the country, believes the decision came as leaders of the ruling party may not have accepted a “solutions forwarded by the Prime Minister” to solve the current impasse.
“This shows that the Prime Minister was in direct or indirect pressure,” Zafu told Fortune. “I find it hard to believe his resignation come out of the blue.”
Although his decision to resign from office was sudden, it was not entirely unexpected. An accidental Prime Minister came into office following the sudden passing of his predecessor, Meles Zenawi, in 2012. Hailemariam`s time in office was marked mostly by fragmentation among the top leadership of the ruling party. There have been perpetual public discontents that led his administration to declare the first state of emergency in 2017 that had stayed for a total 10 months.
Hailemariam was not interested in continuing in office after his current mandate was rumoured over the past two years. But his formal expression of a desire to resign was floated during an Executive Committee meeting of the EPRDF held in December 2017, according to people close to the party. It was declined, said these people.
Early last week, a high-level meeting by members of the Central Committee of the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM), one of the four coalition members of the ruling party where Hailemariam comes from, was critical of his leadership, according to a senior member of the Movement. They were frustrated with their leader`s alleged neglect of their voice and marginalising the Movement in the current interparty turmoil deep inside the top leadership EPRDF, said the person.
His decision to resign from the chairmanship of his party, claiming that he cannot handle the situation, began to surface on Tuesday. His submission for resignation from his role as the Movement`s chairperson was accepted by the Central Committee, prompting him to do likewise in the EPRDF, party sources disclosed.
On Thursday morning, a meeting of EPRDF`s senior leadership requested he explain the rationale behind his decision, according to a person who attended the meeting. Hailemariam said he would have no conscious to stay in office at a time of political turmoil where individuals are targeted and victimised due to their ethnic identities, according to this person.
He told the EPRDF- in a meeting that he had joined party politics to struggle against prejudice he had been subjected to in his childhood, owing to his ethnicity. An unaccounted number of people got killed across the country, in confrontations with law enforcement forces and attacked by angry protestors.
"He might feel not having this stop over the past two years, and occurs again and again under his watch troubled him a lot and make him feel helpless," said another person close to the development. "Essentially, he is a good man."
“He might feel not having this stop over the past two years, and occurs again and again under his watch troubled him a lot and make him feel helpless,” said another person close to the development. “Essentially, he is a good man.”
The same day, Shiferaw Shigute, head of the Council of the EPRDF and his political nemesis in the Movement, had appeared before the state broadcaster, the Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation (EBC), confirms the party has accepted the resignation request. He was gracious in appreciating Hailemariam`s commitment to orderly transfer office before his term ends.
“Hailemariam is the first leader alive to transfer political power on his own choice,” Shiferaw, also deputy chairman of the Movement, said. “It`ll leave good precedence.”
Despite the claimed precedence though, his resignation could not change much, according to Eyesuswork, who would instead like to see Hailemariam stayed in office until the coming national elections and help his party make significant changes, including forming an independent electoral board.
Hailemariam will only stay in his role as chairman of the ruling party and Prime Minister of the country up until the EPRDF`s Council, comprised of 180 members from the four coalition parties, accept his resignation and elect a new chairperson in a secret ballot. It is this person who the EPRDF will nominate before Parliament for swearing-in as a new Prime Minister.
However, Eyesuswork`s view is one shared by those in the political opposition.
Beyene Petros (Prof.), the veteran opposition leader and a former member of parliament representing the Ethiopian Federal Democratic Forum, a.k.a MEDREK, wants to see the ruling party travel far beyond a change of personality.
“Rather than changing a leader, the party ought to change its political line,” Beyene told Fortune. “The ruling party needs to reform its structure and change ideology which runs off its steam after the social experiment its leaders made.”
Hailemariam’s request to resign signals two things, according to Asnake Kefale (PhD), a lecturer at the Addis Abeba University and an expert on policies and institutions of conflict management in Ethiopia and the wider Horn of Africa region. It shows the extent of the political crises the county is in, and the course the ruling party wants to take for change.
Asnake attributed recent joint statement by chairpersons of the four coalition members, including Hailemaram, made admitting that the ruling party is in a deep hole.
“Their confirmation connotes that the ruling party has started to look into itself, which is commendable,” Asnake told Fortune.
But for Asnake, the ruling party has to work on widening the political space and let the political opposition and those in the Diaspora take part in the country’s political sphere.
“It needs to address all the demands from the people,” he said.
Nonetheless, the same day the Executive Committee of the EPRDF accepted the Chairman`s request for resignation, its members have also decided to reinstate a state of emergency that will remain in place for at least six months. The following day, the Council of Ministers have passed a decree and regulation that dictates its enforcement.
The decree restricts public gatherings without prior consent from the government, protests, publishing and broadcasting of materials of incitements, and search and seizure of any transport suspected to be used for violence, Siraje Fegessa, minister of Defence and secretariat of the National Security Council, briefed the media on Saturday.
As an immediate response to the political unrests in the country, the government had declared a state of emergency last year before it was lifted in August 2017. The first decree in the 25-year rule of the EPRDF, it was altered a couple of times, repealing some of its restrictions such as travel bans and curfew.
But it was not wholly successful as the government had failed to work on the political aspects, according to Asnake.
The diplomatic community in Addis Abeba is anxious and unhappy, one such voice is America’s diplomats based in Addis Abeba with Ambassador Michael Raynor was briefed by Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen last week.
“The US Embassy believes that the declaration of a state of emergency undermines recent positive steps toward creating a more inclusive political space, including the release of thousands of prisoner,” reads the statement from the Embassy.
“We strongly disagree with the Ethiopian government’s decision to impose a state of emergency that includes restrictions on fundamental rights such as assembly and expression,” said the Embassy with its rare statement of protest it issues on Saturday.
American diplomats called the government to re-think its approach to finding other ways to protect lives and property while preserving space for political participation.
Getachew Reda, EPRDF executive committee member, recognises the Embassy’s concern for the peace and stability of the country and the broadening of democratic space in Ethiopia, but he states that the government believes the state of emergency will help the county to ensure more, not less, peace and stability.
“We will also do everything to make sure its implementation won’t stand in the way of or reverse whatever progress there is in broadening democratic space,” he replied to Fortune via SMS. “That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are things we feel strongly about and things they feel strongly about in which case we just agree to disagree,” he added.