Hailemariam Desalegn occupies a rare spot in Ethiopia`s political history. He marks one of the few instances of a person that entered leadership as peacefully as he will exit it once his successor, Abiy Ahmed (PhD), is installed by parliament tomorrow. He is leaving a government in a crisis of legitimacy – the sort of public discontent that dwarfs the post-election unrest of 2005, both in breadth and intensity.
Hailemariam’s resignation was accepted by the Council of the EPRDF this past week, as was Abiy’s election as only the third chairman of the ruling coalition. Both decisions earned the majority of the EPRDFites’ blessing, while an outburst of delight received the latter by parts of the public.
In more ways than one, the change of guard in leadership is more of a form than substance. The process in which Abiy rose to power signalled a cultural transformation within a political party whose legacy is deeply rooted in the political left. Those on the left believe it is not a revolutionary mark to campaign for high offices; that lobbying and direct persuasions for appointment is no less than sinful; and promoting the politics of compromise is a slippery slope.
To his credit, Abiy has dispelled this cultural wall and succeeded in getting himself elected to the highest office in the party and of the country. Being a soft-spoken person and holding patriotic views have endeared him to the public; his membership to the Oromo Peoples` Democratic Organisation (OPDO), one of the parties that make up the EPRDF, has made his victory interesting. The Organisation represents, in government, an ethnic group that is not only the most populous in Ethiopia but also the most restive this past couple of years.
Few can presume the task that faces him would be a walk in the park. But many expect of him to persuade the public at large that the ruling coalition is legitimate; that the next general elections, or the local ones this year, would be free and fair; and that democratic institutions will stand on the side of citizens as opposed to the incumbents.
The veterans in the Revolutionary Democratic camp believe the challenge each generation faces creates its own leader. They now have one in a young man born in Beshasha, a small town west of Addis Abeba, in the Oromia Regional State. He is rare for a government official who enjoys what amounts to public enthusiasm.
In a time of widespread discontent, such as the one Ethiopia is experiencing, this will come in handy. It helps him secure a foothold in the national discourse, one where he could forward ideas people are willing not to disregard automatically. It could also bring respite to the privatisation and regularisation of violence as has been witnessed since the protests began. That public support can also give the one-time Minister of Science & Technology the courage in his conviction to take the intractable EPRDF machine by the horns.
This is a ruling coalition whose officials have only grown emboldened with an expanding economy. The ideological imprints of Revolutionary Democracy – of economic and social development as a means to gaining political legitimacy – has only festered.
Abiy was successful in persuading over half of the Council members in his party to deliver him to political power. Despite voices of cynicism and caution, much of the popular view appears to give him the benefit of the doubt. So was the international media quick in glorifying him as a “young reformer.” It is understandable, if not reasonable. Nonetheless, what he intends to do with the power he holds now has never been clear, or communicated in such fashion. Neither is his reform agenda, if there is any, articulated in public.
If his ambition is to ensure the autonomy of democratic institutions, then that vision will contradict systemic failures that have allowed the hegemony of the EPRDFites. Weak institutions and economic growth – as inequitable as the latter may be – has permitted the EPRDFites to monopolise government for nearly three decades. Take this away, and there is no accounting for which way the house of cards will fall.
History shows that leaders can find themselves rebuffed just as they once were revered. In the era of social media and short-attention spans, the route from admiration into indifference and then scorn has gotten steeper. The Revolutionary Democrats traditional stubbornness adds to this, fueling public impatience, and serving as an obstacle to a peaceful end to the political quagmire.
Abiy is on a honeymoon. He can use this momentous period to cut a deal within his coalition to take measures that are larger than the revitalisation of his party. His rhetoric before his ascent to power has positioned him as a populist politician, a cause for concern and potential disappointment to his ardent supporters if he fails to move in bringing real reforms.
There exists a respite to the feeling of hopelessness where violence coloured the past two years. What will determine the outcome is the conviction to give in within this period while the public feels relatively empowered enough to engage in constructive national discourse.
This is not a task solely conferred to the soon-to-be Prime Minister or even the EPRDF for that matter. It is one where all opposition groups, here and abroad, should engage in. Granted, it is the incumbent that could play the most critical part and here is where leadership matters.
Abiy’s party, the OPDO, has shown the most goodwill here. It has understood that means of inclusive dialogue can only address the challenges. It is courageous as it is admirable. It is laudable and unorthodox for a member of the ruling coalition that is currently in talks with only the legally recognised and domestically based parties.
Having discussions of the sort advocated by the OPDO, held with the views of bringing about political competitiveness, can only realise with the institutionalisation of political power itself. It helps to empower citizens and disenfranchised political parties to take part in the democratic process, and not protests on the street.
This is where most of Abiy’s energy ought to be discharged. His depth and foresight and overcoming his populist bent will be tested here. It is one thing to fire up an enthusiastic crowd with nationalistic and feel good rhetorics. It is another to deliver on promises made for cutthroat reforms.
It will be quite a steep heel to climb, especially for an individual whose leadership track record is, arguably, not as awe-inspiring as many have come to think. He has been vice president of the Oromia Regional State for the past two years as it descended into political and economic chaos. The number of investment projects that became operational in the region dropped by over 90pc since the 2014/15 fiscal year. Of course, this could serve as valuable experience in solving the country’s deep-rooted challenges.
Abiy should push the EPRDFites to continue with their modest measures of giving in and showing good-will. They have released opposition figures and announced the closure of a notorious prison facility popularly known as Ma’ekelawi. These were laudable gestures. Since then though, the government has been mired in allegations of using the current emergency decree to stamp out decent in the dark.
While 10 people died as a result of actions by security officers in Moyale, some of those that were given pardon were detained by the police last weekend.
It will rest on the shoulders of senior officials such as Abiy to assure that such cases, and others that can erupt as the emergency decree continues, can be addressed reasonably. The challenge of the country’s politics has been the accountable exercise of power, rarely the passage of laws. This is why the independence of bodies such as the inquiry board set up to monitor the Command Post that oversees the emergency decree must be ensured.
Just as crucial will be Abiy’s choice for a new cabinet. Without compromising on merit, the incoming Prime Minister must be able to nominate candidates that reflect the sort of diversity of ideas that are prevalent in Ethiopia today. It will show that the ruling coalition is willing and capable of working with other parties, not to mention that it will help check power between those in charge of democratic institutions.
Optimism has been rare in Ethiopia`s politics for far too long, resulting in people taking to the streets to vent their frustrations out. Abiy can help keep that momentum up. But the bulk of the legitimacy crisis this government is experiencing will be too heavy on his shoulders, even with the powers the office of the Prime Minister confers upon him. But he deserves to get the chance to prove himself. Good luck!
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