Hailemariam Desalegn’s Limited Room to Manoeuvre

In their ascendance to power, each successive leader of Ethiopia has gone through a rough political ride of consolidation, before they asserted their rule over the country. So too is Hailemariam Desalegn – the second-generation chairman of the ruling EPRDF – no different.

Four years after he accidentally claimed the throne, he is seeing the real test of his political career. He is confronted with a public with a potent desire for change. He is trapped between forces from within, who demand for a complete overhaul of the system, and those on the outside, who press for radical and total change of the current regime. The latter want to establish a new social order from the debris of the political order the EPRDFites have built over the past quarter of a century.

Hailemariam now finds himself with very limited options. Inaction is certainly not on the table, for there is a wider consensus within the establishment that the status quo is not sustainable. It is politically gullible to expect him to work for an end that sees the demise of an order where he has been brought up and of which he is entrusted to preserve. A little pragmatism is in order here; it is rather unlikely to persuade him and his comrades to concede what is politically viable.

The viability instead lies in what he can do on the overhaul front. The question remains to what extent he is ready to push for an overwhelming reform and how much leverage he has in doing so.

The early signs show that his party is engaged in what its veterans coined as “a deep soul searching” to find their moral fibre in the face of mounting public discontent. In their self-critiques, they described the party’s paralysis as a debilitating political culture of rent seeking and use of public office to amass private wealth. They simply fall short of calling the present order a predatory state.

Indeed, the paralysis is so rampant that the credibility of the entire EPRDF political edifice has faced doubts in its ability and willingness to meet its very own declarations to be faithful to the democratic regime and good governance. Fundamental questions have emphatically surfaced on the federal structure of governance the Revolutionary Democrats have instituted for more than two decades now. Undermined by the leftist mantra of democratic centralism – a political culture that has instituted one party dominance and monopoly over all the federated states – the experiment of Ethiopia’s federal structure is becoming strained. This is amidst an alien culture of dialogue, negotiation and compromise in the world of the Revolutionary Democrats, and beyond.

The country, following its historical general elections in 2007, has been devoid of political diversity within all its legislative bodies across the country. Worse is the result of the recent elections, where there is literally zero representation of the opposition in Parliament. Millions of people have no official platform to voice their views. Neither do they find it easy to hold town hall meetings and rallies; nor is it conducive for the political opposition to mobilise its supporters in ways it sees fit.

In the meantime, corruption has rendered its capacity in delivering the Party’s development objectives null, with its rank and file caught up in making the most out of the spoils of power. With the recent maturing of the party’s intent on becoming hegemonic in every aspect of political and administrative life in the country, it has undermined the blossoming of a multi-party democracy in Ethiopia.

These problems, compounded by the widespread perception of unfair distributions of wealth, improper compensation for displaced farmers, the Party’s habit of ruling by law and other related issues, have boiled over into what at times has transpired into violent confrontations between protestors and security personnel, resulting in some regrettable fatalities. While trying to maintain order in the protest hotspots, the ruling party has been holding various meetings with the public and among its members.

These meetings have culminated in the party’s diagnosis of its failures to live up to its promises, thus prescribing a ‘deep renewal’ to pull itself out of the political quagmire and loss of legitimacy in some corners. It is on Hailemariam’s shoulders to prove that he has indeed earned the right to be where he is now.

Early indications of what actions he plans point to senior officials being reshuffled or purged from their positions. He signalled, rather forcefully, his desire to follow an approach based largely on merit, rather than political loyalty. Here is where Hailemariam’s leverage appears to be limited.

He may push through his plans of significant reshuffles in his cabinet and federal agencies. But there is little he can hope for in doing the same within the regional states, where the major public discontent is bubbling. It would take a political hawk that his predecessor was to navigate through a complex web of interests and power structure that the EPRDF has turned out to be. Hailemariam hardly displays this hawkish part in his nature.

However, his focus on purging officials in the federal government does not address the root causes of the impediment. Last week alone, a federal housing agency fired no less than 18 members of staff. A few months back, several hundred members of staff of the Federal Transport Authority were sacked on grounds of corruption and lack of good governance. These figures only tell half the story, as it is usually the case that some may get their jobs back only to be fired again when the next purging campaign takes place.

This approach has been tried and tested before; purges have been taking place during different campaign-esque measures in the past. It only shows how the ruling party is lacking ingenuity and imagination in resolving its predicaments. It would not be so naive to assume more purges, which are skin-deep and only impact the tip of the iceberg, are on the way.

But there are pragmatic measures Hailemariam and his allies in the party, however few their numbers are becoming, can take in the immediate term. Fixing the depressing state of the country’s judicial system, where accountability is grossly compromised in the interest of party partisanship and wealth – as well as at the expense of the rule of law – is the most pressing. It is important to hold those who abuse their power accountable.

Hailemariam has been on the record on a number of occasions over the past few years pledging to prosecute senior officials who are proven to be corrupt and in nepotism. The public waits on him to deliver on his promises; doing so would go far to restoring his credibility in the eyes of many.

It is also critical that the very architecture of the bureaucracy should be set up in a way that does not open any room for corrupt practices or that would hinder the provision of services the public is entitled to get.

Information technology is a great tool to avail an ideal platform to address these problems. It can drastically improve public services delivery and reduce corruption. Take Rwanda, for instance. It has digitised the building permits management information system, where the government leaps miles ahead in curbing corruption and providing efficiency worthy of the countless promises it has made for years now. Among others, the IT system has enhanced transparency and curtailed corruption, while improving customer experience: two of the most significant points of dissatisfaction of the public over the Revolutionary Democrats.

Hailemariam’s reforms should take things further in empowering the public over the rogue, mediocre and incompetent bureaucracy. He can initiate and push for the legislation of administrative courts. These should be courts where citizens can take their cases regarding the inaction of the bureaucracy, so that local and federal officials are held accountable for dragging their feet in decision making.

In a country where bureaucrats believe no one holds them accountable for their inaction, in as much as they are for the little decisions they make. The administrative courts can go a long way in reminding them that their failure to decide has opportunity costs both to the state that pays them and the pubic that fills the coffers.

However, these can only be short-term objectives in light of the mounting pressure from those who want to see a new social order emerge from the debris of the existing system. Indeed, the public’s disenchantment with the Revolutionary Democrats cannot be tamed with the predominant focus of the reforms the EPRDFites have planned to improve good governance, at all administrative levels.

Hailemariam’s long-term objective should be the overhauling of his regime, so that it is inclusive both in the legislative and executive bodies of the nation’s political life. It is such inclusiveness that ensures a transparent, accountable and responsive government.

It is up to Hailemariam to demonstrate that he is a tactful politician with the strategic flair to overcome his current structural limitations. He should not overlook the crucial importance of opening the system up for competitive politics and realising a country governed by the rule of law – not rule by law.

Published on Sep 28,2016 [ Vol 17 ,No 856]



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