opinionBy Daniel Berhane
The debate on the constitutionality of the recent high-level governmental appointments seems to have been put to rest by the recent explanation given by Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.
Largely, the debate was about the elevation of two ministers to the ranks of Deputy Prime Minister and their appointment, alongside Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen, to coordinate three clusters of ministries and executive units.
In his recent parliamentary appearance, Hailemariam addressed questions that had been the mainstays of pundits and critics for about a month, whereas some ruling party officials were unable to speak on this issue with certainty.
The Premier explained that it is only Demeke who is appointed to the constitutional office of deputy premiership, while Muktar Kedir and Debretsion Gebremichael are merely allotted with the title of deputy premiership by virtue of their responsibility to coordinate ministries belonging to their cluster. However, every minister still directly accounts to the Prime Minister through the cabinet.
The message Hailemariam was trying to convey was obvious. The promotion of the two officials did not divide Demeke's power. The creation of clusters did not shift the power of the Premier. And, the Cabinet is not replaced by a committee of four as some have been implying.
But these were obvious for any analyst worth her salt.
The claim that the two appointments usurp the power of Demeke is premised on the erroneous perception that he has a clear list of powers enumerated by constitution or by practice. However, the only power of the Deputy Premier, stated in the law and affirmed by practice, is his mandate to act on behalf of the Prime Minister, when the latter is absent.
This does not even preclude the Prime Minister's discretion to delegate tasks pending on his table to one of his advisors, which could amount to delegating the premiership, except chairing the Cabinet, which is explicitly delegated to the Deputy Premier by law.
As far as the sole constitutional power of "acting on behalf of the Premier when the latter is absent" is concerned, it goes to Demeke, regardless of whether the two appointees are deputy prime ministers or officials with the rank of deputy prime minister, whatever the difference may be. That is because Demeke is the senior of the three by order of appointment. This principle is already applied by legislations dealing with cases where there are multiple state ministers in a ministry.
Similarly, the creation of three clusters to be coordinated by the three deputy premiers does not necessarily amount to dividing the power of the Prime Minister or the Cabinet. After all, it has been the case all along that ministries are often coordinated by someone other than the Prime Minister.
Supraministries, like capacity building and rural development, are recent memories. The practices of assigning ministries into cabinet committees chaired by a minister and the assignment of advisors to follow ministries have been long established.
At this point, one might ask what the purpose of the recent appointments actually is. This was the question pundits should have asked, rather than hairsplitting the constitutionality of the appointments, while neither the words nor the spirit are breached.
The month long silence of Hailemariam's government is an indication that there was no need for damage control. Taking care of critics at a later date is a common practice for the ruling party. For some reason, its stern critics like it too.
Unfortunately, we cannot have a clear picture of the rationale behind the appointments in the absence of information regarding the Cabinet, at least about the frequency, attendance and agenda of its meetings. Its minutes are off-limit by law; however, one can make some conjectures.
As the clustering of ministries for coordination is not a new thing, the primary outcome of the recent assignment of the three deputy premiers as cluster coordinators is all about publicising it. Unlike the practice thus far, which is based on a letter by the Prime Minister or a cabinet minute, the publicity gives the appointees more tenure security and stronger authority.
While this might seem to limit Hailemariam's ability to reshuffle the clusters and their coordinators at whim, he would rather have strong deputies who can help build consensus in the cabinet as he cannot rely too much on a policy sermon that he can give at a single general meeting. His colleagues might also insist on the move as an assurance of his commitment to collective leadership.
After all, there was no reason not to do so. The practice of appointing multiple deputies, at the regional level, was often implemented when the regional president was from the 'second generation' of the leadership, with lesser personal clout than his predecessor. Moreover, such an arrangement seems to have guaranteed stable governance for the last two years in the largest region of the country, Oromia, where the president is often absent due to illness.
Alongside this comes the natural concern of a multinational democracy to make public posts representative where possible. This has been the case all along, as can be observed from the fact that the Prime Minister and the three officials in the line of succession - the Deputy Premier and the speakers of the two Houses - have often been drawn from different regions. Thus, it is natural for Hailemariam to pick his deputies in a representative way.
Though the public was more concerned on whether the leaders will get their acts together rather than the identity of the appointees, the issue of representation is never out of sight. Unlike the late Prime Minister Meles, who managed to build cross-sectional appeal, Hailemariam needs to create that appeal through his appointments. After all, it is common knowledge that the largest region and religious community of the nation felt underrepresented in the election of the Prime Minister and his deputy, last September.
These multiple considerations, apparently, were deemed to be served best by publicising the appointment of the cluster coordinators, allotting them the ranks of Deputy Prime Minister and letting the pundits ponder on the status of the new appointees. Indeed, the use of the word cluster, instead of its equivalent in local languages, which would have sounded less important, seems intended to reap the benefit of the ambiguity.
Amidst all this, however, members of parliament (MPs) and the political elite missed an opportunity to push the Cabinet for more transparency. As the title of Deputy Prime Minister would certainly be coupled by relevant privileges and benefits, the parliament should have been asking what their specific job description is, and this would have brought the benchmark for their performance to light.
Similarly, as the executive, by its own initiative, tabled the structure of the cabinet at the Parliament's agenda, the opportunity should have been seized for more disclosure on how the Cabinet functions. That would have been a step forward in changing the opacity of the Cabinet, given its extensive influence on the state by virtue of law and practice.