3 February 2013

Ethiopia: Transition Plus Confusion


After the passing of the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, I coined a phrase to describe the constellation of power inside the ruling party: "The outgoing are not really out, and the incoming are not really in".

That was to describe the relative power of the 'first generation' officials who left their previous posts to relatively less prominent party posts, in 2010, and the 'second generation' officials who took their places.

Although the EPRDF and its member parties changed their leadership several times, it was largely as a result of unplanned factors, such as health and expulsion. In fact, with the exception of the TPLF, all of the other three member parties of the EPRDF have changed their chairpersons, in the past, for reason of incumbent expulsion.

However, in June 2009, following the insistence by the late Meles and some of his colleagues to be relieved of duty, the EPRDF adopted a three-phase generational transition plan (Metekakat), intended to transfer power to a new generation of leaders. Meles was among those scheduled to leave in the third phase, by 2015.

The first-phase of the transition involved the resignation of at least one third of EPRDF's Executive Committee members. Former Deputy Prime Minister Addisu Legesse, the nation's longest serving foreign minister, Seyoum Mesfin, and the current speaker of the parliament, Abadula Gemeda, resigned from their positions as chairmen of the EPRDF member parties. Their resignations included reassignments from prominent government posts to lesser ones.

Yet, the outgoings were not sidelined from the game. After all, the leadership transition was defined from the beginning as redeployment from 'executive role' into an 'advisory role'. Thus, they were kept around. Outgoing chairs and deputy chairs of the EPRDF member parties kept their executive committee seats; those who were mere executive members retained their seats at the next powerful decision-making organ. Outgoing ministers became ambassador plenipotentiaries or advisors to the Prime Minister.

Even more importantly, the outgoing leaders oversaw the placement of candidates and subsequent appointments in the national and regional elections, as well as the congresses of the EPRDF and its member parties, in 2010. It goes without saying that they maintained large clout, as many of the incumbents owed their positions to them.

The incoming, who were promoted to the top leadership as the new generation, have to wait for the next round of elections to cement and expand their power. That is by promoting their favourites in this year's local elections, and the party congresses, which have to be held no later than next March. This couples with the resignation of additional senior leaders as part of the second-phase of the transition plan.

By August 2012, when Meles suddenly departed from the picture, the power constellation in the ruling party appeared fluid. The outgoing members were still in a position to influence the election of their successors, even put themselves forward as candidates. Although the incoming enjoy the authority and legitimacy endowed by the position they hold, the perception as Meles' favourites and their popularity as 'new faces', they were, at the same time, perceived as inexperienced and functionally subordinate to the retirees.

Indeed, it looked like the outgoing members would decide to return and the prospective retirees may decide to stay longer. And, there were appealing reasons for this.

As Meles departed sooner than expected, it could be argued that putting the transition on hold was necessary to fill the leadership gap and help boost the confidence of the party base, as well as its allies. Of course, some of the seniors may be unhappy with the performance of the newly promoted members, and less so in the absence of Meles, as the latter's guide.

The possibility of a reversal in the leadership transition meant there are two pools of candidates - the outgoing and the incoming. To the chagrin of those of us who spent the past few years trying to sketch the possible power ranking, it became difficult to shortlist prospective candidates and power-brokers.

On the evening of Hailemariam's election as EPRDF's Chairperson, last September, however, it was announced that the EPRDF Council had decided to 'fully implement' the leadership transition plan in the forthcoming party congress. Taking this decision, at a time when the party suddenly lost its chief priest, was widely perceived as a move to preclude the danger of reversal.

The decision might have shortened an analysts' list of prospective appointees, but it minimised neither the list of power-brokers nor the ambiguity on the direction of the transition.

The September decision simply reconfirmed what has been rumored for years; the high echelons envy the less hectic, but rewarding engagements of their former colleagues, such as the former chief of staff and the air force commander. And consolidating their collective legacy is deemed the most pressing agenda of all.

The problem, it appears, rather is developing the leadership transition into a fully-fledged plan.

What the ruling party has been referring to as a leadership replacement plan for the last few years appears to be more of a sketch. The confusion regarding the definition of a generation is, then, very telling.

Some of those among the high officials of the ruling party categorise the leadership into three generations. The leaders who took part in the armed struggle to remove the military regime constitute the first generation. Those, who were not combatants, but the same age group as the first generation, make up the second generation. The younger leaders are deemed as the third generation.

But this classification is troublesome for the TPLF, given its core constituency's scaled participation in the armed struggle. By some accounts, at least one member out of 74 households in Tigray took part in the armed struggle.

On the other hand, many of EPRDF's senior leaders are likely to hesitate to see numerous non-combatant members of their generation, a potential suspect of being influenced by their nemesis, assuming a leading role.

The alternative version of the generational definition, put in one sentence in the party's ideological periodical, published in 2009, reads: "All members who have been serving in top leadership positions since the years of armed struggle must retire within five years of the next EPRDF Congress to be held in September 2010.

But this seems too narrow to signify a generational transition. It is not even wide enough to include long-time senior leaders, such as Kassu Illa (Amb) and Teshome Toga (Amb), who resigned as part of the first phase, in 2010.

If the theoretical scope of the generational transition plan is this vague, presumably there was no timetable specifying which of the senior officials would resign and when.

Perhaps, there need not be. The matter was deemed a political plan, the implementation of which contingent upon phases, and even cases.

Whatever the merit of making the transition plan amorphous is, it is unlikely to be in the interest of the party anymore. It is especially so with the absence of Meles, whom the outgoing had entrusted in guiding the transition process and institutionalising, as well as guarding the retiree from an unfavourable move by the incumbents, given the long-established zero-sum political culture.

The absence of a clearly articulated leadership transition plan may not preclude the resignation of senior officials from the party's executive committee this March and from top government posts by 2015. However, the process of selecting successors is proving to be a time-consuming engagement. The impact would be no less impairing if the outgoing members could not feel assured enough to refrain from using their personal and non-institutional power and influence in the years to come.

Thus, no matter how the forthcoming EPRDF Congress handles the matter, more important is whether there would be a move to institutionalise the generational transition as a norm.

Modifying the party by-laws to include the thus far accepted components of the generational transition direction, namely the two-term limit and the age 65 retirement ceiling, should be a starting point. Articulating a clear definition of a leadership generation and setting an agreed collective mechanism of selecting prospective successors by incumbents should be on the top of the agenda. Laying down a clear method of grooming successors that boosts the authority of the prospective successors themselves and precludes unnecessary contest by their peers would also help to ensure stability and efficiency.

Otherwise, in the absence of a strong helmsman, a system where the outgoing members retain power and the incomers hesitate to assert themselves, the leadership circle will constitute an ever-growing number of individuals with fluid power relations. Meetings and elite bargains will take the place of real task execution.

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