31 March 2013

Ethiopia's Succession Surprise


The late Prime Minster Meles Zenawi was both present and absent at the bi-annual EPRDF Convention held last week in Bahir Dar, a few kilometres from the source of the Blue Nile.

As usual, the Convention was preceded by the congresses of its four member parties - Oromo People's Democratic Organisation (OPDO), Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), Southern Ethiopia People's Democratic Movement (SEPDM) and Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF). Days earlier, they held their congresses and elected 250 of their members as voting members of the EPRDF congress.

This is in addition to officials of the EPRDF-led government who are automatically voting members of the Convention. Of course, several retiring veteran EPRDF leaders and prominent non-member officials, scholars and the like were also in attendance; although the seating arrangement and active participation of some did not squarely fit with that of a mere of observer.

It was not only the remarks made and the t-shirts worn by over 1,200 participants that made Meles' presence strongly felt. The peak of the glorification of Meles was not even found in the hour-long eulogy read by Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, which many participants found to be insufficient. Rather, it was the leader of the Harari National League, an EPRDF affiliate party, who stunned many and irked conservative Muslims by declaring, during his "solidarity message" at the beginning of the convention, that "as we say to religious leaders, I say peace and honour be upon Meles Zenawi."

However, Meles's absence was conspicuous halfway through the Convention when the debate shifted focus to the succession plan - the intergenerational leadership plan of the ruling party, adopted in June, 2009. Intended to replace the "old generation" of leaders with new ones, the succession plan was originally described as a three-phase process, which began at the 2010 Convention and was to be finalised over the next two years. At the 2015 Convention, the last round of the old generation leaders, including the late Prime Minister, were to resign from high-level "executive roles" into mere "advisory roles".

Indeed, the ruling party assured its members and observers, approximately two weeks after the funeral of Meles Zenawi, that the succession plan would remain in place and even pledged to complete the process during this Convention. But, it was difficult to count on that pledge, as discussion with EPRDF officials seemed to indicate that the plan was merely an outline.

EPRDFs leadership has undergone a second round of changes, in particular with its member parties electing their representatives to the 36-seat executive committee. However, a few EPRDFites deemed the scale of the change unsatisfactory, especially at the level of the 180-seat EPRDF council. The composition of member parties' central committees have gone up from 45 to 81 seats, including their 45 representatives to the EPRDF council, and the composition of each parties' executive committees has risen from nine to 13 members, including nine representatives to the EPRDF executive committee.

The dissatisfaction on the implementation of the succession process, observed in group discussions and informal talks at the Convention, was not limited to the partly justifiable expectation that the "old generation" would be completely replaced during the current elections. Nor was it primarily attributable to a handful of controversial cases. Rather, the disquiet arose from a level of confusion, which emanated in the absence of any solid plan.

Indeed, the debate, as well as contradictions and inconclusiveness, among veteran officials who "explained", criticised and forwarded recommendations, regarding the succession process, was confirmation of what I cautioned about last month, in my column, headlined - "Transition Plus Confusion", which stated:

"No matter how the forthcoming EPRDF Convention handles the matter, what's more important is whether there will be a move to institutionalise the generational transition."

"Articulating a clear definition of a leadership generation and setting an agreed collective mechanism, through which to select prospective successors by incumbents, should be on top of the agenda. Again, laying down a clear method of grooming successors that boosts the authority of the prospective successors themselves and, precluding unnecessary contest by their peers, goes a long way to ensure stability and efficiency."

Indeed, not only the general confusion, but also the apparent disenchantment of some officials and the stern remarks from Seyoum Mesfin, who moved, in 2010, from the TPLF and EPRDF executive committees to the second tier of leadership, and from being a Foreign Minister to the Ambassador of Ethiopia to China, were alarming. Not only did Seyoum reiterate the need to apply my recommendations, but too, he was critical of the unscientific manner in which the process was being handled so far; the divergence of the implementation among member parties and, he even went as far as to criticise some of them, specifically.

I am not acquainted with Seyoum's speech style, nor to the debate style of EPRDF officials in their internal forums. That was suggested as the cause of my "unwarranted alarm" by ruling party veterans, who downplayed the scenario in corridor chats.

This is an in-house discussion, where everyone speaks his mind until a decision is reached - the point from which onwards the principle of "democratic centralism" applies, I was reminded. Reassuringly, they claimed, strong expressions are meant to emphasise their points. The debate would have been hotter if Meles was presiding, as he would have directed it towards weaknesses and differences.

It may or may not be true, although it does seem likely, that Meles would have precluded the sense of confusion, either through prior preparations or personal charm. What was more alarming, was not the absence of consensus or a dominant figure to assures an eventual convergence of mind, but rather the absence of an official with an articulated idea of progression. Although Bereket Simon and Abay Tsehaye left the impression that they have a reasonable grasp - and were bent on leading the process - their remarks were more a defense of the path traveled, and less informative on what was to come.

Indeed, keeping a political plan of the nature of succession amorphous, may be deemed useful, both for flexibility and manoeuvre, by some. However, if last week's Convention is to be instructional, it shows that the door for speculation and disagreement is still very much open. Such an uncertainty undermines the cohesive image that the succession process was supposed to reinforce about the leadership of the EPRDF and, by extension, the nation.

Daniel Berhane He Can Be Reached At Danielberhane.ethiopia@gmail.com

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