25 February 2018

Ethiopia: The Hopefuls

analysis

Of the no less than seven ideological blueprints the late Meles Zenawi and his comrades have produced on the affairs of Revolutionary Democracy in Ethiopia, none were able to foresee the leadership quagmire the EPRDF finds itself in today.

It was neither for oversight in dealing with inter-party democracy, nor the absence of chapters discussing successions in leadership.

Thrashing out issues from shifts in the global balance of power to fine details of reshaping Ethiopia's society at a family level, these documents were able to address all but the possibility of a chairman's resignation on his own. Much overlooked was the inevitability of a bitter partisan fight among leaders of the constituent parties to claim the top job in the ruling party, in the manner unprecedented in the EPRDF history, since its first convention held in January 1991.

The 180-member Council of the EPRDF is called to convene in Addis Abeba for two days, beginning on March 1, 2018, party sources disclosed. Meeting twice a year, its members will have a rare occasion of voting for candidates to serve as chair and deputy chair, of the most powerful political force in the country over the past quarter of a century. Unlike in the past though, they will have no predetermined political figure agreed before votes are cast in secret ballots.

The EPRDF has had 10 rounds of elections over the years where only two have led the party as chairs: Meles and Hailemariam Desalegn. Long before the actual voting days, their destiny was sealed, making the process that followed mere procedural, if not farce in the eyes of political pundits.

The resignation of Hailemariam from his role as a chairman two weeks ago, before his terms both in the party and the government as a Prime Minister, has led for fierce contention among leaders of the parties in the ruling coalition.

The resignation of Hailemariam from his role as a chairman two weeks ago, before his terms both in the party and the government as a Prime Minister, has led for fierce contention among leaders of the parties in the ruling coalition. It was signaled by the sudden change of leadership in the OPDO last week, reshuffling Lemma Megerssa with Abiy Ahmed (PhD) as chairman of the organization.

A meeting by the OPDO's Central Committee was held only a couple of weeks earlier, but without a change of guard at the top. The decision to bring Abiy to the frontline during an emergency meeting late last week was seen as a decisive move by the organization eyeing a place beyond the chairmanship of the ruling coalition.

Although Hailemariam's departure has been speculated for longer than he did, he tendered his resignation at an emergency meeting of the Executive Committee of the EPRDF held on February 15, 2018, called to decide on an emergency decree. It was a move preceded by his first resignation from his own party in the south, SEPDM; in both instances, his requests were granted.

However, his resignation to leave the chairmanship of the ruling coalition is pending on the acceptance of the Council, whose members elect the chairman. Comprising 45 members each from the four constituent parties, their highest votes elect the chairperson while the candidate with the second highest becomes the deputy.

Although the candidates ideally come from each of the constituent parties, the senior member of the coalition, the TPLF, will most likely decide not to field its candidate, sources in the Front told Fortune.

It is a decision shaped by history.

Since the EPRDF's formation in 1989, as an allied force against the military-Marxist government of Mengistu Hailemariam (Col.), it had been Meles at the helm of it until his passing six years ago. It had befallen on his deputy at the time, Hailemariam, to fill the vacuum before he was reelected on his own terms in 2015, during the party's 10th convention, held in the town of Meqelle.

There had emerged a broader consensus among the TPLF leaders that it would be better for someone from the other parties in the coalition to serve in the top job, for the TPLF had held onto the position for the first 21 years. Thus, Hailemariam's term in the ruling party's leadership is to end next June, when the EPRDF delegates convene the Front's 11th convention, in Addis Abeba.

Instead, the 36 powerful Executive Committee members are scheduled to meet on Monday, February 26, to discuss on the agendas to be tabled to the Council. Party sources say it will include names of candidates vying for the chairmanship. Nonetheless, the nomination for candidacy is not limited to those that the Executive Committee picks; instead, members of the Council are free to make their own nominations, according to people who know the party's history.

When Hailemariam was voted into the EPRDF top office, he did run against Sufian Ahmed, former minister of Finance, who was nominated by Azeb Mesfin, although he was not chairman of the party he was a member of OPDO.

Gebru Asrat was a founding member of the EPRDF, and one of the stalwarts of the TPLF. He had served as a politburo member of the TPLF and the first president of the Tigray Regional State, post-1991. He was one of the dozen leaders purged in 2002, for daring to challenge Meles and his allies on arrays of issues in the aftermath of the war with Eritrea. Now in the opposition Arena, he is one of the few people with profound insight on how the ruling party used to operate.

The parties have been almost unanimously electing the chairperson, Gebru recalled. Although the popular, if not the populist, echo would have it to see Abiy as a man whose path to the top job is fait accompli, it will not be without a challenge, according to party insiders and those outside.

"This time around, electing the chairman could be completely different from the past," Gebru told Fortune. "There is an evident difference between the sister parties with fierce competition among them."

For months in a row, the parties' leadership have been in marathon meetings resulting in the changing of guards, beginning with the TPLF. It has brought forth Debretsion Gebremichael (PhD) as its chairman, though the SEPDM is yet to announce its new chairperson, replacing Hailemariam. His deputy, Shiferaw Shigutie, and Siraj Fehessa, minister of Defense, are thought the most likely candidate, sources in the party anticipate.

Contrary to widespread expectations, the ANDM's Central Committee members have chosen to hold on to the status quo, keeping Demeke Mekonnen as the Movement's chairman, and Gedu Andargachew as his deputy. Its leaders might have thought to change horse in the middle of the battle for power disadvantaging their prospect to the chairmanship and eventually to the position of the Prime Minister.

The former central committee member echoes this hypothesis.

Members of Parliament may have little leverage in disapproving the nomination to the Premiership made by the Executive Committee of the EPRDF.

"This time, the contest would be between the ANDM and the OPDO," said Gebru.

Though each party nominates its candidates, the nominees will have to lobby to win votes across party loyalty.

"The personal trait of the candidate may not do much, rather the position of their respective party and its strength would," said Gebru.

But for Daniel Brehane, a blogger and founder of the website Horn Affairs, the contest will be among the three parties which will field their respective candidates, except the TPLF. Furthermore, he suggests that the candidates should be more than just three and have to be nominated by the council members, not by the parties' Executive Committee.

"This will develop the inter-party relationship during lobbying, and trust among them," Daniel told Fortune.

Whoever will secure a seat as a chairperson of the ruling party with an absolute hold on the national legislative body, is expected to return from recess and reconvene after Tuesday, his destiny as the next Prime Minister is beyond uncertainty. Swearing him in will be the first order of business, before debating to legislate a state of emergency declared by the Council of Ministers on February 16, 2018.

Members of Parliament may have little leverage in disapproving the nomination to the Premiership made by the Executive Committee of the EPRDF. The Revolutionary Democracy is more than its ideological conviction, strategies, and by-laws declared one of the blueprints Meles had authored titled, "Reform and Ethiopia's Renaissance."

"It is its culture and values," reads the document.

However, post-Hailemariam parliament will be unlikely to have business as usual attitude in complying with the culture of democratic centralism while debating bills tabled for it, according to those closely following up development within the ruling party.

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