15 April 2018

Ethiopia: Man Behind the Abiy Wave

opinion

The dust cleared and the protracted wait to learn who the new Prime Minister ended last month. Following years of political turmoil and an unprecedented resignation by former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, the EPRDFites elected their chairperson that was later installed as premier by the parliament.

A lot has been said about the expertise and experience of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) and his confirmation speech. The future of the country and the party under his leadership have likewise been intensely debated. I have met people who instantly fell in love with the premier and others who chose to be or stay sceptical. Time will tell who gets validation as Abiy looks for ways of ending the political stalemate under a tight microscope for the months and years to come.

But Abiy's position today, and the overflow of optimism by parts of the public has much to owe to a man that has remained in the Oromia Regional State - Lemma Megersa. He is the victor of the enigmatic EPRDF marathon meetings and finds himself at the frontline of today's politics.

Lema and his team had gained administrative control over the regional state of Oromia and the party structure after what was said to be a landslide electoral victory three years ago. He rose to the top spot in the region after briefly serving as a speaker for the region's state legislature. Since then, we have seen Oromia and the party leading in unprecedently exercising state powers, implementing statewide reforms, and, to some extent, operating outside the endorsement of the federal government.

OPDO has never been the same after Lema started forging coalition, confronting the status quo and consolidating his base. His regional administration has scored a number of political successes in terms of reforming the states investment and security sectors as well as building ties with other regional powers, namely ANDM.

Lema's behind the scene approach to the inter-party struggle was successful in rallying a vast number of allies from the OPDO rank and file, the in Oromia youth, diaspora community and later from a considerable amount of the population out of his constituency.

For he was enjoying great support within his party and state, it would have been a detrimental tactic for his rivals to wage any sort of full-blown political warfare against him. The contemporary utilisation of social and traditional media by his team and supporters was also remarkably instrumental in the rise and blossom of the new era of populist movement he helped create.

Lema did not stop at the regional level, instead rose to the national political discourse. He was able to uniquely capture attention during the EPRDF member parties' communique after the first round of marathon review in December. What makes him a rather exceptional regional party leader is that he was able to tune his rhetoric for the general public without having to marginalise his base. His speech at that table had a component of bridging the ethnic-based movement with multi-ethnic national dialogue, which struck a chord.

Indeed, Lema came out as a pro-unity and a pro-democracy force in that scene. Under his leadership in the most restive region of the country, the nation witnessed the resignation of Hailemariam as well as the release of politicians and journalists.

The most tactical manoeuvre by the party though came with the changing of gear at the OPDO. Abiy was elected chairman of the Organization after having served as the head of the secretariat. It served as a hint that the OPDO wanted one of its own to occupy the highest office of the land as EPRDF has a tradition of appointing one of the four chairpersons to be the head of the party and the nation.

The shuffle, which brought Abiy to the number one position in OPDO while reducing Lema's role to a deputy, may have seemed at first like a power struggle - two young leaders-turned-adversaries fighting for the top spot. But if reports that are coming out of the recent EPRDF council meeting are any indication, that cannot be further from the truth.

Lemma had played a central role in a calculated political manoeuvre to make Abiy - a leader with grand ambitions for reform - the premier of Ethiopia. Before preceding marathon meetings had started, it was clear that the president of Oromia regional state was not eyeing the premiership, as he stayed behind the newly elected party leader. By doing as such Lema has proven himself to be nonchalant to power yet acutely significant to acquiring it.

Although Lema and his team were able to bring unparalleled transformation to their state and letter to the national political arena, the journey has of course not been a walk in a park. His tenure was confronted with sporadic unrests and interstate conflicts which led to the loss of life and internal displacements of an estimated one million people.

His administration has struggled to de-escalate situations as well as sufficiently assist those affected. There is still a lot of work to be done to heal the wounds created, particularly from the friction and discord with his antagonists.

Lema may not be the Deng Xiaoping or Che Guevara of our time, but he sure is a revolutionary in his own way. A measured, calmer, nonviolent revolutionary who is equally comfortable to lead as well as stay in the backseat.

Surafel Teshome Is a Software Engineer Based in the Netherlands. He Can Be Reached At Lferasu@yahoo.com.

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