Ethiopia on tenterhooks as strongman Zenawi reportedly ill

By Juma Kwayera,

Ethiopians are holding their breath following reports that Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is hospitalised in Belgium, with information about his health status hushed lest it heightens political tension in a country that is perpetually fragile.

Just as other countries in the Horn of Africa region, Ethiopian politics is riddled with deep-seated ethnic hostilities, with the larger tribes, the Amhara and Oromo, controlling economic instruments, while political power vests in minority tribes. Zenawi comes from the minority Tigre in the south and his deputy and Minister of Foreign Affairs Haile Mariam Desalegne comes from the north.

The fractious nature of Ethiopian politics is a source of concern in the West, especially US, which views Addis Ababa as an important ally in the war against terrorism in the Horn of Africa, concerns about the political tyranny not withstanding. Aware of the prime minister’s failing health, international organisations that have long attempted to reconcile hostile Ethiopian communities tried in February to work out a power sharing deal, but it did not materialise owing to a power struggle in the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Front (EPDRF).

The talks, known as Ginbot-7 were intended to bring the separatist Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and Unity for Democracy and JusticeParty (UDJ) led by prodemocracy campaigner and former political detainee Birtukan Midekssa, now exiled in the US.

Political conflict

According to the Ethiopian constitution, the Prime Minister enjoys absolute power, while the deputy, an appointee of the PM, exercises delegated power only. The position of the president, currently held by Girma Wolde-Giorgis (an Amharic), is largely ceremonial as it lacks executive powers.

According the Ethiopian power structure, Zenawi heads the government, chairs the Cabinet, security and the military. Accordingly, his absence creates a power void, which not even the deputy prime minister can fill in the prevailing circumstances without eliciting the revulsion of the politburo.

Political observers say Ethiopia is at a crossroads, with Dr Mohammed Ali, an expert on Horn of Africa politics and conflicts, saying it is not explicitly clear on the transfer of power in the event the office the prime minister falls vacant.

“The constitution does state whether the deputy prime minister can succeed the president. In the Ethiopian government structure the deputy prime minister does not have a job description. Ordinarily, he is supposed to exercise executive power, but Zenawi made sure that all power is concentrated in his hands for fear of ouster,” says Dr Ali.

He foresees a constitutional crisis in the coming days, an eventuality with the potential of touching off a fresh round political conflict. The prime minister is elected by parliament, after which he is charged with the task of picking other senior government officials. The cronyism and nepotism that permeates all strata of government is expected to explode if the Prime Minister’s long absence begins to take a toll on the management of public affairs, which he controls whimsically.

EPRDP is an amalgamation of ethnic-based political organisations that converged following the ouster of former dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, now exiled in Zimbabwe since 1991 when he was forced out o power. EPRDP is made up of Tigre People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO), Amharic National Democratic Movement (ANDM) and Southern National and Nationalists Party (SNNP).

TPLF and ANDM, by virtue of their ethnic composition — the former is predominantly Tigre of the south, while ANDM is Amharic, the largest tribe in Ethiopia — are the major partners in EPDRF, while SNNP is a late comer in the power

However, the possibility of a smooth transfer of power is being undermined by reports of a power struggle in TPLF between Berhane Gabrecriticos, Dr Towdros Andenhom and Neway Gebraab. The infighting has also sucked First Lady Azeb Mesfin, who won a constituency in the south in the 2011 elections. Mesfin, known as the power behind the throne has a reputation of influencing her husband’s policy decisions, which has positioned her strategically to assume the reins of power from the ailing PM.

Important strides

She is a member of TPLF central committee, where her forceful nature gives the impression of highly energetic. In an assessment of shifting power balance, Dr Opiyo Ododa, an expert on regional security and politics says: “Zenawi’s leadership is oppressive and intimidating. He leads a fragile country, one likely to crumble and face internal fighting.”

Dr Ododa observes that the current set up has the ingredients for internal problems expected to preoccupy the next leadership in Ethiopia and reduce its role in sub-regional politics.

“Stability within a country determines how a country’s external policy is projected. Zenawi for a long time preoccupied his military with fighting externally — Eritrea and Somalia. Now Ethiopia’s military excursions cannot continue because Ethiopia will be having leadership and succession problems internally to deal with.”

A US congressman interviewed by The Standard on Sunday on the unfolding situation has different views. The congressman, one of few in the US Congress who specialises in Ethiopian affairs appreciates the complex nature of the country’s politics and vicious ethnic rivalries and argues circumstances created Zenawi.

“In politics, while more progress is needed, it is important to point out that Ethiopia held multiple elections local, regional and national over the past two decades. Indeed, the outcome of the last election does not suggest that the country has become more democratic. In fact, I said in my testimony before Congress that the country might be moving toward a one party state,” he told The Standard on Sunday.

He however, lauds Zenawi for holding together, albeit with an iron-fist, a country prone to disintegration. He says: “Regardless of what his critics say, one cannot deny the fact that he has made important contributions. Under the leadership of the PM, Ethiopia has made important progress in the education and health-care sectors among others.” The US prefers EPRDF reaches out to the opposition, especially in the Ogaden region, which has waged secession war.

“The ruling EPRDF must also be tolerant of dissent and allow human rights and civil society groups to function unhindered. They should also be more tolerant of the free press. The most important issue here is to ask if Ethiopia is ready and able to move to the next phase. Will chaos take over in the absence of the PM? Is there going to be a constitutional and smooth transition for the next leader?  The answer is yes,” avers the Congressman.

The possibility of smooth power transfer is there, he says, pointing to the power structure Zenawi has been putting in lace albeit piecemeal. The leadership changes made over the past several years were made with this transition in mind. If anything were to happen tomorrow, the deputy prime minister will take over, as acting and the party will then choose its candidate for approval by parliament.

The ruling party controls 99 per cent of the seats. The danger is if elements within the ruling party select a candidate seen by others as radical, partisan… and also a candidate other than the deputy prime minister,” he argues.


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