Opinion & Analysis

ANALYSIS: Who next for Ethiopia & can the coalition be saved?

File: Former Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. Photo: Zacharias Abubeker / AFP Zacharias Abubeker

Ethiopia remains in a state of emergency after its prime minister resigned last week.

Hailemariam Desalegn became the first Prime Minister in the country’s modern history to resign from office. He has since described his unexpected resignation as a bid to smooth the passage of reforms, following years of violent unrest in Ethiopia.

The country, located in the horn of Africa, is the continent’s second most populous nation.

Ethiopia’s six-month state of emergency, declared last Friday, is to be ratified by the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) parliament in the next few weeks.

EPRDF’s central committee is also meeting to discuss who will replace Hailemariam Desalegn who suddenly resigned last Thursday.

Ethiopia has over 80 different ethnic groups, with the Oromo and Amhara the second and third largest groups, comprising over 30 percent and over 32 percent of the country’s population respectively.

However, the EPRDF governing coalition has been dominated by the minority Tigrayan ethnic group, which represents just over six percent of the country’s population.

Ethiopia’s communist dictatorship came to an end in 1991 when Meles Zenawi, backed by his ethnic guerrilla organisation the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, took over and led a coalition.

This coalition comprised parties that represented three ethnic groups, including the Amhara, Oromo and a mix of southern ethnic groups. However the minority Tigrayan ethnic group was firmly in control, Lovise Aalen, a research director at CMI, the Chr. Michelsen Institute for Science and Intellectual Freedom in Norway, explained.

“Meles and other Tigrayan leaders controlled this system carefully, ensuring that no other groups managed to challenge central power,” said Aalen in a recent Washington Post article.

“After attempts of liberalisation in the 1990s and early 2000s, controversial national elections resulted in the opposition taking one-third of the seats in the national legislative assembly. But the opposition accused the EPRDF of election fraud, and protests resulted,” said Aalen.

Meles and the EPRDF responded by becoming more authoritarian, intimidating and imprisoning the opposition, independent media and civil society leaders.

Following Meles’s death in 2012, Hailemariam took over in a relatively peaceful succession.

Hailemariam, an ethnic Wolayta, represented the conglomerate of groups from southern Ethiopia that had never been represented at the centre of Ethiopian politics before.

But the power vacuum left by Meles’s death and the increasing authoritarianism erupted into popular protests in 2015, and since then the ERPDF’s cohesion has been severely challenged, explained Aalen.

The mass protests subsided significantly, but erupted again in 2017, leading to efforts at reform by the EPDRF, including the release of over 600 opposition activists as well as some journalists.

However, despite the releases and Deselegn’s resignation, purportedly to allow broader political inclusivity and more political freedom, the declared state of emergency will implement more restrictions, including banning protests and the dissemination of publications “that could incite and sew discord”.

It will give law enforcement officers the power to detain anyone suspected of violating “the constitutional order” and the ability to search houses, cars and individuals, all without a court warrant, state broadcaster FANA reported.

This begs the question of how further restrictions on political freedoms, the lack of which has been one of the major reasons behind the unrest, will help the country out of the bloody impasse.

Who will replace Deselegne?

Aalen argued that the logical appointment would be an Oromio, given the unrest in that region, supported by the Amhara, the traditional elite of pre-EPRDF Ethiopia.

“Members of the committee are surely motivated in their discussions by knowing that if they cannot unite behind the same candidate, the coalition risks a real split along ethnic lines and a battle over which faction will control the government,” said Aalen.

To avoid a split, they may end up selecting Hailemariam’s deputy in the southern party, another compromise candidate, in a desperate attempt to keep the status quo, added the analyst.

There is still another alternative, which the Oromo regional leaders have suggested – allow in opposition parties from outside the ruling coalition, for a genuine national reconciliation. This could address protesters’ demands for more democracy and human rights.

“But given that the government introduced a new state of emergency on Friday, the ruling party appears to want to continue to hold the monopoly on power,” concluded Aalen.


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