Ethiopia’s revolution at the top

By Tom Gardner in Addis Ababa and Mekelle
Posted on Monday, 5 February 2018 18:00

The stern face of Meles Zenawi bears down from a giant billboard on a hillside overlooking Mekelle, the lofty cobble-stoned capital of Tigray Province in northern Ethiopia. Meles, a former prime minister who died in 2012, is a giant in his home region, and his portrait – emblazoned on buildings, buses and billboards – can be spied almost everywhere.

It is an apt symbol. For almost three decades, Tigray has been “dominated by the thinking of one man,” says Mahari Yohannes, a prominent local intellectual. Ever since Meles and his battle-hardened comrades in the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) swept to power in 1991, overthrowing the Marxist regime known as the Derg, his influence over the politics of the region – and the country – has been titanic.

The TPLF assumed the role of vanguard party in the Leninist-style multiethnic coalition known as the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) that took over the country. By the early 2000s, all power flowed from Meles. After a hotly contested election in 2005 – in which the opposition made significant gains – political space was closed ever more tightly, while Meles consolidated ever greater control in his own hands. After his sudden death from cancer, Meles was replaced by Hailemariam Desalegn, a southerner from one of the TPLF’s coalition partners. However, the centre of power never really shifted. The TPLF elite still occupies key positions in the military and the intelligence services, holds great sway over party doctrine and owns significant chunks of the economy.

But this is slowly changing. Ethiopian politics has been in turmoil ever since anti-government protests erupted in 2014, culminating in the imposition of a nine-month state of emergency in late 2016 after hundreds of protesters were killed by security forces and thousands more were arrested. Last year, demonstrations resumed in towns across Oromia, home to the country’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo, who have long seen themselves as marginalised by the central government. At the same time, ethnic violence – especially between Oromos and Ethiopian Somalis – escalated sharply. The military killed at least 16 Oromo people during anti-government protests on 14 December. In the days that followed, interethnic clashes broke out between Oromos and Somalis, killing at least 61 people.

Even in Tigray, where politics since 1991 has been most quiescent, anti-government noises are growing louder. Like elsewhere in the country, locals in Mekelle complain of government corruption, criticise the heavy-handedness of the security forces and the state’s intolerance of dissent, and demand greater regional autonomy. “The magic of Meles is being questioned,” an academic at Mekelle University tells The Africa Report under condition of anonymity. “With that man gone, Pandora’s box was opened.”

‘Uncharted waters’

The EPRDF now finds itself at perhaps the most critical juncture in its 30-year history. Relations between the TPLF and its sister parties – the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO) and Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement – have never been more fractious. “These are uncharted waters,” says Hallelujah Lulie, a political analyst in Addis Ababa.

At some – still unconfirmed – point this year, the four will convene in Mekelle for the EPRDF congress, more than two-and-a-half years after the last one. They are aiming to resolve their differences, and the TPLF hopes to maintain its grip on power.

Its trickiest relationship is now with the OPDO, which has long been seen as the TPLF’s puppet but which under new leadership last year reinvented itself as something almost akin to an opposition party. In late 2016, the OPDO elected its own leaders for the first time, rather than accepting those handpicked by the central government. This resulted in the elevation of a relative unknown, Lemma Megersa, to the posts of party chairman and regional president.

The vote was seen by many as a victory for the ethnonationalist wing of the party, and Lemma has proceeded to become something of a folk hero among the Oromo, championing populist policies and winning the support of prominent anti-EPRDF activists in the diaspora. After the military killed 16 Oromo protesters in December, Lemma was quick to condemn those in command: “We do not know who ordered the deployment of the military. This illegal act should be punished.”

Lemma appeared to win his first significant concession from his EPRDF coalition partners on 3 January, when Prime Minister Hailemariam delivered the surprise, though highly equivocal, announcement that political leaders in prison would soon be released and pardoned. That is at least a partial acquiescence to demands of Oromo protesters.

The OPDO has also been jockeying for a greater share of power inside the EPRDF. “The EPRDF cannot control the country without the OPDO,” says Shimelis Abdissa, regional minister of urban development and a young member of the new OPDO leadership, from his office in Addis Ababa, the federal capital. “Without the Oromo, there is no Ethiopia. We have to play a proper role.”

In November, he and other OPDO leaders – including Lemma – visited the city of Bahir Dar in the Amhara region for a historic meeting with their counterparts in the ANDM. This was an unprecedented demonstration of unity between Ethiopia’s two largest ethnic groups as well as a flexing of political muscle. For much of their history, the groups have not always seen eye to eye. Together, they make up over two-thirds of the population; theTigrayans comprise little more than 6%. “It certainly has got the TPLF worried – very,” says a government adviser in Addis Ababa. “[The meeting] was clearly aimed at the Tigrayans.”

Seats at the table

Shimelis insists that the OPDO is not seeking specific positions in the federal government or in the EPRDF executive. But Oromo activists, as well as ordinary Oromo citizens, make it clear that they expect an Oromo to succeed Hailemariam as prime minister – sooner rather than later. They also want the TPLF to cede control of the security forces, by replacing senior Tigrayan military and intelligence officers with Oromos.

Meanwhile, OPDO leaders have suggested that the make-up of the 36-member EPRDF politburo should be proportional to the size of each region’s population – rather than nine members for each party, as it is now. “It’s all about representation,” says a senior Ethiopian political analyst and consultant for a foreign embassy. “It’s all about having their guys in Arat Kilo [the seat of federal government], and they think this is their time.”

The big question is how the TPLF, as well as the other member parties, will respond to these demands. “The others are worried. We are pushing all the parties to follow us – and to define the problem as we did,” says Shimelis, who argues that the TPLF has been forced to change internally in response to pressure from the newly independent and assertive OPDO. “We forced them to look to themselves.”

Indeed, the TPLF executive committee spent two months in a marathon meeting in Mekelle late last year, engaged in what was described as a process of ‘deep renewal’, culminating in the overhaul of its own leadership in early December.

Most significant was the ejection from the politburo of Azeb Mesfin, Meles’s wife, in what was widely seen as a victory for the reformist wing of the party over the more conservative custodians of Meles’s legacy. Abay Woldu, the party chairman, was replaced by Debretsion Gebremichael, a steely and soft-spoken technocrat considered by many to be the most powerful TPLF figure in the federal government today. In a candid, remarkably self-flagellating statement released by the new politburo after the meeting, Meles’s name was mentioned only once.

Some, such as Zeray Hailemariam, an Addis Ababa-based political analyst and former journalist with good connections to the TPLF, welcome the changes. “This is transformative,” he says. “It is the most significant reform for years.” He and others hope a united TPLF leadership can recover from the bickering and factionalism that characterised the years since Meles’s death, and shore up the party’s position at the head of the coalition.

Critics, however, are less sanguine. “Things will continue as business-­as-usual,” says Gebru Asrat, a former member of the TPLF executive committee and regional president of Tigray between 1991 and 2001. “We don’t see any agenda of change.”

Getachew Reda, one of the newly elected members of the committee and a former federal minister of communication, also cautions against over-­optimistic interpretations. “Reform is too strong a word,” he tells The Africa Report over breakfast in a Mekelle hotel. “We don’t have a problem with policies. First and foremost, we aim to bring TPLF back to its progressive roots. This required a shake-up within the leadership.”

Spate of attacks

Getachew says the TPLF is relaxed about the prospect of an ascendant OPDO and would be happy to see an Oromo prime minister. Like many Tigrayans, however, he disputes the notion that the TPLF has any more power than the other coalition parties and notes that the OPDO today has the most government ministers.

Other TPLF supporters have expressed reservations about the new OPDO leadership, with some calling openly for Lemma and his colleagues to be replaced. A spate of attacks against non-Oromos, especially Tigrayans, living in Oromia and on university campuses has inflamed suspicions further. “I don’t think [TPLF] activists will be comfortable with the idea of an Oromo prime minister,” says Dawit Kebede, a journalist, adding that activists tend to say openly what TPLF leaders are thinking privately.

“If the Oromos do not change their rhetoric, how can they be leaders for all?” says Meressa Tsehaye, a professor of political science at Mekelle University, about the anti-Tigrayan sentiment.

Over the next few months, all four members of the coalition will hold conferences in their respective regional capitals before meeting in Mekelle for the big congress. Some suggest that Hailemariam, widely regarded as an ineffective prime minister, might be ousted and replaced – or, alternatively, that the coalition might break apart.

Whatever happens, this will most likely be a make-or-break year for the EPRDF. Regional governments are growing stronger and demanding full realisation of the autonomy promised by the federal constitution but largely ignored by Meles. “The constitution was on pause for 26 years,” says Fetsum Berhane, a political analyst and former government adviser. “The regional states are only now realising how powerful they are.”

This article first appeared in the February 2017 edition of The Africa Report

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