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In many ways, a year after the departure of its maker today’s Ethiopia has certainly become harder to describe. But that is not necessarily bad in itself.

Tsedale Lemma

“The departure of a despot does not necessarily mark the birth of a democratic nation,” says a professor of political science at the Addis Ababa University. A year and a half ago, he was one of the interviewees approached by this magazine about a story on Ethiopia’s controversial anti-terrorism law.  Like then he refused to be mentioned by name; for fear of reprisal (anticipated or eminent) he chose to remain anonymous.“Nothing has changed since then, so please don’t use my name as if I am free to speak,” he says.  His fear to speak up his mind sums up the state of many Ethiopians a year after the departure of the late Meles Zenawi, who died of infections from unspecified illness in August 2012.

Another interviewee, a young rights activist critical of the government, and therefore whose identity this magazine decided to keep anonymous, on her part says, “For me the mere absence of Meles Zenawi itself makes me feel like… for once in my life, which came of age during his reign, I am sleeping without this thought of big brother watching over me.” Her reaction, too, sums up the state of many Ethiopians in the post Meles.

In many ways, today’s Ethiopia has certainly become harder to define. For many Ethiopians, Meles’s death marked a significant exit from the past 20 years; after all, they say, it was a sudden departure of a man who unavoidably reigned over nearly everything this country is; a man of an exceptional quality of leadership combined with a harsh and unbearable authoritarian personality hard to carbon copy even for his own disciples; and his own and only kind of breed. So who would ever lead the country he fashioned for the last 20 years the same way he did? But for some Meles’s death was nothing of a game changer; business as usual; the sort that will only bring in an old trick to a new dog – a departure of one man but a continuation of his deeply rooted political school of thought. And then there were others who were worried of a possible collapse of the ruling party after the man who created it and held it together left it suddenly. For them Meles Zenawi has left a wobbly government; a league which will have given in to infighting and political bickering in no time after the death of its priest.

In to stay

To some extent these explanations have a certain grain of truth in them. But for all the naysayers, the idealists and the vigilantes alike, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a league of four regional and ethnic based parties that make up the ruling government, has remarkably consolidated its grip and stayed intact over the last one year; it is set to stay post 2015 too, the marked calendar for the next general elections. Two reasons explain this claim:

Photo-AFP-Gety ImageFirst, after the 2005 election setback in which the ruling EPRDF suffered an unexpected defeat, and its subsequent crackdown against the opposition, the media, civil society and rights organizations, the party has built a massive network of die hard party loyalists in whom it relies today as the “main vanguards” of the system. Insiders claim that this network has as many as 20, 000 loyalists drawn from the civil servants, to farmers and private business people, to university students throughout the country. In the wake of a widespread speculation that senior party officials were likely to give in to infighting and political bickering soon after the death of Meles, which came dangerously close to happening, the leaderships of these army of party loyalists have sent a stern and “a clear message to the EPRDF senior leadership that they were on standby position to safeguard the values and the principles of the party and the legacies of the late Meles more so than individuals within the party who were vying for the top job,” a senior party official revealed to this magazine.

Second, although Meles’s departure brought an abrupt end to the real and anticipated supremacy of his party, the Tigray Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF), and the powerhouse among the four parties, senior party officials, including the army (a decisive one), were quick enough to pledge their  unwavering allegiance to the legacies of the late Meles. Nowhere was this apparent than the unequivocal support thrown at his handpicked successor, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, then deputy PM and Minister of Foreign Affairs, and who is from the Southern Ethiopian Peoples’ Democratic Movement (SEPDM), the youngest of all parties representing the minority in the ruling government. This intern gave ways for a never-before-seen consensus by all parties to elect him in September 2012 as Chairman of the EPRDF with an overwhelming majority, which sealed his appointment as the current Prime Minister, and most likely beyond 2015.

Both events have shattered any hope of a successful power rivalry among senior party officials, and instead have brought the four parties closer than ever under the towering umbrella of the “legacy” of a diseased man.

In addition to these course of events, party members’ eternal faithfulness (almost) to the late Meles and his principles mean, (his posters still embellish parts of Addis Ababa and major cities outside), senior party officials, including PM Hailemariam himself, saw the need not to upset the status quo of a deeply entrenched and institutionalized political network and have continued pledging that there will not be any policy change in the country other than the ones outlined by their “great leader.” As such, and to the dismay of many, there isn’t any.

“For these people, changing anything is perceived like a betrayal of the century,” said the professor from the Addis Ababa University. For supporters of PM Hailemariam, any move by him to challenge this status quo is a bad sign that may endanger the rare consensus he started enjoying from the league of the four parties and herald in his demise, so better for him to “cruise within the established boundaries of the late Meles’s legacy, at least for the time being,” says a senior AU diplomat who lived in Ethiopia for the last six years.

A saving grace or a man of himself?

A series of curious events in the following few months after PM Hailemariam’s ascend to power revealed having him for the top job was just a saving grace: a redeeming act by the party in the wake of its widely anticipated collapse, its shortcomings to fill in the giant boot suddenly left by the late Meles and the party’s great owe to his legacies. For optimists including this magazine, these were disappointing few months indeed, not least because the party remained bent on declaring time and again that there will be no major policy changes but to continue on the path already paved by the late Meles.

However, against earlier assertions by the party that it was not the case to be, the appointment of PM Hailemariam was quickly followed by unusual appointments of three deputy prime ministers assigned for different clusters. For all its intent, the party’s decision to add on the three deputies from the other three parties, (the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO), the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), and the Tigray Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF)), to the PM’s office has three possible explanations that are mutually supportive rather than exclusive.

The first is a policy of bringing in collective leadership. An attempt by the old guard to wear down PM Hailemariam’s decision making power and bring in a collective leadership whereby decisions on serious policy matters emanate from invisible and yet powerful collective backbenchers.The second is a policy of conciliation: an attempt to give adequate representation to all parties in the league and answer old grudges and avoid the birth of a one man show all afresh. But party insiders assert it was neither the first nor the second, but rather a third explanation: a meticulous move by PM Haimeariam himself not to repeat the greatest mistakes committed by the late Meles, which was to assume everything by himself, hence an argument that PM Haimeariam is not just a saving grace, but a man of himself who is waiting for the right moment to make his measured moves.

According to the last explanation by delegating three more deputies for different clusters, PM Hailemeariam wanted to focus on three important matters.The first one is reviving Ethiopia’s diplomatic relations with the western world, which was visibly dwindling in the last years of the late Meles owing to his increasing resistance to western countries’ request to improve on his tainted records of human rights handling and intolerance to dissent. PM Hailemariam also wanted this opportunity to assert himself as worthy of the position he inherited and worthy of continuing the decisive regional and continental roles played by the late Meles. In the last one year alone, he did more trips (not including the trips he made in his capacity as the Chairperson of the AU) to foreign countries than the late Meles did in the last three years of his time in office.

The second is his plan to focus on macroeconomic policies to help his administration finalize the mega projects kicked off by the late Meles (among others the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), ten huge sugar factories and a transboudary railway and road projects, all included in the ambitious Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP), a five year plan that will come to an end in time for the next general election in 2015). In his major cabinet reshuffle in July, which is praised for its delicate ethnic balance as for its careful selections of experienced personalities to the relevant positions, PM Hailemariam assigned Mekonnen Manyazewal, a veteran former minister of industry, to a newly created National Planning Commission (NPC) at ministerial level, which is tasked to design and revise major national policies on different areas, chief among them economic policies and is responsible directly to the PM’s office.

And third, as Commander-in-Chief of the army, but as someone who comes outside of the traditional army background which is dominated by members of the TPLF, PM Hailemariam wanted to pay a particular attention to consolidate his relations with the army and to make sure the army’s loyalty to the constitution is guaranteed; by default to his time in office.

Is change in the air?

But whether party officials like to admit it or not, and whether it is by design or accidental, many things have come to an interesting and positive trajectory since the appointment of Hailemariam as Prime Minister. In April 2013 when the party held its 9th congress in Bahir Dar city, 578 km north of Addis Ababa, senior party officials looked they have just discovered their own voices and spoke in a rare honesty that corruption and rent-seeking, and not Meles’s absence, were the party’s worst enemies; parliamentary debates are more civilized and inclusive now than they were before; for the first time since the 2005 fateful election, a mass protest in Addis Ababa and two regional cities organized by an opposition party calling for a repeal of the controversial anti-terrorism and societies and charities laws, religious freedom and freedom of expression among others were held with no bloodbath; and, according to some information, Prime Minister Hailemariam singlehandedly ordered the arrest of and subsequent charging on corruption of senior party officials who looked larger than life and governed their respective offices as such.

But the biggest changes many have expected to see remain far away: policy makers are yet to sort out the country’s lead economic policy of a developmental statism from its unholy union with the politics; the politics remained allergic for alternative voices; Ethiopia’s role in the regional and continental arenas are yet to clear out; and most importantly, the country’s controversial ant-terrorism and societies and charities laws remain in place as freedom of expression continue  reeling from traumatizing encounters with the system, (our interviewee from the AAU insisted on not being named at all); and the May 2013 local and city administration election exposed how indifferent urbanite Ethiopians have become to the politics of the ruling party, which continue to show no interest in establishing a multiparty democratic system anytime soon. “But these are changes that need time to come by. Changes that should come as a gradual perfection; a perfection you should not let to become the enemy of the good and the promising changes you have witnessed so far,” says the AU diplomat, advising Ethiopians to “hang on” to their country for “Ethiopia’s  better days are yet to dawn.”

Photo: AFP-Gety Image

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