AfricaEthiopiaIn-Depth AnalysisPM Abiy AhmedTopic of the Month

Analysis: Dr. Abiy Ahmed becomes a prime minister the legacy EPRDF fought against to the bitter end. What went behind closed doors and how could that shape his premiership?


In his acceptance speech, Ethiopia’s newly appointed Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed spoke everything Ethiopians in and outside the country were eagerly waiting to hear: A desperately needed message of unity among the politically fractured and polarized Ethiopians; a speech that began by paying tribute to Ethiopians who sacrificed their lives while defending “this proud country”; a speech that went on from apologizing to the victims of state aggression to extending olive branches for exiled Ethiopians to return home; from promising to begin the process of healing through reconciliations, even restoring peace with Eritrea, to a moving tribute to his late mother and his wife, a stunning departure from past leaders. But what really happened behind the closed door meetings of EPRDF, one of the most secretive political parties next perhaps to that of the Chinese communist party? And how would that possibly shape or impact his premiership?  

Liyat Fekade & Tsedale Lemma

Addis Abeba, April 02/2018 – “If there is anyone who should take credit for putting up with six weeks of political drama played by members of the ruling party EPRDF, it should be the Ethiopian people,” said Bantayehu Yilma, a middle-class retailer in Merkato, Africa’s largest open market found at the heart of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Abeba.

A keen political observer who says “the politics is what makes or breaks my business,” Bantayehu is not the exception. “I tell you what, I know many of my trading partners who have either suspended or significantly scaled back their business activities expecting the worst after the sudden resignation of Prime Minister Hailemarim Desalegn.”

What Bantayehu and millions others did not fathom, however, is the fact that PM Hailemariam’s resignation was not sudden. It was known to the heavy weight EPRDF party apparatchiks “for at least two months” prior to Feb 15/2018, the day PM Hailemariam announced he was resigning.

According to a party insider, “the idea was floated and approved during the 17 days closed door meeting by the executives of the four parties” who gathered to seek solutions to the rapidly deteriorating political crisis that gripped the nation. Saving the party, they agreed, was tantamount to saving the nation. A stunning admittance in itself  that shows the revolutionary democrats treat the nation’s fate as one and the same with the party.

Fissures (and serious ones)  

Three years of persistent anti-government protests in Oromia, Amhara and the southern regional states have eventually morphed to create enough weight under which the EPRDF, previously known as a tightly knit coalition of four major and five satellite parties, began to crack.

Months of verbal and administrative frictions among the leaders, rank and file members and social media warriors of the different parties have on various occasions laid bare the growing interparty fissures within a party that governed the country for a quarter century and took pride in its  motto of “unity of purpose”.  Cracks began to appear particularly between Oromia vs Ethio-Somali, and Amhara vs Tigray regional states (which are, according to Ethiopia’s federal dispensation, governed by OPDO,  ESPDP (the Ethiopian Somali People’s Democratic Party), ANDM and TPLF respectively).

Worse, the spillover effects of the growing interparty dysfunctions have led to the deaths of hundreds of civilians and the biggest internal displacement of more than a million Oromos and ethnic Somalis from villages, towns, and cities bordering the Oromia and Ethiopian Somali regional states; and the displacement of thousands of ethnic Tigrayans from some parts of the country, especially from the Oromia and Amhara regional states.

For many astute observers of Ethiopian politics, these events revealed not just the cardinal signs of interparty fissures but EPRDF’s possible decomposition.

Serious ones 

The most visible of all signs were laid bare when, pushed by the protests, the OPDO leadership, the largest of the EPRDF coalition governing the Oromia regional state, which is also the epicenter of the protests, finally realized that if it continued maintaining the status quo, it was doomed to deal with a historical mess under the shadow of which it will be forced to live . For the first time in its 26 years of history, in Oct. 2016 OPDO changed guard of leadership all by itself. This change of guard is what brought in the now familiar faces dubbed “Team Lemma”, named after the regional president, Lemma Megerssa, himself the result of the reshuffle.

To be fair, as Addis Standard reported in Oct. 2016  that the clearest signal that the OPDO was capable of resistance to the administrative fiat of the federal government came in 2009 when the regional state, unable to get the House of Representatives to promulgate legislation governing Oromia’s special interest in Addis Abeba, established a ‘Special Zone’ of towns and districts that surround Addis Abeba. This was the act that led to the creation of the “Integrated” Development Master Plan”. Along with a host of other grievances, the Addis Abeba master Plan would end up front and center during the three years relentless anti-government protests across Oromia.

The election of Lemma Megerssa and the immediate team that surround him – one of them being newly sworn in Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed – by a semi-authoritative central committee members of the party would mark the beginning a bold defiance by a regional state against the central government. The new leadership of the OPDO decided it was time to start disconnecting from the organizational cord that tied it to the legacy members of the EPRDF, particularly the TPLF, which played a central role in its birth and maintained a chock hold in its affairs. To the despair and against the approved norms of the establishment, OPDO’s leadership began to turn its face to its grieving constituency, the Oromo nation, a third of Ethiopia’s 100 million plus odd population.

“Team Lemma” began shaking the ground from under the feet of legacy EPRDF. Crackdowns against illicit business activities to rampant contraband trading (both admitted by the outgoing PM Hailemariam as some of the root causes of the violence in Oromia and Ethio-Somali regions); from improving police-citizen relations to testing the waters on regional autonomy (Lemma Megerssa once told disgruntled businesses in the region that he will no longer accept letters pertaining to his region’s affairs CCd to him – an apparent reference that decisions were often taken at the federal level and sent for executions by regional authorities); from returning hundreds of hectares of land sitting idle or were appropriated by federal authorities to farmers in the region to enabling the regional broadcaster, OBN, to become semi-independent media organization; from launching an economic revolution to engineering people to people and party to party relations with other parties in the coalition, the one with the ANDM and the Amhara people being the most publicized one. The list goes on.

Now, the fissures have become serious and visible for all to see. Ordinary Ethiopians simply classified them as a fight between EPRDF’s old guard and a reformist camp within the OPDO. But for legacy EPRDF, particularly members of the all too powerful TPLF, it was a fight between the rightful owners of power (an eternal entitlement liberation movements often claim) and anarchists and populists who copy their acts from popular color revolutions and are too ambitious to capture the state.

Enter the drama of the pre-race for premiership 

While “Team Lemma” continued scrambling to restore the party’s thinning legitimacy in the region, which continued to be rocked by successive anti-government protests, boycotts and strikes, and hosts at the same time more than a million internally displaced Ethiopians, a rush of events preceded and followed the resignation of former PM Hailemariam: the release of hundreds of political prisoners and the reinstatement of a fresh state of emergency. The later would go on to prove consequential in many ways than few.

EPRDF wanted to portray the resignation of PM Hailemariam as its commitment to address Ethiopia’s deepening political crisis.  In the same token, it can ill afford to stay leaderless. But the internal struggle for power means two months after the party’s powerful bloc of the executive, a group of 36 movers and shakers (nine from each of the four major parties), sealed his fate, there was no publicly available sign of a clear answer as to who, among its party leaders, would replace the outgoing Prime Minister.

“During the 17 days meeting by the executive in late December 2017, it was agreed that the replacement would come from the OPDO once each party completed it own “deep renewal” sessions,” said a party insider quoted above, who is a member of the 180 council but wants to remain anonymous. “But it was also known that then OPDO chairman Lemma Megerssa would be out of the game as he was not a member of parliament”, a constitutional requirement for the position of the prime minister. “By an OPDO, the establishment had in mind someone who is not a member of Team Lemma,” said our source, who is from the SEPDM, the party of the outgoing PM.

At the end of the 17 days nail biting closed door meeting, the party released a lengthy, part press release part resolution, statement promising to fix everything under the sky. The two parties that did not conduct their own internal evaluations were ANDM and SEPDM. The central committees of both parties have therefore went on to have their respective meetings. The ANDM, whose chairman is Demeke Mekonne, had planned to conduct a major shake up in the leadership, including a possible replacement of its chairman, while SEPDM’s priority was to elect a new chairman to replace the outgoing Hailemariam Desalegn, who resigned as his party’s chairman, the chairman of EPRDF along with his premiership.

Before the central committee meetings of both ANDM and SEPDM came to an end, however, the 81 members of the OPDO Central Committee dropped a bombshell when they announced that Dr. Abiy Ahmed, a member of the national parliament, replaced Lemma Megerssa as chairman of the OPDO.  Leaders of the OPDO said the decision was to strengthen the party’s leadership to meet the demands of its constituency, and never publicly admitted the real reason behind, which is to forward an electable chairman to the 181 council members of the EPRDF, the ultimate authority which elects the party’s chairman and hence by default the next Prime Minister.  “This was a huge risk,” said a member of the OPDO central committee, “but we were ready to gamble.”

This was not the news the legacy EPRDF, led mostly by TPLF stalwarts such as Getachew Reda, ANDM veterans such as Bereket Simon and Getachew Ambaye, as well as SEPDM’s Siraj Fegessa, wanted to hear.  OPDO’s decision would also prove consequential in the outcome of the ongoing ANDM central committee meeting, which decided to keep its leadership intact, abandoning its promise of change of guards at the highest level.

“It is going to be Demeke Mekonnen,” our source from the SEPDM said shortly after OPDO’s announcement, adding the legacy EPRDF “will not consider to take Dr. Abiy as its leader. They think he is inexperienced, overly ambitious, but most importantly, they consider appointing him as rewarding anarchy, or rewarding a rebellious leadership. They fear this would set a dangerous precedent.”

Meanwhile, the SEPDM finished its central committee meeting by electing Shiferaw Shigute, who was the deputy chairman of SEPDM under Hailemariam Desalegn, and is the secretariat of the EPRDF, as the new chairman of the SEPDM, hence paving ways for him to enter the race for the premiership.

Race for premiership

On March 07, SEPDM’s newly elected chairman and EPRDF’s secretariat, Shiferaw Shigute, said the powerful bloc of the 36 executive committee members would meet as of March 11. Since the resignation of PM Hailemariam, the executive committee meeting, a pre-meeting before the council’s meeting, (and a meeting where most decisions presented to the council would be made), has been postponed for three times.

The EPRDF wanted to make the election of the prime minister as nothing but a footnote of the real agenda during the executive’s meeting. In its lexicon, the executive meetings’ primary agenda was to “evaluate each party’s performance reports as per the “deep renewal” sessions they have been conducting”, and evaluate the six months overall performance report of the EPRDF.

But in reality, almost the entire day of the executive’s first day meeting on Sunday March 11 was spent debating on whether or not the outgoing PM and EPRDF chairman, Hailemariam Desalegn, should chair the meeting. The debate began after executive members mostly from the TPLF proposed that the meeting should be chaired by deputy PM and ANDM’s reelected chairman Demeke Mekonnen.

“By doing so TPLF members wanted to assert three fundamental points,” said one member of the OPDO who spoke to Addis Standard. “Number one, by making him the uncontested chair of the meeting they wanted to make sure that Demeke was the natural successor of  Hailemariam. Number two, they wanted to leverage Demeke for having plenty of time to have the OPDO evaluated for more than a dozen issues of protest they have against the new OPDO leadership. Number three, they wanted to leverage Demeke’s position as chair of the meeting to set the agenda for discussions, the timing, and the people who will be allowed to speak in the meeting, which are dictated by the chair of the meeting.”

After a day was wasted by debating the issue, the members of the executive were eventually persuaded by the argument raised by the outgoing PM Hailemariam, who said he was still the chairperson of the party and therefore should chair the meeting.  The executive has agreed to torpedo TPLF’s argument and decided that Hailemariam should chair the meeting. “This was a bitter defeat the members of the TPLF, who are not used to being rejected in the past,” said a member the ANDM executive.

Unlike the traditional two or maximum three days the executive committee meeting should take, this one would last for one solid week. Except for two short statements released through regime affiliated media, in which EPRDF wanted to save face by asserting the meeting was happening with a sense of “unity” and “consensus”, none of the agenda that took a week to hammer out was made public. But behind closed doors, the days were spent bickering, throwing accusations and counter accusations, most of which directed at the OPDO leadership.

“There was no issue under the sky that the OPDO was not criticized for”, said the OPDO member. “The most damning criticisms were the ones accusing us of being overambitious to grab power and accusations that we looked the other way when the region was rocked by endless protests.  The issue of Qeerroo (the youth movement in the region), and accusations of instigating color revolution and wanting to capture the state were no less critical that led some members of the OPDO walk out of the meeting in protest.”

Although the OPDO, which was the second to be evaluated and was the one that took the harshest criticism of all, ANDM was the first to be evaluated on Monday March 12 and it too created unprecedented tensions between ANDM and TPLF due mainly to the issue of Wolkayit, which resulted in a “heated argument” as members of the ANDM began defending the position of their constituency regarding Wolkayit.

Less contested were the evaluations of SEPDM and TPLF which came third and fourth. Unlike previous meetings, the executive meeting ended after a week on March 19, without knowing who exactly would replace the outgoing PM. The party’s secretariat said the meeting has ended  “with common understanding and consensus towards sustaining the ongoing revolutionary democracy path.” On the same day the secretariat announced the council’s meeting was scheduled to begin on March 20.

Another week of suspense at the council and the shifting alliances 

Like the executive meeting, the council’s meeting too took a week to come to an end with an election of Dr. Abiy Ahmed by a landslide majority vote of 108 out of the 169 council members who voted.

But until the last day on the 28 of March no party out of the three in the race, OPDO, ANDM and SEPDM, could say it was the favorite to win. Although the council’s meeting did spend days discussing the party’s six months performance and possible suggestions on the way forward, “there was not a single day in which members were, at least unofficially during the coffee breaks, oblivious of what was at stake,” a member of the ANDM who was inside the meeting told Addis Standard. The same procedures of criticisms and counter criticisms were conducted during the council before the last day of the week during which the voting for EPRDF’s chairman was scheduled.

According three sources from whom Addis Standard corroborated the information, in the end, it would come to a decision by Demeke Mekonnen to withdraw from the race on Wednesday morning March 28. Demeke’s decision was a “tactical decision to push back at TPLF’s pressure to have the candidate of their liking elected,” according to two of our sources from the OPDO and ANDM.

In what appears to be an attempt to dispel reports from pro TPLF bloggers and EPRDF’s secretariat itself, over the weekend, Demeke Mekonnen told the Amhara Mass media agency that his decision to withdraw from the race was a deliberate decision aimed at facilitating ways for new leadership to emerge. He made a conscious decision in consultation with his party members, he said.

Demeke’s withdrawal means only two candidates, OPDO’s Dr. Abiy and SEPDM’s Shiferaw Shigute remained in the race. EPRDF’s internal regulations insist three candidates should participate in the race. Demeke’s withdrawal was therefore followed by another decisive decision by the ANDM when its executive committee member, Kebede Chane, nominated Dr. Debretsion G/Michael, chairman of TPLF and deputy administrator of the Tigray regional state, to participate in the race. Knowing his slim chances, Dr. Debretsion resisted the nomination for three times but lost all the three times to the council’s decision.  “Our decision to nominate him was done deliberately because we knew that Dr. Debretsion was the least favorable candidate even among his own members of the TPLF,” said our source at ANDM, “we nominated him knowing he stands a slim chance to get votes from ANDM and SEPDM; we didn’t want to divide the votes in to three small places which would make it hard for a clear winner to emerge.”

The third decisive factor for Dr. Abiy to win the votes was the split within SEPDM following the resignation of the outgoing PM Hailemariam Desalegn. According to our source at the SEPDM, Shiferaw Shigute was supposed to “remove himself from his position as deputy along with Hailemariam” but instead he pursued Hailemariam’s place during the party’s central committee meeting and used his connections to win the chairmanship. “This was unprincipled and many of us said we will not give our votes to him.” SEPDM is also divided along a third group, under Defense Minister Siraj Fegessa. Together with Getachew Reda of the TPLF, and Getachew Ambaye and Bereket Simon of the ANDM, Siraj has fiercely resisted Dr. Abiy’s candidacy to the last day.

The OPDO now thinks its candidate Dr. Abiy has secured a significant percentage of the vote from ANDM and SEPDM members. It got zero vote from TPLF members who voted for Shiferaw instead. Shiferaw came second by getting 59 out of the 169 votes. He secured some votes from his own party and many from TPLF members. Debretsion ended up getting just two.

How would that shape Dr. Abiy’s premiership?  

Our source within SEPDM is adamant that this would have zero effect on the interparty relations. “We have elected a reform minded personality. Yes he was resisted bitterly; even back stabbed by some members. But this is a normal way of our internal procedure. Once we have decided and settled on a chairman, party disciple forces as to be loyal to our chairman,” he said.

But by all stretch, the EPRDF Ethiopians knew barely a year ago is no more.

The interparty fissures have already proven to be too costly. By default, the coalition of parties within EPRDF are not symmetrically related. Regardless of the formal pronouncement they make, everything EPRDF does suggests that there is a defacto hierarchy among these four members of the coalition. Thus, TPLF is the pre-eminently influential – for some, the only influential – political party. The election of Dr. Abiy may have just wrestled that out effectively. But the way forward may as well further bruise the party in its collective form. The disciplinary practice of closed meetings, evaluations, the communist style purging, and a myriad other modes of surveillance also subvert EPRDF’s publicly avowed claim to being a democratic organization. Add to that, the party, as a semi-collective decision, elected a candidate who is rebuffed by the dominant TPLF to the bitter end and who, in his inaugural speech openly espoused for western liberal ideals, a diametrical antithesis of “revolutionary democracy.”

Prime Minister Abiy is also stepping into astronomical expectations. “The long-awaited demand by the mass – including change of EPRDF’s leadership – that has resulted in causalities, mass arrests, and displacement on the peaceful protestors; unifying the coalition members of the ruling party and more importantly, all Ethiopians are the first challenge he will be facing,” said Masresha Taye, an independent political observer here in Addis Abeba. “Though some of the reforms demanded could take time, immediate actions, including but not limited to the lifting the state of emergency, calling for national reconciliation among all stakeholders in the Ethiopian politics and releasing the remaining political prisoners are the first and foremost steps for Dr. Abiy.”

But he also faces another potential assignment, according to Masresha. “He has to demonstrate he is a Prime Minister for all and that Oromo leaders/politicians –  contrary to what some would say, are not a source of threat for Ethiopia, rather a source of unity through inclusive leadership.”

Hallelujah Lulie, analyst on political and security affairs, on his part says “reforming the culture and composition of the security institutions should be at the heart of the political agenda of Prime Minister Abiy.  He needs to ensure the democratic accountability of the security forces. The military and intelligence should respect the constitutional principle of civilian oversight on their administration and operation. His leadership should also prioritize creating security institutions that reflect the diversity and plurality of the Ethiopian state both at the rank and file and leadership level.”

But fears linger. TPLF’s resistance against Prime Minister Abiy could come as a crippling factor given the unbridled control it maintains over the army, the security and intelligence apparatus of the country. Pushing for a reform in those areas may prove decisive in determining his tenure as a prime minister.

Despite his motivating speech, however, Ethiopians are also paying attention to the one missing element: Dr. Abiy skipped to mention that he was becoming a Prime Minister in country currently under a state of emergency, the reinstatement of which has received a widespread public rejection except in TPLF’s constituency. AS 

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