Will the appointment of a new Ethiopian prime minister only act to save the ruling party, or usher in deeper reform?
Hailemariam Desalegn’s snap resignation as Ethiopia’s prime minister last week set off a dramatic chain of events in a country that has seen mass, anti-government protests for several years.
A state of emergency order soon followed the announcement, plunging Ethiopia even further into a state of political uncertainty.
As it prepares to replace Hailemariam as the head of the party, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has been buying time to figure out its next move,
In a country where the chairman of the ruling coalition has historically also taken on prime minister duties, questions continue to swirl around who could step in for Hailemariam.
But any successor will have a difficult task ahead, and appointing a new prime minister will likely not be enough to satisfy Ethiopians’ demands for greater political reforms.
“A change of guard is not what the people want,” said Tsedale Lemma, editor-in-chief of the Addis Standard newspaper.
Instead, Ethiopians are demanding “a fundamental change” in the way the country is governed that would allow all interests to be heard and represented, she explained.
“As a country, this is not going to make so much of a difference. EPRDF is EPRDF,” she said.
“The people of Ethiopia are not requiring a change of guard, they are requiring an overall change of the government – a dynamic change, a fundamental change, [to] the way the EPRDF is considered so far.”
The decision over who will succeed Hailemariam is “vitally important”, said Hassen Hussein, a writer and Ethiopia analyst based in the United States.
He said it “could either [present] a narrow path away from the precipice, or lead [Ethiopia] right into it”.
Hailemariam, who came to power after the death of his predecessor, Meles Zenawi in 2012, said he will stay on as a caretaker prime minister until a replacement is named.
But since “the engine of the protest movement” has been the marginalisation of the country’s largest ethno-national group, the Oromo, Hussein said that not appointing an Oromo would have a devastating effect.
“If somebody from another [ethnic] group is installed, I think people will interpret that as, ‘Well, there you go again.’ It will be deja vu,” he told Al Jazeera.
Mass anti-government protests have been ongoing in Ethiopia’s Oromia region, home to the Oromo, since 2015.
The Oromo, who make up more than 34 percent of the population, have long complained about political and economic exclusion. One of the protesters’ central demands has been for greater political representation at the national level.
The EPRDF is composed of four political parties, mainly divided along ethnic lines: the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organisation (OPDO) and the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM).
The most prominent Oromo names being discussed to become prime minister are Lemma Megersa, president of the Oromia regional government, and his vice president, Abiy Ahmed, a leading figure in the OPDO.
On Thursday, the 81-member OPDO central committee named Ahmed as the new chairman of the party, taking over from Megersa, who will now serve as deputy chairman, the Addis Standard newspaper reported.
The move has been interpreted to mean that Ahmed will be the party’s candidate for prime minister.
Terrence Lyons, an associate professor at the School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University in the US, said if someone like Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen, who is Amhara, is chosen instead, that could “add further fuel to the fire of the Oromo protests”.
A divided coalition
Lyons told Al Jazeera the appointment of the next prime minister is most important, however, for what it will say about what is happening inside the ruling party, which controls all 547 seats in Ethiopia’s parliament and has been in power since 1991.
That year, the EPRDF – originally formed as a collection of rebel groups fighting in a decades-long civil war – overthrew a government headed by Mengistu Haile Mariam.
Meles, the former EPRDF chairman and prime minister, was in charge during a transitional period in the early 1990s, before being formally elected in 1995 as prime minister.
Hailemariam was “a useful placeholder” for the EPRDF after Meles’s death, Lyons said.
He said the political system the EPRDF brought into force was “very centralised, very hierarchical [and] decisions were made at the top and communicated down to the grassroots”.
But paradoxically, the coalition also granted local decision-making power and autonomy to newly formed regional governments, which were once again largely divided along ethnic lines.
“The regional states controlled courts and universities and radio stations and bureaus of agriculture and water and so forth, and so the political life began to become decentralised,” Lyons explained.
“This kind of contradiction between centralising and decentralising [power] was always there, it was always going to be a problem, and now we’re seeing it.”
Many of the protesters have also complained in recent years about what they see as the disproportionate power wielded by the Tigrayan party within the coalition.
The TPLF has dominated the ruling coalition from the outset – Meles previously headed both the TPLF and the EPRDF – despite the fact that Tigrayan people constitute only six percent of Ethiopia’s more than 100 million citizens.
Both prime ministers since the party took power in 1991, Hailemariam and Meles, also chaired the coalition.
“Whoever is chairing the EPRDF has traditionally been the prime minister,” Lemma said.
“This makes reforming the [political system] nearly impossible because party and government are one and the same and this is really what the Ethiopian people are fed up with, this blurred line.”
The 180-member EPRDF council is expected to meet within the next week to choose a new leader, Hussein said, and that leader would then either be confirmed by parliament as Ethiopia’s next prime minister, or have to propose someone else.
The EPRDF council is also expected to meet by early March to decide whether to formally accept Hailemariam’s resignation, Getachew Reda, a member of the body’s executive committee, recently told Bloomberg.
Any candidate for prime minister must be a member of Ethiopia’s parliament.
However, Getachew told Bloomberg that a candidate not currently sitting in parliament, like Oromo leader Megersa, could possibly be brought in after winning a special by-election.
Making the new chair of the Oromo party, Ahmed, the next prime minister “would be historic”, said Mohammed Ademo, founder and editor of OPride.com, an independent news website on Ethiopia.
“They could make history here by electing an Oromo for the first time and electing someone with a Muslim background,” Ademo told Al Jazeera.
It would also showcase Ethiopia’s religious diversity, insomuch as the country has historically been known as a “Christian island in a sea of Muslims”, Ademo said.
The Oromo protests were preceded by widespread protests among Muslim Ethiopians – who make up about 30 percent of the population – in 2011 and 2012. They were angered by alleged state interference in their religious affairs. Several prominent Muslim leaders were arrested at the time.
“I’m hopeful that the ruling coalition will make the right choice. I’m hopeful that they will see to it that the people … have a voice,” Ademo said.
For her part, the Addis Standard’s Lemma questioned how any new leader would be able to implement genuine reforms when Ethiopia remains strongly dominated by the security apparatus and business interests.
“How is [somebody] going to be an independent prime minister? He is going to be Hailemariam 2.0,” Lemma said.
She added that the government should allow opposition parties to participate in a snap election to establish a transitional government ahead of a scheduled vote in 2020, or launch an inclusive, national dialogue.
Both measures would show that “the government is willing [to see] a genuine change”, she said.
Opposition parties have been kept out of the Ethiopian parliament for decades and the government has used anti-terrorism legislation to arrest and detain several prominent opposition leaders.
“It would give a [sense of] relief to the Ethiopian people, knowing that the people that they want to represent them, are representing them in the government. That kind of transitional government would save this party from collapse and hence the government at the same time,” Lemma said.
But if the government only changes the person at the top, “it will be a matter of when – and not if – the Ethiopian people revolt again”.