Ethiopia after Desalegn

Ahmed Amal , Saturday 10 Mar 2018

The sudden resignation of premier Hailemariam Desalegn has left Ethiopia in the grips of an ethnic power struggle the outcome of which is difficult to predict

Hailemariam Desalegn
File Photo: Former Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn who resigned on Thursday 15 February, 2018 (AFP)

Political life in Ethiopia is exclusivist and violent by nature. A minority comes to power, monopolises control over government and wealth, and excludes all other ethnic groups.

There is a high incidence of recourse to violence because the major political parties in Ethiopia today had initially emerged as militant secessionist movements.

As a result, Ethiopian political developments generally come with large casualty tolls, as occurred in the final years of the imperial period, under the military junta, and even under PM Meles Zenawi at the time of the political crisis that followed the 2005 elections.

Recent developments in Ethiopia leading up to the resignation of PM Hailemariam Desalegn should be read against the backdrop of this Ethiopian experience which delineates the boundaries of potential political change.


Ethiopia has been governed since 1991 by the Ethiopia People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition that consists of four political parties, representative of four ethnic groupings: the Tigray, the Amhara, the Oromo and the Southern People’s Region.

The Tigray has dominated the coalition since the outset.

Upon coming to power, the Tigray succeeded in picking an “acquiescent” successor to represent the Oromo camp, the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO), which was less popular within the Oromo camp than the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), which was more hardline in its secessionist demands.

At the same time, the Tigray took care to contain the Amhara, which continued to wield considerable political power and demographic weight despite the fact that the thrust of the Ethiopian political struggle during the imperial and military eras was directed against the Amhara.

Also, as a precaution against the prospect of the Oromo and Amhara making common cause, the Tigray included a fourth ally in the coalition: a representative of the Southern Peoples’ Region.

In spite of the considerable demographic disparities between these four groups, political positions in the EPRDF government were distributed equally among the four political parties. The effect was to increase the Tigray’s political representation from six per cent (the percentage of Tigray in the Ethiopian population) to 25 per cent.

To avert any possible reduction in this quota, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) closed the doors of the coalition to other Ethiopian groupings such as ethnic Somalis and the Afar people, although this did not preclude alliances with such groups outside the coalition. The TPLF’s power in the coalition was manifested in the fact that Meles Zenawi remained prime minister for over two decades.

Following the sudden death of Zenawi in 2012, the Tigray chose to retain control indirectly by installing Hailemariam Desalegn into the premiership. Desalegn, who belongs to the Southern Peoples’ grouping, had been nominated as a successor by Zenawi, himself, before his death in order to avert internal rifts in the EPRDF.

That choice, however, would have numerous repercussions. They began in the autumn of 2015 when Oromia, the Oromo people’s home region, erupted into protest demonstrations against a government plan to expand the capital city, Addis Ababa, at the expense of land and property in this region.

At a deeper level, the demonstrations were a manifestation of anger against deteriorating economic and social conditions among the Oromo and, simultaneously, a protest against under representation of the Oromo in the federal government. As the demonstrations gained momentum, the government upped the scale of clampdowns.

Thousands of people were arrested, armed force was used to prohibit demonstrations and communications were severed. When the Amhara joined the protests, the government declared a state of emergency. It remained in force for 10 months, from October 2016 to the beginning of August 2017.


As the political and security situation deteriorated in 2017, the TPLF adopted a new strategy to resolve the crisis in the Oromia and Amhara regions.

Firstly, in July 2017, the ruling EPRDF announced that its general congress would be postponed from September 2017 to March 2018.

The congress is held every two years in order to hold elections to key government posts. In the three decades since the EPRDF came to power, the meeting had only been postponed once before. That was in the wake of Zenawi’s sudden death.

The purpose of postponing it this time was to buy time for the TPLF so that it could proceed to the second phase of its strategy.

In October 2017, it initiated a series of meetings at all levels within the party in order to introduce radical reforms and end the internal discord that had prevailed since 2012 among the members of the party’s nine-member executive committee, the highest decision-making authority in the TPLF.

By November, the party had eliminated three of the most prominent members of the executive committee: Abay Weldu who had served as TPLF chairman, Zenawi’s wife, Azeb Mesfin and Beyene Mekeru.

This settled the internal rift in favour of the camp that included the minister of communication and information in the federal government, Debretsion Gebremichael, who succeeded as party chairman; Fetlework Gebreziabher, who became vice-chairman; and Getachew Assefa, Ethiopia’s intelligence and national security chief.

The third phase had not been envisioned in the original plan. Rather it was necessitated by an unexpected shift in prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn’s behaviour.

In February 2018, he began to meddle in military affairs. Although Desalegn was officially supreme commander of the armed forces, the Tigray continue to dominate the military establishment through General Chief-of-Staffs Samora Yunis and his deputy Abraham Woldemariam Genzebu.

Desalegn suddenly dismissed the latter and appointed three new deputy chiefs-of-staff to represent the Tigray, the Amhara and the Oromo.

Desalegn also ordered the release of thousands of political detainees who had been imprisoned under his rule since 2015 when he initiated the massive and systematic repression of all opposition activity.

This second sudden change in Desalegn’s behaviour occurred only hours before his surprise “resignation” which was followed by the declaration of a six-month state of emergency.


The choice of the person to succeed Desalegn is the most crucial question in Ethiopia at present.

This is not because of the prospect that it might inaugurate a new balance between the ethnic groupings but rather because it will reveal how the Tigray intend to position themselves in order to retain control the various keys of power.

The first item on the agenda of the 180-member EPRDF Council, to which each of the four coalition partners contribute 45 members, slated to meet in the first three days of March, was to officially accept Desalegn’s resignation.

The second, to elect a new EPRDF prime minister and then the other members of the cabinet.

The TPLF has to choose between efficacy and ethnic representation in the process of finding a suitable successor to Desalegn.

From its standpoint, efficacy would best be served by choosing a new prime minister from the Tigray, someone who enjoys considerable support among this ethnic group which controls the economy and is, therefore, best poised to compensate the dissident groups (the Oromo and Amhara) by increasing their share of development returns.

Also, since the Tigray dominate the security and military sectors as well, a Tigrayan prime minister would have the ability to restore security in the two regions and to stifle opposition voices.

Giving preference to the criterion of representation would entail finding a suitable candidate among the Oromo or Amhara (most likely the former).

That candidate would have to be willing to have his hands bound by pledging, for example, not to infringe on the Tigray’s control of the economy which is the key to ensuring that group’s control over the army, the perpetual sword over the prime minister’s head. Opting for the representation criterion would inevitably detract from efficacy, as a prime minister not supported by the Tigray could not easily promote change or rally the necessary sustained support for economic or other reform policies.

A compromise solution would be to choose a new prime minister from outside the Tigray, Oromo and Amhara camps. This might obtain the minimum requirements for efficacy.

However, Desalegn’s failure to meet either of the two criteria reduces the likelihood of a repetition of this compromise solution.

On the whole, the opportunities for political change in Ethiopia appear very limited given the Tigray’s ongoing monopoly of political, military and economic power.

Regardless of the ethnic and political affiliation of the next Ethiopian prime minister, he will be obliged to secure the Tigrayan economic interests and he will simultaneously have to keep the Oromo and Amhara regions under control, whether by partially responding to their demands or by means of direct security interventions and clampdowns, or, thirdly, by “punishing” the Oromo and Amhara by leaving their regions prey to political turmoil while preventing the chaos from spreading to other regions.

*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly 

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