Ethiopia's transition: What lies beneath the haste and pause

On Tuesday, Aug. 21, around 5:30 am, the Cabinet issued a statement, aired by almost all electronic media throughout the country, to announce that Meles Zenawi passed away hours earlier. Interestingly, the timing was inline with time of the day preferred by the Ethiopian tradition for delivering such a news.EPRDF Excutive Committee meeting Sept. 2012

The statement had also stated that Dep. PM Hailemariam Desalelegne “will continue to carry out the responsibilities of heading the Council of Ministers.”

Few hours later, around 10 am, Minister Bereket Simon gathered local and foreign journalists at the Addis Ababa Hilton Hotel to disclose that Hailemariam, with the capacity of an Acting PM, has assumed all the responsibilities of the late PM. He also indicated that the Cabinet proclaimed a national mourning and the parliament will soon convene to formally endorse Hailemariam as the new PM.

At the same time, the state-owned ETV was airing a series of statements: First, from the Ministry of Defense; then from each regional states. The statements did not only expressed their condolences but also explicitly re-affirmed their loyalty to the federal government. Thus, impliedly endorsed the statement by the Cabinet has the backing of all centers of power of the Ethiopian state.

The haste was  evident. Well, as usual, the leadership didn’t have time to consult protocol advisors. Had they done so, they would probably have the President of the Republic deliver the news. Again, they would have clarified from the beginning that it was okay for the media to call Hailemariam ‘Acting PM’, while official statements will have to stick to the title ‘Deputy PM’. But such relatively minor flaws in protocol would have occurred anyways.

The haste was rather to emphasis the smoothness of the transition. The cohesiveness of the all centers of power. Thereby, to send a strong signal both to friends and enemies. That was why, in a manner not much necessary for a parliamentary democracy, they wanted to have a new Prime Minister sworn in a few days.

But, two days later, the leadership changed gears.

Around 3 pm, on Thursday(Aug. 23), Kasa Tekleberhane, speaker of the House of Federation and chair(?) of the the national committee for the funeral proceedings, announced the date of funeral would be 10 days later.

Two hours later, Minister Bereket held a press conference where, after thanking the nation on behalf of the government and party leadership, he indicated that the succession process was put on hold, as the country “has no urgent matter than laying to rest the late PM Meles Zenawi”. The emergency session of the parliament, set for that week, was cancelled because the MPs are also mourning, Minister Bereket said, adding that they are on stand-by thus would convene when necessary.

Though Bereket was careful not give a date for the parliamentary meeting, many of us took the liberty to assume the MPs will meet immediately after the funeral.

Unsurprisingly, rumors claiming disagreement in the party arose, as the 36-member EPRDF Executive Committee, which met last week on Tuesday (Sept. 4), said the new chairperson will be elected by the 180-member EPRDF Council which will meet next weekend.

The news was taken as an evidence of stalemate by those who thought the Committee met to elect new leaders. Even for other, more informed observers, two more weeks with out electing new leaders seemed too long even by Ethiopian concept of time.

No one can rule out that difference of opinion might exist in a party that is a coalition party representing diverse ethnic and religious cleavages. The surprise was if there was none. The question should rather be what are they and how serious could they be. As the EPRDF proved, in the past two months, how secretive it could be when it wishes to, we could only rely on our what we gather from connecting the dots rather than unverifiable rumors.

The fast-track succession process was put on hold not by, as some would claim, “an expected difference of opinion that occurred last Tuesday” in the EPRDF Executive Committee meeting.

For one, about two-third, and highly influential, members of the Executive Committee are also Cabinet members or regional presidents. That means the guys who met this Tuesday are the same guys who backed the Cabinet’s statement on Aug. 20.

Second, the party hit the break on the succession process not this week rather on Aug. 22 evening, in an unofficial meeting of the EPRDF Executive Committee (or, perhaps, based on past experience, a meeting of the de facto standing committee – that consisting chairs of each member party and a few other top officials – and decides on urgent matters by consensus). That was probably not the first nor the only meeting that committee had since Aug. 20.

What went on that and subsequent meetings is anybody’s guess.

Yet, we can conjecture a few points they could have agreed on in unison.

Having noticed the public reaction on Tuesday midnight, when the PM’s body arrived from abroad, the leadership surely reconsidered the necessity of speeding the succession process as well as the brief increase in police presence. They decided that the funeral, which was unofficially scheduled for that weekend, be held 10 days later.  They probably did deem that the strength intended to be projected by fast succession could be compensated by the national mourning. In fact, installing a new PM, the likely consequent appointments, would have diverted the media spotlight and public attention from the national mourning. Not to forget, the national mourning was a rare public mobilization opportunity as well as galvanizing the party base.

At this point, proceduralist and symbolic concerns would come to the fore.

As the urgency of fast succession is diminished, the leadership would naturally emphasize on sticking to the party’s normal way of doing things. First, you evaluate organizational performance and set directions, then you pick the
guys to lead the implementation. This, if stretched, could mean the Executive Committee and Councils of each of the four member parties as well as the EPRDF itself will have to convene.

Similarly, electing a new chairperson could be time-taken, if procedural rules are strongly adhered to. According to EPRDF’s by-laws, the Chairperson and the deputy are elected by the 180 members EPRDF Council. Customarily, the Chairpersons of the four member parties(ANDM, TPLF, OPDO, SPDM) are automatically candidates for the post. However, with the departure Meles Zenawi, TPLF needs to elect a new Chairperson. Similarly, OPDO would probably wish to elect a new Chair in lieu of its current leader, who is frequently abroad due to illness. That means the Councils of both TPLF and OPDO will have to convene. Others may have their own reasons to call similar urgent meetings. Then, would follows the Council of EPRDF, preceded by its executive – which approves the agenda for the former.

Of course, there are short-cuts. They can simply postpone the evaluation and directions setting sessions for now. Again, they can fill the vacant seats by the decision of the Executive Committees of the respective party (without convening the larger Councils), as there is one provision in the party rules that could be narrowly interpreted this way. But that would run counter to the very objective of emphasizing on procedures: Cementing the legitimacy of the new leadership in the eyes of the party’s officials and members.

Again, they could have held all the necessary meetings in consecutive nights, during the national mourning, thereby hasten the time for the parliamentary meeting. But that would relegate the party to the background, thus diminish its significance. After all, the main reason that the EPRDFites settle on elections and appointments is because the party’s role in dictating major issues. Especially, with the departure of Meles, the need to emphasis on collective leadership through the party would be crucial to avoid any confidence-deficit. In deed, EPRDF has put much emphasis on strengthening party structure in the past few years. And, it is the strength of the party, rather than the civil service, that ensures the political stability of the state.

Rethinking some of the modus operandi would likely enter the discussion.

Though initially the current situation was tended to be treated as a matter of filling one vacant position, suggestions for improvising some of the existing working methods would soon start to float.

As Premier Meles departed sooner than expected, would it necessary to bring back some of the senior leaders who were re-assigned to lesser posts as part of the first phase of the succession process in 2010? A move that could also boost the confidence of the party base as well as allies, it may be argued.

What about splitting the post of the party Chairmanship and the Premiership between different individuals, following the Chinese model? Is there a need to restructure the executive organs, with the possibility of more than one deputy Prime ministers?

What changes need to be made to ascertain the party plays strong control on the government, thereby guarantee collective leadership?

Needless to say, as it is always the case with politicians, some personal and group interests will influence, at least to some degree, the debates on these procedural, symbolic, structural and organizational considerations. 

Yet, perhaps fortunately, given the general order of things they incentives to break ranks are few and uncertain. To the contrary, any public disagreement will likely neutralize the legitimacy that the party indirectly reaped in the national mourning proceedings and as a bearer of Meles Zenawi’s vision.

Thus, no wonder, the party chose a slow-paced process by bringing everyone on board and building consensus on every single issue.


Note on EPRDF organizational structure.

* EPRDF (Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front) is made up on four regional parties. That is: SEPDM (Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement), TPLF (Tigray Peoples’ Liberation Front); ANDM (Amhara National Democratic Movement; and OPDO (Oromo Peoples Democratic Organization).

* Each party as well as EPRDF have Congress, Council and Executive Committees. Regular meetings of Congresses is held every 2 or 2&1/2 years, of Councils every 6 months, and that of Executive Committees every 3 months.

* The Congress of each member party elects members its own Council(size varies from party to party from 45 to 120) as well as its representatives(usually about 200) to the EPRDF Congress.

* The Council of each member party elects members of its own Executive Committee(size varies from party to party from 9 to 15) and Chairpersons as well as 45 representatives to the EPRDF Council.

* The Executive Committee of each member party elects  9 representatives to the EPRDF Executive Committee.

* The EPRDF Council (which has 45X4=180 members) elects the party Chairperson and the Deputy from the 45 EPRDF Executive members.


You may read the list of current EPRDF leadership (here) and a brief bio of Ethiopian Ministers (here).

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Check the Meles Zenawi archive or the EPRDF archive or the Cabinet members archive for related posts.

[please use the search bar at the top right side, until I organize some old posts and contents in line with current readers’ interest].

Daniel Berhane

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