Ethiopia's ruling party| Transition plus Confusion

Since the passing of the late PM Meles Zenawi, I coined a phrase to describe the constellation power inside the ruling party: "The out-going are not really out, the in-coming are not really in". That was to describe the relative power of the "first generation" officials who resigned to a relatively less prominent party posts in 2010 and the "second generation" officials who took their places.

Though EPRDF and its member parties had changed their leadership several times, it was largely as a result of unplanned factors – health, expulsion, etc. In fact, except TPLF, all the rest three parties of EPRDF changed their chairpersons only when the incumbents were expelled.

However, in June 2009, following the insistence by the late Meles Zenawi and some of his colleagues to be relieved of duty, the EPRDF adopted a 3-phased generational transition plan (Metekakat) intended to transfer power to a new generation of leaders. Meles being among those scheduled to leave in the third phase by 2015.

The first-phase of the transition involved the resignation of at least one third of EPRDF executive commitee members. Former Dep. PM Addisu Legesse, the nation’s longest serving Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin and current House Speaker Abadula Genmeda resigned from their position as in chairmanship of EPRDF member parties. The resignations included reassignment from prominent government posts to lesser once.

Yet, the outgoing were not sidelined from the game. After all, the leadership transition was defined from the beginning as a redeployment from "executive role" into a "advisory role". Thus, the outgoings were kept around. Outgoing Chairs & Dep. Chairs EPRDF member parties kept their executive committee seats, those who were mere executive members retained their seats at the next powerful decision-making organ. Outgoing Ministers became Ambassador prolempetary or advisor to the PM.

Even more importantly, the outgoing top brass oversaw the placement of candidates and subsequent appointments in the national and regional elections as well as the congresses of EPRDF and its member parties in 2010. It goes without saying that they maintained large clout, as many of the incumbents owe their position to them.

The in-coming, who were promoted to the top leadership as the new generation, have to wait for the next round of elections to cement and expand their power. That is by promoting their favorites in this year’s local elections and the party congresses that has to be held no later than next March. Coupled with the resignation of additional senior leaders as part of the second-phase of the transition plan.

By August 2012, when Meles suddenly departed from the picture, the power constellation in the ruling appeared fluid. The out-goings were still in a position to influence the election of successors even put themselves as candidates. Though the in-coming enjoy the authority and legitimacy endowed by the mere fact of the position they hold, the perception as Meles’ chosen and their popularity as "new faces", there were at the same time perceived as inexperienced and functionally subordinate to the retiree.

Indeed, it seemed the out-goings will decide to return and the prospective retirees may decide to stay longer. And, there were appealing reasons to do so. As Meles departed sooner than expected, it could be argued, putting the transition on hold is necessary to fill the leadership gap and helps boost the confidence of the party base as well as allies. Of course, some of the seniors may be unhappy with the performance of the newly promoted ones and less so in the absence Meles as the latter’s guide.

The possibility of reversal of the leadership transition meant there are two pools of candidates – the outgoing and the incoming. To the chagrin of those of us, who spent the past few years trying to sketch the power-ranking, it had became difficult to short-list prospective candidates and power-brokers.

On the evening of Hailemariam’s election as EPRDF chairperson last September, however, it was announced that the EPRDF Council decided to ‘fully implement’ the Metekakat (leadership transition) plan in the forthcoming party Congress. Taking this decision, at the time when the party suddenly lost its chief priest, was widely perceived as a move to preclude the danger of reversal.

The decision might have shortened analysts’ list of prospective appointees, but it minimized neither the list of power-brokers nor nor the ambiguity on the transition’s direction.

The September decision simply re-confirmed what has been rumored for years. That the top brass envy the less hectic but rewarding engagements of their former colleagues, such as the former Chief of Staff and the Air Force Commander. And, that consolidating their collective legacy is deemed the most pressing agenda of all.

The problem, it appears, rather is developing the leadership transition into a full-fledged plan.

What the ruling party has been referring as a leadership replacement plan for the last few years appears to be more of a sketch.

The confusion regarding the definition of generation is a telling.

Some among the high officials of the ruling party categorize the leadership into three generations. EPRDF leaders who took part in the armed struggle to remove the military regime constitute the first generation. EPRDF leaders, who were not combatants, but the same age group as the first generation, make up the second generation. Younger EPRDF leaders are deemed as the third generation.

But this classification is troublesome for TPLF given its core constituency’s scale participation in the armed struggle. By some accounts, atleast one member of 74% of households in Tigray took part in the armed struggle.

On the other hand, many of EPRDF’s senior leaders are likely to hesitate to see many non-combatant members of their generation, a potential suspect of being influenced by their nemesis, assuming the leading role.

The alternative version of the generational definition put in one sentence in the party’s ideological periodical in 2009 reads: "all members who have been serving in top leadership positions since the years of armed struggle must retire within 5 years of the next EPRDF Congress to be held in September 2010".

But this seems too narrow to signify a generational transition. Not even wide enough to include long-time senior leaders, such as Amb. kassu Illa and Teshome Toga, who resigned as part of the first phase in 2010.

If the theoretical scope of the generational leadership plan is this vague, presumably there was no timetable of specifying which of the senior officials would resign when.

Perhaps, it need not be. The matter was deemed a political plan, the implementation of which contingent upon phase-by-phase, even case-by-case, considerations.

Whatever the merit of making the transition plan amorphous may be, it is unlikely to be in the interest of the party anymore. Especially with the
absence of Meles, whom the out-going would entrusted guiding the transition process and institutionalizing it, whom they trusted to guarding the retiree from unfavorable move by the incumbents given the long-established zero-sum political culture.

The absence of clearly articulated leadership transition plan may not preclude the resignation of senior officials from the part executive committee this March and from top government posts by 2015. However, the process of selecting successors is proving to be a time-taking engagement. The impact would be no less impairing if the out-goings could not feel assured enough to refrain from using their personal and extra-institutional power and influence in the years to come.

Thus, no matter how the forthcoming EPRDF Congress handles the matter, it is more important whether there would be a move to institutionalize the generational transition as a norm.

Modifying the party by-laws to include the so-far clearly known components of the generational leadership direction, namely the two-terms limit and the age 65 retirement ceiling, should be a starting point. Articulating a clear definition of a leadership generation, setting an agreed collective mechanism of selecting prospective successors by incumbents should be on the top of the agenda. Again, laying down a clear method of grooming successors that boosts the authority of the prospective successors themselves and precluded unnecessary contest by their peers goes a long way to ensure stability and efficiency.

Otherwise, in the absence of a strong-helmsman, a system where the outgoings retain power and the incomings hesitate to assert themselves, the leadership circle will constitute an ever growing individuals with ever fluid power-relations. Meetings and elite bargains will take the place of real execution tasks.


* A version of this article was originally published on Daniel Berhane’s weekly column "Capital Insight" on Addis-Fortune on Feb. 3, 2013, originally titled "Transition plus Confusion".

Daniel Berhane