The Late Prime Minster Meles Zenawi was both present and absent at the two-yearly Congress of the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) held last week in Bahir Dare City, a few kilometers away from the source of Nile.
As usual the EPRDF congress was preceded by congresses of its four member parties – namely OPDO (Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization) , ANDM (Amhara National Democratic Movement), SEPDM (Southern Ethiopian Peoples Democratic Movement) and TPLF (Tigray People Liberation Front).
Days earlier the four member parties held their Congresses and elected 250 of their members as a voting members of the EPRDF congress. That is in addition to the officials each elected to EPRDF Council who are automatically voting member of the congress. Of course, about 2 dozen retiring veteran EPRDF leaders and prominent non-member officials, scholars and the like were in attendance, though the seating arrangement and the active participation by some do not squarely fit that of a mere of observer.
It was not only the remarks made and T-shirts worn by these twelve-hundred plus congregants that made Meles’s Presence strongly felt. The peak of the glorification of Meles was not the about an hour long eulogy read by PM Hailemariam, which the congress did not find sufficient. Rather, it was the leader of the Harari National League, an EPRDF associate party, who stunned many and irked conservative Muslims by declaring, during his “solidarity message” at the beginning of the congress, that “as we say to religious leaders, I say peace and honor be up on Meles Zenawi”.
However, Meles’s absence was conspicuous half way through the congress when the debate focused on the Metekakat plan– the generational leadership transition plan of the ruling party adopted in June, 2009 – intended to replace the “old generation” of leaders by new once.
The Metekakat plan was originally described as a 3 phase process, started at the. 2010 congress and to be finalized at the 2015 congress, where the last round of the old generation leaders as well as PM Meles Zenawi would resign from high-level “ executive roles” to “advisory roles.”
In deed the ruling party assured its members and observers, about two weeks after the funeral of Mels Zenawi, last September, that it will carry through the Metekakat Plan and even pledged to complete the process in this congress. But it was difficult to count on that pledge, as chats with EPRDF officials indicated the Metekakat plan is a mere sketch.
Indeed, EPRDF’s leadership had undergone through a second round of change – this March – especially when its member parties elected their representatives to the 36 seat a EPRDF executive committee.
However, not a few EPRDFites deemed the scale of the change unsatisfactory especially at the level of the 180 seat EPRDF council; the composition of member parties’ central committees (which have from 45 – 81 seats including their 45 representatives to the EPRDF council) and the composition of each parties’ executive committees (which has 9-13 seats including their 9 representatives to the EPRDF executive committee).
The dissatisfaction on the implementation of the Metekakat process -observed in group discussions and informal chats during the Congress – was not limited to the partly justifiable expectation that the “old generation” will be completely replaced this March, nor is it primarily attributable to a handful controversial cases. It is rather a confusion emanating from the absence of a solid well-defined plan.
Indeed, the debate – as well as contradictions and inconclusiveness – amongst veteran officials who “explained”, criticized and forwarded recommendations regarding the Metekakat process was a confirmation of what I cautioned – on my last February Column titled “Ethiopia’s Ruling Party: Transition plus Confusion”) saying:
“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 ….”
“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”.
Indeed, not only the general confusion but also the apparent disenchantment of some officials and the stern remarks from Seyoum Mesfin, who moved, in 2010, from TPLF and EPRDF executive committees to the second tier of leadership and from Foreign Minister to Ambassador to China, were alarming.
Not only did Seyoum reiterated the need to apply my recommendations, he was critical of the unscientific manner in which the process was handled so far, the divergence of the implementation among member parties and even went as far as criticizing some of them.
I am not acquainted to Seyoum’s speech styles nor to the debate style of EPRDF officials in their internal forums. That was suggested as the cause of my “unwarranted alarm” by ruling party veterans who downplayed my concerns in corridor chats. This is an in-house discussion where everyone speaks his mind until a decision is reached – the point from which on wards applies the principle of “democratic centralism”, I was reminded. Reassuringly, they claimed, strong expressions are meant to emphasize and the debate would have been hotter if Meles was presiding as he directs it towards weaknesses and differences.
May be true, maybe not. Though it seems likely Meles would have precluded the sense of confusion either through prior preparations or personal charm.
What is more alarming was not the absence of consensus or a dominant figure who assures an eventual convergence of mind. Rather the absence of an official with an articulated idea of the way forward. Though Minister Bereket Simon and Minister Abay Tsehaye left the impression that they have a clearer grasp – and appeared bent on leading the process, their remarks were more a defense of the path traveled and less informative on what is to come.
Indeed, keeping a political plan of the nature of the Metekakat plan amorphous may be deemed useful, both for flexibility and maneuver, by some.
However, if the last week congress is instructive, it can open the door for speculations of disagreement and undermines the cohesive image that the Metekakate Process was supposed to reinforce about the leadership of EPRDF and, by extension, the nation’s.
* A version of this this article was published on my weekly column at the Addis Fortune, on March 31, 2013.