Hinging in the Middle

August 25, 2012

No sooner was the death of Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s former Prime Minister, officially announced than the perspectives on Ethiopia’s political future filled national and international media pages and airwaves. The divergence of views about Meles Zenawi’s legacy that have become public so far is perplexing. Thor Halvorssen and Alex Gladstein of Forbes put him as a monster exclusionist akin to Saddam Hussein who encircled himself with loyalists from his ethnic group and kicked out more journalists than any other tyrant on the planet. The Economist called him a towering figure. If such is the level of divergence of views about the same person known to the world for over twenty years as the ruler of Ethiopia, there must be something amiss.

Equally perplexing is the divergence of views about Ethiopia’s political future after his absence, which range from a bright one to a total collapse of the Ethiopian state.

Honoring Ethiopia’s rich tradition of leaving the legacy of the deceased to history, especially while his body is still waiting to be buried, we can objectively assess the political reality on the ground in Ethiopia and abroad regarding the country’s political future.

The winds of pessimism about the prospect of Ethiopia’s political future, especially from some British media, appear to point to the leadership competence of the current acting Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Hailemariam Desalegn, to lead Ethiopia during the transition period until the next legislative elections in less than three years. The winds of pessimism cite various factors that range from his age, 47, to his ethnic background in Ethiopia, which is among one of the minorities.

Mr. Meles Zenawi was reportedly about 36 when he started to rule Ethiopia. He dropped out from his second year education in college before joining a rebel group and lived in his formative years far removed from the civil society, for seventeen years. He and his clique took power in Ethiopia in 1991 by using force and external support.

Mr. Hailemariam Desalegn lived all his life among the civil society. He has a Bachelor of Science degree in Civil Engineering from a rigorous school at the Addis Ababa University, lectured at the former Arba Minch Institute of Technology (now Arba Minch University), got further education in Finland and received a Master of Science degree or its equivalent before he went back to Ethiopia and taught at Arba Minch University. He then served in various administrative capacities before he started involvement in politics and became a member of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which was created for political expediency by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) of Meles Zenawi.

As a young scholar at Arba Minch Water Technology Institute, he demonstrated his internally driven meritocratic tendencies. That is in clear contrast to Meles Zenawi’s encirclement tendencies with his loyalist.

Mr. Hailemariam Desalegn has reportedly tendered a resignation letter after the Awasa incident several years ago in which many people died. This is in clear contrast to Mr. Meles Zenawi’s firing of members of the presumably independent commission that was formed to investigate the deaths of about 200 people in the aftermath of Ethiopia's legislative elections in 2005.

Politically, Mr. Hailemariam Desalegn is facing a charged landscape that bare minimal deliveries can start a healing process though this should not be used as an excuse for political expediency. When Mr. Meles Zenawi took power, the air of liberation was much alive over Ethiopia. If Mr. Hailemariam Desalegn is sworn in as Ethiopia’s transitional Prime Minister as announced by his party, he will take over the leadership of Ethiopia at a time when the defense of Ethiopia’s stability and its renaissance are much alive. Those who once prognosticated that Ethiopia may have to perish have now started to speak publicly in defense of its sovereignty.

Historically, Mr. Hailemariam Desalegn is facing long-running national and international demands for a peaceful handover of power in Ethiopia. One has come for him, which is occurring for the first time in a long time in the history of Ethiopia’s ruling circles. He has an excellent opportunity to bring about another.

Culturally, he comes from the southern part of the country where egalitarianism has much deeper roots than the northern part of the country from which Mr. Meles Zenawi came. Mr. Hailemariam Desalegn has a real chance to lead the country to democratic values.

In terms of the grievances among the Ethiopian society that its political leadership historically concentrated among the central and northern part of the country, his leadership may be a befitting answer.

Nationally, he will be leading a virtuous society that is very patient and has a deep understanding of civility. In general, the Ethiopian society doesn’t boil over night after they encounter change of the country’s leader though neither this patience should be used as an excuse for political expediency. A meaningful nationwide rejection of Colonel Menghistu Hailemariam came after over a dozen years. Mr. Meles Zenawi’s widespread rejection came sometime around 2003 from a galvanized Oromo movement and later around 2005 from the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) political grouping. Emperor Haile Selassie I’s nationwide rejection took much longer.

In terms of the means of assuming power, Mr. Hailemariam Desalegn’s would be peaceful whereas Mr. Meles Zenawi’s was a violent one that followed seventeen years of guerrilla struggle and coincided with the end of the Cold War. Internationally, Mr. Hailemariam Desalegn has already received a call from the U.S. President, Mr. Barack Obama. We can presume that Ethiopia's new leader he has a moral support from the U.S.

Economically, the country is arguably in a better situation than it was the case when Mr. Meles Zenawi’s group took power in 1991.

Mr. Hailemariam Desalegn’s main challenges are at least two and he doesn’t have much cushion for leadership errors.

First, he has been already associated with Mr. Meles Zenawi’s baggages, which include alleged working relationships with Isaias Afewerki and Lencho Lata, a highly controversial figure who was formerly the Deputy Secretary General of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) before he was expelled from the organization.

Second, he is hinging in the middle of a receding air of various liberation movements instigated by inexperienced university students, some of which now harbor entitlement to lead the society upon which they imposed themselves by force, and a civil society that has been demanding the rule of law and fundamental human rights.

There are steps Mr. Hailemariam Desalegn can take to start to answer the civil society’s demands.

Some amendments to the constitution should be in order.

First, a more clear succession plan in the possibility of the absence of the country’s Prime Minister should be in place so that the recent experience may not repeat itself in case the absence of a Prime Minister happens again.

Second, to continue a legacy of peaceful transfer of power, some amendments to the constitution should be in order. The desire of the majority of the Ethiopian people is likely to be a two-term limit.

Third, the controversial Article 39 should be revisited in order to have a society that is fully focused on the rule of law, fundamental human rights, and economic development.

Fourth, he should lead the country to a credible fair and free legislative elections in 2015 and allow the disenfranchised alternative political parties to get organized freely and be prepared for the elections.

These are not hard challenges to overcome because of the momentum in which these challenges are headed. Opportunities have come for Mr. Hailemariam Desalegn to demystify Ethiopian politics.

The first myth to demystify is his leadership competence, which has been put on the defensive from the get go even though his credentials rise above Mr. Meles Zenawi’s threshold when he took power by force in Ethiopia in 1991.

The second myth to demystify is that there is no magic in leading a society in a meaningful way. With goodwill, humility, calmness, willingness to listen, common sense, and decisiveness when the need arises, why can’t anyone with Mr. Hailemariam’s credentials lead Ethiopia, if not the world?

And why can’t the Ethiopian civil society and international community wait for Mr. Hailemariam Desalegn’s test of transitional leadership in the next three years?

The stars are aligned for Mr. Hailemariam Desalegn. If he can manage to pass the test, he may well be remembered as one of the Ethiopian leaders for whom an excellent opportunity came and who used that opportunity to help change Ethiopia’s politics for the better. He may well be advised to leave a legacy of a civilian leader that unconditionally respected and showed the rule of law to the Ethiopian people and the world community that can be marked with a Hailemariam Desalegn’s Institute of Governance at Addis Ababa University or Arba Minch University, his alma matter and first professional home base, respectively.

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