Political decisions are likely to come thick and fast as a successor is chosen to Hailemariam Desalegn, who resigned on 15 February amid turbulent scenes across the country. The 180-member ruling council of the crisis-ridden Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), comprising 45 members from each of its four regional parties, has convened a three-day congress from 1 March to elect a new prime minister. Providing a degree of consensus can be maintained, this should be a set-piece event; the powerful EPRDF executive committee began deliberations on 26 February to hammer out a deal. Members will work to maintain Ethiopia’s veneer of unity and joined-up government, underlining the confluence of interests between national security and the highly praised economics of its ‘developmental state’ (AE 311/20). The crisis highlights the potential for disorder – traditionally anathema to the EPRDF – when those interests get out of sync. The Council of Ministers on 16 February took the precaution of approving another six-month state of emergency.
It is tempting to argue that, despite his workmanlike efforts since 2012, Hailemariam was always something of a caretaker, coming after the late giant of policy and politics Meles Zenawi. His departure pointed to the depth of unresolved problems in the multi-ethnic country since the four-party EPRDF chased out the loathsome Derg regime in 1991. Whether any leader can now mould Ethiopia as Meles did is questionable, although a new government is expected to recalibrate the communal balance, jolted by turbulence since 2016 in Oromia, home to the country’s biggest population, and ethnic violence in Amhara, Southern Nations and other regions.
A fresh administration will be expected to offer greater tolerance – marked in recent months by unexpected (but often unfulfilled) announcements of mass prisoner releases – and a less violent reflex towards opposition and criticism. The premier departed after a strike called by Oromo youth activists from 12 February to force more releases. High-profile detainees were freed as roads into Addis Ababa were blocked by protesters. Hailemariam, already under pressure from rival factions including from within his Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), was seen to have lost control.
Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organisation leader Abiy Ahmed – who on 23 February replaced his still powerful ally Lemma Megersa – or another non-Tigrayan could emerge as PM following what is likely to be a divisive debate. Tigrayan power-brokers will expect to continue their domination, suggesting elite fighting will persist, while the wider country simmers on. For all the talk of 8% growth, as forecast by the World Bank for 2018-19, lack of resources limits the authorities’ ability to buy off discontent among a population estimated at 102.4m in 2016 (from 50m when Derg departed in 1991).
While the EPRDF’s constituent parties jockey for position, contesting the TPLF’s domination of state structures, the evolution of international relations will be carefully watched. As the Grand Renaissance Dam comes closer to entering service, tensions with Egypt remain acute (AE 359/8), while Sudan is looking to leverage rewards from its rapprochement with Addis Ababa, which has so infuriated Cairo that in January Khartoum complained of a build-up of Egyptian and Eritrean troops on its border.
Western backers of the ‘Ethiopian miracle’ are edgy, but will not want to alienate a regime that has driven growth in an undoubtedly tough neighbourhood. Regional tensions and communal violence cannot be ignored, but business is likely to continue as usual for Chinese manufacturers, European agro-industries, tourism operators and private equity investors. But the EPRDF has much to do to restore confidence at home and among investors, who include geothermal, solar and other companies and financiers who have bought into the vision of Ethiopia as a regional energy hub (AE 355/1), and sensitive political decisions are still needed to bring promising deals like the Corbetti geothermal independent power project to market (AE 360/14).
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