Hailemariam Desalegn: A ‘Seat Warmer’ or an Unwitting Potentially Powerful Puppet?

News Politics
A threat to TPLF's power in Ethiopia would come from the Amhara ANDM and Oromo OPDO
A threat to TPLF’s unbridled power in Ethiopia would come not from the ‘opposition’ or outside forces but from the Amhara ANDM and Oromo OPDO coalition that it created itself. To counterbalance the populations supposedly represented by these two, TPLF created a third ally from a brand new Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples’ (SNNP). PM Hailemariam is from SNNP and is, therefore, crucial for the survival of TPLF. But, TPLF doesn’t seem to want Hailemariam to know how important he is and would seem to be doing everything it could to embarrass him or make him look inadequate and weak in front of the people of Ethiopia and the world – supposedly to keep him insecure and unsure of himself. 

By E Abraham,

The 5th round of the Ethiopian ‘elections’ has been and gone. Most predictions have been shown to be on the ball. The ruling EPRDF coalition has ‘won’ in a landslide; and in the process slightly increased its majority in the parliament from the 99.8% it had ‘won’ in 2010 to 100% this year. There were no surprises, and it appears to be business as usual for the incumbent ‘led’ by the Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn (PM HD). 

Most of the debates instead have been revolving around the fate of PM HD after the elections. Many believe that the PM is just a ‘seat warmer’ or ‘place holder’ who was accidentally brought to power after the sudden death of the former PM Meles Zenawi. They also believe that he is continuing to hold the position because the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF), which is the actual power behind the Ethiopian People Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition, has been unable (due partly to fear of donor rather than public backlash) to come up with a suitable candidate of its own for the prime ministership. The expectation is therefore, based on this argument, for the PM HD to make way for the eventual TPLF candidate when the time is right.

On the other hand, there is an entirely different view where it is understood that the ‘installing’ of Hailemariam by the late Meles Zenawi as his deputy and Foreign Minister (with the intention of making him the eventual successor) had a more strategic and some even say sinister motive behind it. According to this point of view, HD’s emergence into the political scenes of contemporary Ethiopia, where the TPLF is ruling under the guise of a multiethnic coalition, is for strategic reasons that has everything to do with balance of power concerns the TPLF has been having ever since it came to power 24 years ago. More on this later.

It is an open secret and the TPLF has been forthright about its intentions of wanting to continue to rule Ethiopia for at least 50 years. True to that ambition, it has reached the half way mark without facing any meaningful threat from either the ‘opposition’ and most importantly from within its coalition partners. There are lots of speculations as to what the TPLF expects to achieve after the end of the 50 years it has reportedly set for itself.

After amassing enough political capital and economic power through the years, ending up being the most influential and dominant force in Ethiopia without requiring to be in government would most likely be what the TPLF wishes to achieve if allowed to last for those 50 years. Some suggest that an independent Tigray Republic could be a reality by then. Although many argue that the option of an independent Tigray is a contingency to resort to (as per the provisions of article 39 of the Ethiopian constitution), only if Ethiopians awake to the mischiefs of the TPLF and somehow manage to prematurely remove it from power. There are indications that the TPLF may have been acutely aware of the potential for this latter scenario to unfold and may have been preparing for a long while to forestall just such an eventuality. It may already have put in place some sneaky long term strategic instruments that it believes could ensure the next 25 years to be as good, if not better, as the past 25 so far as its uncontested political and economic power in Ethiopia is concerned.

Rightly or wrongly, the TPLF seems to believe that the threat to its unbridled power in Ethiopia would be coming not from the ‘opposition’ groups or outside forces but from the members of the EPRDF coalition it created itself. More precisely, the threat is thought to be coming from the populations that are presumed to be represented by those coalition partners such as the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM) and the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO) which ostensibly represent the Amhara and the Oromo people respectively.

The TPLF understands that sooner or later the leadership and membership of those organizations, pressed by the population in their respective regions, will begin to be more assertive and will eventually start to demand fairness in the power sharing arrangements of the executive and the army, and in the decision making processes of the EPRDF and the parliament. Already, there are reports of signs of growing rancour mainly with in the OPDO and to some extent with in the ANDM as well. In such a situation, the TPLF, nominally representing the people of Tigray, about 7% of the population of Ethiopia, would find it increasingly difficult to continue to influence those two coalition partners which potentially jointly represent well above half of the population of Ethiopia.

As far as the TPLF is concerned, at this early stage, a genuine and fair power sharing arrangement that could potentially render it irrelevant is unthinkable. Absolute power is what TPLF has always in mind and anything that could threaten to erode this power has to be vigorously fought and quashed. The two nightmare scenarios, according to the TPLF, that need to be avoided at any cost are:

a) the coming back to power of what it calls ‘the Amhara elite’ with a wealth of years of political, organizational and administrative expertise; and

b) the coming to power of the Oromo representing more than a third of the Ethiopian population with the biggest land mass and abundant resources to match. Even worse, if these two somehow form an unlikely common front, then that could definitely herald the beginning of the end for the TPLF as we know it.

It now appears that the late Meles Zenawi, prior to his sudden passing in 2012, had been working diligently to protect the TPLF from such perceived threats on multiple fronts. The first front, which many agree has so far worked to perfection, is the weakening of the two potential challengers, the ANDM and the OPDO.

To this effect, the TPLF has always made sure that their leadership should always be handpicked by the TPLF and made dependent on the good will of the TPLF leadership to continue on their positions. Any sign of breaking ranks with the TPLF is always met with the harshest of retributions using pretexts such as corruption (as was the case with the former leader of the ANDM and one time PM Tamirat Layne). The second front involved making sure that under no circumstances would those two organizations be able to work together by instigating and perpetuating ethnic conflicts and hostilities between the two peoples nominally represented by them. Also, according to the TPLF, sowing the seeds of mistrust and hatred by manipulating and exaggerating past historical misfortunes between the two peoples now, should ensure that potential future common understanding, mutual respect and solidarity between the two peoples at the grass roots level would hardly be possible.

Once it had convinced itself that it had made sure that these two organizations were individually weakened and were decidedly put in a position where they could never potentially work together, the TPLF then went on to searching for and eventually creating an ally – the third front. This is where the Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples’ (SNNP) region and PM HD come in. An ally that is reasonably big enough to counterbalance the populations supposedly represented by the ANDM and the OPDO individually but also weak enough to be requiring constant support and mentorship from the TPLF for its own survival, for decades to come. A brand new political party (Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM)) to eventually govern an entirely brand new region (SNNPR) needed to be created. The newly minted region was also extensively promoted at
the expense of the other two regions governed by the ANDM and OPDO (as an example every vocalist in the country, famous or not, was offered a plot of land in the region for including one Southern music in their albums with fancy video clips to go with it).

As people who closely follow Ethiopian current affairs may remember, when the TPLF came to power and divided the country in to regions following ethnic lines, the SNNP region was a pool of five regions representing the major ethnic groups in the area. That was quickly changed and those regions were amalgamated into one big region encompassing roughly a fifth to a quarter of the Ethiopian population and sitting on an equally significant portion of little exploited fertile land mass.

Likewise, the SEPDM was non-existent when the EPRDF coalition was first formed. Both the lumping together of smaller regions into one big region and the creation and inclusion of the SEPDM in to the EPRDF coalition were afterthoughts that were implemented early on to alleviate TPLF’s anxiety about the balance of power issues mentioned above. Those measures could also be considered to be the genesis of the establishment of a major power base by the TPLF outside of Tigray.

The calculation is simple, lump together regions of a relatively disadvantaged and politically naïve part of the country. Provide opportunities, power cover and organizational expertise to hand-picked elite from the region in exchange for unquestioning loyalty and unfettered access to the resources of the region, the internal workings of the organization and the regional government to the extent that the TPLF would be the one truly running the show behind the scenes.

A similar scheme has worked successfully in other smaller, remote and disadvantaged regions such as the Afar, Benshangul and Somali regions. The TPLF is the real authority in those regions using lack of capacity as an excuse to run them from the Prime Minister’s office. Ultimately, according to this same calculation, if a genuinely representative and autonomous faction would emerge in the ranks of the other two major coalition partners (ANDM & OPDO), and if it became increasingly challenging for the TPLF to be able to dominate the entire House as it currently does, then it would still have roughly half of the House under its influence for several years to come.

At face value, particularly in the eyes of the peoples of the smaller regions and SNNPR, the TPLF would also be seen as a progressive and sympathetic organization which stands for the interests of the poor and the downtrodden (as it usually claims it is). An organization that is willing to give a fair go to the forgotten and underprivileged sections of society. In fact, it is this perception by the majority of the people of the SNNPR that had helped the TPLF avoid close scrutiny and any tangible resistance when it deliberately decided to exclude from its designs those political elites and ethnic groups in the region with a history of better party political and organizational experience. Noticeably, the Sidama, the Gurage and the Hadiya were gradually sidelined and excluded from partaking in the more prominent positions of party, regional state and federal politics. On the other
hand, the Wolayta, relative newcomers even by the South’s standard, with unremarkable history of involvement in contemporary Ethiopian politics were put in positions of power in SEPDM and at all levels of government. This deliberate move by the TPLF to bring to power a minority group (the Sidama are the biggest in population) with little to no political experience would ensure that the group would not be able to survive without the continued support, power cover and mentorship of the TPLF. In return, this would give the TPLF unrestricted access to the resources of the region, the necessary leverage to have its way in managing the affairs of the region and SEPDM, and most importantly would continue to enjoy absolute loyalty from SEPDM in matters of federal importance to the TPLF. It is breathtakingly Victorian, so 18th Century and so foreign.

Hailemariam Desalegn’s propulsion in to the summits of the Ethiopian political class should therefore be seen as part and parcel of this grand scheme. The sudden death of Meles Zenawi may have rushed Hailemariam’s coming to the prime ministership, but by no means should this anointment be considered fortuitous.

As has been clearly demonstrated in the past couple of years of HD’s diplomatic engagements on the world stage with foreign dignitaries, his local and foreign media interviews, and his performances in many international leader’s fora; there is an obvious lack of finesse in most areas of statesmanship. The lack of fluency in the vernaculars of world diplomacy, a somewhat lacklustre oratorical skill and a far less satisfactory upkeep of official protocol could all be easily attributed to the lack of experience resulting from his hasty appointment.

Although it could be argued that most of his deficiencies could be overcome with experience by staying on the job for longer, it is also true that some of those skills could be learned through targeted training and intensive coaching. As was discussed earlier, the TPLF wants him badly for its design for the future of Ethiopia. However, it is also becoming evidently clear that the TPLF doesn’t seem to want HD to know how important he is and would seem to be doing everything it could to embarrass him or make him look inadequate and weak in front of the people of Ethiopia and the world – supposedly to keep him insecure and unsure of himself.

The ‘leaked’ reports of the unprecedented harsh criticisms of his leadership by the ‘bigwigs’ of the TPLF only few days before the recent elections was just one example to demonstrate this claim. In another example, in his recent interview with Al-Jazeera, he comes across more like a student undertaking oral exams trying so hard to impress his examiners (his TPLF bosses perhaps) than a leader of a nation trying to put his government’s message across. There is a suggestion that his lack of finesse and the apparent absence of any indication that there is some kind of targeted training or coaching occurring also sits very well with the TPLF’s narrative that it would be almost impossible to replace the late Meles Zenawi.

Everyone agrees that it is very unusual for Ethiopia to have such a powerless leader. Once in power, almost all past Ethiopian leaders had been strong men in full control of the entire government machinery. Sure, the lack of a political base of his own, and not being part of the generation that fought the dergue with the consequent lack of influence in the army and security apparatus of the country would make it very difficult for HD to become one such a strong man. Moreover, he may also be genuinely content with being given the opportunity of a lifetime of becoming the PM of Ethiopia. As a result, he may be feeling indebted to the TPLF for the ‘generosity’ and ‘altruism’ shown to him and may have decided against the need to ruffle feathers. Business as usual of doing the work for the TPLF may feel good enough for him.

On the other hand, however, things could change for the better for the PM if he starts to realize that he is more important to the TPLF than they are letting him know. This knowledge and realization could give him some autonomy in exercising the powers of the office he is holding and may enable him to gradually become more self-assured. There is also another more important element that is going for HD – his Christianity of the evangelical hue. It is unlikely that the TPLF or for that matter Meles himself did factor this in when they picked him for the role. Because, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that HD, in his own right, has strong support from the highly influential Christian Right movement in the USA and hence by implication enabling him to enjoy the support of the US government.

As we all remember, there were some members of the TPLF who had been pushed out of Meles’s inner circle who then managed to make a comeback soon after his death and tried to have a say in the way forward. They were of the opinion that HD should never be allowed to succeed Meles and even appeared to have been successful in stopping his eventual appointment for several weeks. It took the ‘persuasion’ of a US general, who travelled all the way from Djibouti to Addis to express the wishes of the US government, for HD to finally be appointed PM. The recent visit by President Obama, the first of its kind by a sitting US president, could also be seen as an enormous nod of approval not afforded to any other previous Ethiopian leader; not even to the Emperor Haile Selassie himself who was very close to the USA.

Could this apparent approval and support from the Christian Right and by implication the US government potentially turn this evidently powerless PM in to another strong man of Ethiopia? And most importantly, could it transform him from being the puppet of the TPLF in to becoming the trusted ‘friend’ and ally of the USA? Only time will tell.

Time also will tell whether the TPLF is right or wrong in supposedly believing that the threat to its unbridled power in Ethiopia would be coming not from the ‘opposition’ groups or outside forces but from the members of the EPRDF coalition it created itself. Even if those fears were to hold, it could hit more closer to home than the TPLF has been barricading for. However, it won’t be farfetched to suspect that TPLF’s troubles are far more serious and much more diverse than just balance of power issues and none of the scheming and advanced planning would prepare the TPLF for the absolute nightmare that could be unfolding in the coming few months and years. And it is also safe to assume that in every possible scenario, the TPLF would be caught unaware and with its pants down. A sitting duck- the TPLF is.