Hanging in the balance
After a marathon session of intraparty debate and criticism and self-criticism processes, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the oldest among the four-party coalition, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), announced the removal of his chairman and other prominent members. However, the question in everyone’s mind is whether leadership change is enough to arrest the recent political turmoil in Ethiopia as the fate of the nation hangs in the balance, explores Asrat Seyoum.
On the morning of August 21, 2012, Bereket Simon, a veteran of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and the then Head of Government Communication Affairs Office, announced the passing away of Meles Zenawi, the party chairman for a quarter of a century. The week leading up to the official announcement of his death was shrouded with secrecy and rumors regarding his health condition. But, the party stayed absolutely adamant about his condition and denied all rumors.
Hence, that morning, one of queries that tested the communications minister was why the government and the party refused to be transparent regarding the health condition Meles. Bereket was rather bold in addressing the question and in claiming that “it is not really the culture of the party to reveal personal matters of its members; whether it concerns top leaders or not”.
Bereket made a stark revelation that the party culture – even when it is against well-accepted principles of transparency – would still gain prominence. In fact, he was attesting to the stranglehold that the party culture have on the day-to-day activities of the members.
This last month, the Ethiopian public came to witness this same party culture working. After a marathon session of interparty debate and criticism and self-criticism process, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the oldest among the four-party coalition, the EPRDF, announced the removal of its chairman, Abay Woldu, and the demotion of Abay and Beyene Mikru, member of the executive committee and deputy chairman of the parastatal, the Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray (EFFORT, to the central committee.
Perhaps the most resonating reshuffle is the suspension of Azeb Mesfin, the former first lady and chairwoman of EFFORT, from all party activities on account of disciplinary misconduct during recent party meeting. The decision to keep Azeb as central committee member is something that is up for the party’s congress which is expected to be conducted shortly. Nevertheless, the decision to suspend her signaled yet again the stronghold the age-old party tradition has on its members and no one, including Azeb, is above those principles.
Apart from that, the party named Debretsion Gebremichael (PhD), Minister of Information and Communication Technology, who has served as the deputy chairman of the party in the outgoing leadership. Fetlework Gebregziabher, another member of the executive committee, was also picked to hold the deputy chair position.
On top that, the central committee voted to replace the four TPLF executive committee members including Tedros Adhanom (PhD), who vacated his position to go serve as director general of the World Health Organization (WHO). Consequently, Asmelash Woldeselassie, Government Whip, Getachew Reda, head of Justice and Legal System Research Institute, Keria Ibrahim, from the TPLF secretariat and Abraham Tekeste (PhD), minister of Finance and Economic Cooperation (MoFEC) were elevated to the executive committee. As a result, apart from the chairman and the deputy, Getachew Assefa, head of National Intelligence and Security Services, Alem Gebrewahid, head of TPLF secretariat, and Addisalem Balema (PhD), vice President of the Tigray Regional State, would make up the new executive committee of TPLF along with the new inductees.
In the broader context of the EPRDF, the process of “deep” renewal, which the four parties started last August, had some interesting outcomes thus far. The Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO) was the first to make changes to its top leadership replacing Muktar Kedir and Aster Mamo with Lemma Megerssa and Workineh Gebeyehu (PhD). The Southern Ethiopian Peoples’ Democratic Movement (SPDM) and Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM) as well have conducted their conferences and made reshuffles before TPLF although not as radical.
Although the party meetings are still not open to the public, sources close to the party indicated that the recent criticism and self-criticisms in the TPLF resembled that of the struggle days’ in terms of its intensity and freedom. The press statement released towards the end of this week corroborated this observation. “Unlike the pretentious evaluation and discussion sessions we had in the past, the TPLF leadership had brought everything out in the open this time around,” reads the statement which was released on Thursday.
In a nut shell, the party admitted that its strategic leadership has failed to produce the needed leadership caliber and lacked the necessary organizational stature and mindset to solve the deep rooted political and economic problems of the nation. “We had an understanding going into our conference that we could not keep spinning in the same leadership vicious circle and expect to impact change and address the most pressing problems in the country,” the statement noted. That, according to the party, led it to prepare one of the most undercutting and critical documents detailing the depth that the leadership has sank into during the past 15 years.
“We have made a critical assessment of the current political and economic environment in Ethiopia and discussed how the leadership managed to taint the hard earned gains of the party and the public alike,” it said.
In a complete turnaround from its pronouncement of the political problems in Ethiopia in the past two years, the TPLF gracefully assumed its share of the problem. Nevertheless, commentators like Wubishet Mulat are cautiously optimistic about the whole renewal process and what has transpired in the TPLF in recent times. “I noticed that some three current TPLF executive committee members are not from the struggle days. Although those with struggle experience are still dominant in the party’s upper leadership structure, I still can’t help but be optimistic with having new blood in the group,” Wubishet argued.
Wubishet’s point of view centers on his analysis that the old TPLF/EPRDF political culture and tradition which he says is heavily influenced by the old communist orientation of the party. The fact that there is strict party discipline, the process of criticism and self-criticisms and need to find political consensus to implement even constitutionally enshrined provisions are all the telltale signs of communist lineage, he argues, and TPLF is a front runner in this respect.
“However, the evolving organizational culture in SEPDM, OPDO and partly ANDM in recent months is clear indication that changes of blood in the leadership could introduce change; even in the most stringent and institutionalized party structure like the EPRDF,” Wubishet says.
As far as the leadership reconfiguration is concerned, Costantinos Berhe, lecturer at Addis Ababa University (AAU) School of Graduate Studies, feels that although it might have its own merit in strengthening the parties’ internal processes, it is not sufficient to address current problems of Ethiopia. “Leadership reshuffles and changes in human resource composition without substantive change to the policies and strategies of the party would be meaningless,” he argues. “It is in the ideological genesis, not in the leadership composition,” he stresses.
He further argues that the growing awareness of the young and the educated regarding the realities of Ethiopia and what they need from the system seems to be unaccounted for by the party and its leadership. “We have 600,000 students leaving colleges every year in Ethiopia and these young people have mature ideological outlook; and I don’t think the party is commensurate to the young generation,” he explains.
As far as Costantinos is concerned, ethnicity is a big problem in Ethiopia at this moment. He is of the view that the younger generation is being oriented with the wrong ethnic values which includes preaching regional identities as being superior to the national identity.
This is a view shared by Eyesuswork Zafu, a veteran insurer and private sector leader in Ethiopia. Although he acknowledges the current political problem is called is caused by variety of issues, he argues that the chief blame befalls the nations purely ethic centered federalist system.
“Asked by officials of the transitional government back in the early 1990s, I objected to the nation falling fully under ethnic federalism, on the account that our society back then was not ready to the such politics,” he told The Reporter. Purely ethnic federalism is for advanced societies like Switzerland that transcend the burdens of ethnics, he says, and “now the chicken has come home to roost” he concludes.
Tsedeke Yihune, founder of Flintstone Real Estate, is off the view that ethnic issues in Ethiopia, at this time, could not traced back to the federalism or the policies of the ruling party.
“To claim that the EPRDF is responsible for ethnic clashes in Ethiopia is like blaming Klara Zetskin [renowned women rights advocate] for starting up gender inequality,” argues Tsedeke. He says ethnic strife in Ethiopia goes a long way back. In fact, for Tsedeke, what little conflict seen in Ethiopia today are actually the last flickers of dying amber from the raging fires of the past.
In his recent article he authored that was published in the local media, Abebe Telehaimanot (Maj. Gen.) goes a bit further with his argument to claim that it was not a choice for the newly triumphant EPRDF/TPLF to advocate ethnic-based federalism since ethnic oppression was rife in Ethiopia at the time. In fact, Abebe argues that ethnic identity is a matter of “objective existence” and it is difficult to have a political system which did not take this issue into account. “In fact, even around the world the issue of ethnic identity is still a burning flame in the UK, Belgium, Spain and the like experiencing it first hand,” he argues.
Abebe argues that there was and still is no choice but to recognize this and struggle to find harmony in due time. But as far as Tsedeke is concerned although ethnic issues are always there, “one has to resist the evil temptations of pouring oil on the sputter”.
Abebe is convinced that both narrow nationalism and chauvinism are part of the Ethiopian identity and are both natural as much as they are destructive. So, he argues that the current problem is not about either of them (narrow nationalism and chauvinism) it is rather about the undemocratic nature of the ruling party itself, he stressed.
The question that remains is whether the renewal process is connected with the current political problem in Ethiopia. As far as Wubishet is concerned, he fails to see a direct link with renewal process and the current brewing problems in Ethiopia. “I say this since the renewal in EPRDF is about leadership not policies,” he says and that could fall short of the level of political problem at present Ethiopia.
“I consider the renewal to be a tug of war between the populist and the popular. And in the end it is inevitable that the will to serve the people will prevail over the temptation to pander to their feelings,” Tsedeke says; but for the likes of Eyesuswork and Costantinos the current problem in Ethiopia might have outgrown the breaches of the ruling party.
In fact, Eyesuswork feels that giant public conferences where problems can be vented out are quite important now. “There is no philosopher king; the party should just listen to the public and restructure the system if that is what is needed,” he concludes.
Yet again, the latest statement by the TPLF looks to be indicative as to how far the party is willing to go to get on top of the problem. Perhaps to the point of “restructuring” its system.