By Mohammed Ademo
With EPRDF leaders meeting this week to appoint Hailemariam’s successor, the question everyone is asking is who it will be.
In picking the next PM then, the EPRDF should send a clear signal to the Ethiopian people and jittery international partners by choosing a capable leader who can unite the country behind democratic reform.
It could also use the appointment to resolve the unacknowledged Oromo question, an age-old Oromo demand for a national political role commensurate with the community’s size and contribution. It is discontent at political marginalisation that fuels the Oromo protests.
Appointing Ethiopia’s first ever Oromo prime minister could appease protesters. However, this individual would also have to be an able leader with the temperament and political will to steer a deeply fractured nation out of the current chaos and into calmer waters. Such a leader would need popular legitimacy within the Oromo while still being able to gain broad-based support from other ethnic groups. He or she must be willing to sit down with the opposition and engage in good-faith negotiations on the country’s future.
An Oromo prime minister?
On this front, two names come to mind: Lemma Megersa, the president of Oromia state; and his deputy Dr Abiy Ahmed. Together, they have remade the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organisation (OPDO), one of the four ethnic-based parties that makeup the EPRDF coalition, into a driver of reform.
They did this by making the protesters demands their own. They vowed to reform the system, create jobs, and end corruption, promising to join the angry youth if their efforts were frustrated.
“Oromos will determine the fate and future of this country,” Lemma said in a speech last February. “Ethiopia cannot continue to exist as a country without Oromos’ full participation and without affording the Oromo people their fair share.”
Through this change of rhetoric and approach, this dynamic duo have transformed a one-time docile and despised organisation into the people’s party in the span of a year.
Between the two figures, Lemma would be the popular national choice to ascend to the top-post. His support base transcends ethnic and even political party lines. And he has made bold overtures to Ethiopia’s unity, describing Ethiopian-ess as “addictive”. However, he faces technical hurdles. The prime minister has to be a Member of Parliament and Lemma isn’t.
Who is Abiy Ahmed?
If the EPRDF does opt for an Oromo PM as many are expecting, this paves the way for the equally charismatic 41-year-old Abiy. This would be disappointing to the many Ethiopians openly rooting for the well-liked Lemma. But there are practical advantages to Abiy’s rise. For instance, stability in Oromia will be key to the success of the next PM, and Lemma may be better qualified to reform the Oromia bureaucracy than Abiy. He can unite the Oromo behind his call for “economic revolution” and contain street protests.
There would be several causes for optimism if Abiy were appointed. He comes from a mixed religious background with a Christian mother and Muslim father, and he is fluent Amharic, Oromo and Tigrinya. He is an excellent communicator who, according to party insiders, prefers evidence-based decision making and has a PhD from Addis Ababa University. Meanwhile, his rise through the army to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel has given him an understanding of the inner-workings of the military-intelligence complex, an important asset if he is to take on some of those elements through security sector reform.
However, there are reasons for concern too. Not only is Abiy a senior security officer, but he founded the Information Network Security Agency, a cybersecurity outfit that expanded mass surveillance of ordinary Ethiopians, including dissidents in Europe and North America. From 2008 to 2010, he oversaw the expansion of TV and Radio broadcasting at a time when Ethiopia was renowned for its lack of press freedoms. And he has served in the authoritarian EPRDF government, including as minister of Science and Technology, since the coalition’s founding. For those looking for meaningful change, Abiy’s experience and record may be as much of a disadvantage as an advantage.
Ethiopia’s two options
Whoever ascends to the top post will have much to prove, but they should begin by following the advice of the US Embassy in Addis Ababa, which warned recently that the answer to growing unrest is “greater freedom, not less.”
Indeed, Ethiopia sorely needs national reconciliation and an all-inclusive dialogue, and the next leader must act swiftly to make good on pledges of widening the democratic space. That includes releasing the tens of thousands of political prisoners still behind bars, and informing families about the fate of the legions who have disappeared without a trace since 1991.
Greater freedom also means, among many other reforms, dismantling a trio of oppressive laws instituted since 2008. Namely the Freedom of the Mass Media and Access to Information Proclamation, the Charities and Societies Proclamation, and the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation.
After years of unyielding protests and crisis, the ineffectual Hailemariam will soon be stepping down. This leaves Ethiopia at a highly unpredictable juncture, but one full of positive potential as well as worrying uncertainty.
EPRDF is at a historic crossroads, and the options are clear. It can choose to genuinely reform or it can implode under the weight of a bitter power struggle and popular discontent.