Ethiopia Faces Watershed Moment After Prime Minister Resigns

By By Nizar Manek and Samuel Gebre , Bloomberg

Ethiopia’s ruling party faces a stark choice after Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn’s resignation: appoint a hardliner to end months of dissent, or replace him with someone who’ll allow greater political freedom.

Its decision will determine whether one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies stabilizes or descends into widespread civil unrest and bloodshed, said analysts including Hallelujah Lulie, an independent analyst in Addis Ababa, the capital.

The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front has faced sporadic, often deadly demonstrations since 2015. A state of emergency the following year failed to curb the turmoil mainly in the Oromia and Amhara regions -- home to the biggest ethnic groups who say they’re excluded from political and economic power. Last month, the government changed tack, announcing the release of hundreds of political prisoners and promising further reforms.

“The resignation has significant symbolic relevance, but its implications on the political economy depends on who will replace him and in what terms,” Hallelujah said. “The transition will be incomplete without overhauling the politics of economic decision-making and liberalizing the political sphere.”

U.S. Ally

Ethiopia is a key U.S. ally in its battle against al-Qaeda in the Horn of Africa. Home to more than 100 million people, the $72 billion economy has drawn investors including General Electric Co., Johannesburg-based Standard Bank Group and hundreds of Chinese companies.

Under the EPRDF, a former rebel movement that took power in 1991 after overthrowing a military regime, Ethiopia is a federal state designed to give autonomy to ethnic groups. The Oromo and Amhara communities together make up more than half of Ethiopia’s population, Africa’s second-largest after Nigeria. Activists from both groups claim that minority ethnic Tigrayans, represented by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, dominate an authoritarian government.

Ethnic Balance

Hailemariam, who succeeded former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi upon his death in 2012, attempted to address perceived ethnic imbalances in his government by appointing members of the Oromo and Amhara communities as deputy premiers alongside a Tigrayan. Now, the party may be forced to name a member of one of those communities as prime minister to show it’s serious about political reform.

"Hailemariam realized that Ethiopia had reached the end of the system of government born out of the 1991 TPLF victory,” said Gerard Prunier, former director of the French Center for Ethiopian Studies in Addis Ababa. “Since he was neither Tigrayan nor Amhara nor Oromo, he had the wisdom of stepping outside the poisoned circle. The question now is who is going to dare step inside and, even more, try to stay inside.”

Possible contenders include Lemma Megersa and Workneh Gebeyehu, both members of the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation, said Jared Jeffrey, an analyst at Paarl, South Africa-based NKC African Economics.

Another Emergency

An alternative route the ruling party might take is to declare another state of emergency, said Bronwyn Bruton, deputy director of the Africa Center at the Washington-based Atlantic Council. Similar measures introduced in 2016 prescribed restrictions on freedom of speech and association while codifying many many abusive tactics by the security forces, including arbitrary detention, according to Human Rights Watch.

“If Hailemariam’s departure is intended to make way for the appointment of an Oromo leader to the prime minister post, then the move will go a long way to diminishing tensions in Ethiopia,” said Bruton. “If the ruling party chooses to replace Hailemariam, as feared, with a hardliner representative of the Tigrayan elite, or -- worse -- if it reinstitutes martial law by calling another state of emergency, the situation could easily explode.”

There are no reasons to declare an emergency, Information Minister Negeri Lencho said in an interview broadcast on Voice of America’s African Oromo-language service on Friday.