by Kiflu Hussain
Twelve days later after the state funeral of one of Africa’s ruthless and cunning strongman, Meles Zenawi, the ruling party in Ethiopia dominated by the deceased’s minority ethnic liberation front grudgingly decided on the chairmanship of Hailemriam Desalegn. In so doing and to the satisfaction of “development partners,” notably United States, the ruling party confirmed Hailemariam as a replacement of the late “visionary” ruler of Ethiopia. This move, at least temporarily, assuages any lingering fear of a bloody struggle on succession between the Tigrayan elites who have been accustomed to calling the shots in the past 21 years despite being a minority.
Although, Hailemariam himself is from a minority ethnic group, he was not a member of the dominant minority group to which the deceased belonged and whom he steered to power navigating it through internecine and treasonous war that ended up by turning Ethiopia as a landlocked country. While the deceased with other boys from his own village alongside his cousins in Eritrea across the Mereb River, waged a destabilizing war against the Ethiopian state, Hailemariam was quietly pursuing his education like any normal teenager on the other side of the country, namely Southern Ethiopia. He hailed from an ethnic group called Wolayita.So unlike the deceased and members of his inner circles whose names are associated with trading off Ethiopian vital interests, gross human rights violations and egregious corruption, Hailemariam has a relatively clean slate. To top it all, Hailemariam’s origin Wolayita which was incorporated through King Menilik’s imperial expansion in 1894 wherein Menilik himself led a brutal campaign against the Wolayita King/Kawa/Tona who had resisted Menilik’s expansion, might at best endear him or at the worst help him to have the benefit of the doubt. The reason is Wolayitas and other adjacent ethnic groups who were incorporated in the same fashion and who suffered unique subjugation during the imperial expansion had never produced centrifugal elites unlike the secessionist current northern elites whose ancestors took turn to ruling Ethiopians. In fact, since 1991, southerners more than any other Ethiopians courageously resisted the unjust system authored by the deceased under the pretext of liberating “nations and nationalities.”Consequently, in the late 1990s, they rejected the top-down approach of the regime’s attempt to impose a freak language that is supposed to encompass the Wolayita, Gamo, Gofa and Dawro people who have their own distinct dialects. In the ensuing protest to reject the “Esperanto-type synthesis” of the four languages christened as Wogagoda, scores of people were killed, wounded and imprisoned. Having seen the determination of the Wolayita people despite the brutal crackdown, the regime eventually backtracked from imposing the freak language. In short, due to this and other condescending high-handedness of the elites from the north, the south-western Ethiopians, especially the Wolayitas never lent their support to the incumbent voluntarily. On the contrary, using the superficial democracy, they voted repetitively the opposition group that represented southerners at the behest of Dr.Beyene Petros until the “democracy” game was over in 2010.Meanwhile, men like Hailemariam who showed readiness to be co-opted by joining the deceased’s party after it seized power have always been regarded with contempt or indifference. It is with men like Hailemariam that the dominant minority ethnic group pretended to form the coalition known by its acronym as EPRDF, i.e, Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front. Those who helped it from the other ethnic groups in the charade are considered as appendages of TPLF, i.e Tigray People Liberation Front.
Until the top brass in the TPLF including the deceased fell out with their Tigrigna speaking cousins in Eritrea during the 1998-2000 war which exposed deep fissure among the Tigrayan elites both in Ethiopia and Eritrea, there was no intention to welcome aboard an outsider at the summit even with nominal power. The late Meles who barely survived a faction fight began purging his comrades gradually in 2000 and later in 2005 after he rigged election big time.Still,after sidelining his archrivals who knew his weakness, he was never serious when he appointed Hailemariam as his deputy and probably as his successor. Like Prof.Christopher Clapham observed on BBC Focus on Africa, Hailemariam “was not selected for the eventuality that Meles might die.” He was simply picked to “give an impression of balance.”In other words, the situation that forced the Tigrayan elites with predominantly Coptic Orthodox background to confirm the hitherto unassuming Protestant from Wolayita reminds one of Irving Wallace’s book titled “The Man.”Wallace (RIP) so imaginatively plotted a fictional scenario in the early 1960s America in which the president, vice president and speaker of the house died in an accident leaving the president ex tempore to succeed as per the constitution.Unfortunately, the office of the president ex tempore which was a nominal position was held by a southern black. Since life is stranger than fiction, better to focus on the reality that brought Hailemariam to power in the second most populous African nation and in a region known for its volatility.
Would power break or make Hailemariam to emerge as his own man?
Though, I would like to take a sanguine view like some of my friends on Hailemariam despite being critical about everything implanted by the deceased, the cold facts made it impossible for me to be optimistic.First, the man has no power base which is a prerequisite in any dictatorship whether emerging from the barracks or the bush and whether the dictatorship is benevolent that postures constitutionalism or exercises outright totalitarianism. He has no clout in the military which unabashedly promoted several officers to senior ranks shortly before choosing him as chairman of the ruling party. Among those promoted, over 90 percent are Tigrayans.The situation in the intelligence are also the same. This means there is no chance for Hailemariam, at least in the near future, to break clean from his predecessor’s policy like the late Anwar Sadat of Egypt who became president after his boss Gammal Abdel Nasser died.Though, Sadat was largely considered as Nasser’s puppet and therefore easy for manipulation by followers of Nasser, he not only managed to purge the most ardent Nasserites from the establishment. He also expelled the Russians, long time ally of Egypt and replaced them with the Americans. Finally; he crowned his reform with a foreign policy change.Thus,he departed from Nasser’s Pan-Arabism and signed a peace treaty with the Israelis which is unthinkable in the Arab world during those days.However, Sadat had been a member of the military and the Free Officers Group that overthrew the king and installed his predecessor as president.Therefore,despite the kindly disposition that is said to be within Hailemariam due to his Protestant religion, it would be an uphill task to assert himself for the good of Ethiopians or just for the sake of exercising power, if indeed he has any intention to do so. What’s more, whichever way he goes, he is placed between a hard place and a rock. If he simply wishes to retain the policy of his predecessor, he would inevitably face the wrath of the people which his predecessor was lucky enough to escape by dying while holding the helm. If he is courageous enough to assert himself and forge his own policy, he would still be facing danger. God forbid! Even Sadat with all that clout in the military and intelligence eventually paid dearly with his life.
In conclusion, while supporting the efforts of human rights organizations such as East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders (EHAHRDP)’s calling in a press statement released on September 18, 2012,in which it urged the “new leadership” in Ethiopia to adhere to international standards of human rights, I remain mindful that Hailemariam was the one who led the team that drafted the notorious draconian legislation known as the Charities and Societies Proclamation Law (CSO).Since I am not totally pessimistic though, I take consolation from the fact that the fourth ruler in my lifetime is at least one year younger than me. He is said to be 47.I am 48 years old which gives me license to advise him patronizingly.
An Ethiopian social and political commentator exiled in Uganda