TPLF has bestowed the premiership on Hailemariam Desalegn. Some western journalists and observers have characterized the occasion as one of historical significance for Ethiopia. They say this is the first time in Ethiopia’s long history power has transferred peacefully from one ruler to another. The shallowness and superficiality of this analysis is maddening. Who would in their right mind think there was a transfer of power in North Korea in the last six decades even though the presidency has changed hands three times? What is different in Ethiopia except Hailemariam is not a blood descendant of Meles?
What is equally bewildering is a great number of Ethiopians are desperately hoping that Hailemariam will bring some needed change in governance. Barring a miracle, that won’t happen. First, there are no indications whatsoever that Hailemariam will be different from the late prime minister in his ideology or convictions. His recent interviews only indicate how much he idolizes his predecessor and how committed he is to remain loyal to the course charted by him. More importantly, Hailemariam’s main preoccupation as long as he is a prime-minister will be securing the “king-makers” approval of his performance since he owes his premiership to them.
Secondly, even if Hailemariam were different from Meles and had the guts to challenge the status quo to bring change, his premiership would be short-lived since he has neither the political clout within the EPRDF party or the military, nor does he come across as agile and sophisticated enough to build one in short order.
So let’s get real; it is still a TPLF land out there!
If there is any good news in Meles’ sudden departure, it is that, despite the status quo in governance and political direction, one can expect a weaker ruling regime. There are two obvious reasons for this. First, Meles has left a big shoe which none of his ill-prepared and ill-equipped subordinates will be able to fill. Their awkwardness and incapacity has been very visible ever since Meles’ hospitalization. For the last 21 years, Meles did pretty much all the thinking, strategizing and the talking. His unanticipated departure has left Hailemariam and the people who steer the wheel from behind with a steep learning curve that is bound to be punctuated by blunders, missteps, and hiccups, if not a total train wreck. Second, Meles’ departure inevitably ushers in a power struggle within the ruling clique that could undermine the steel-like organizational discipline and strength of the TPLF/EPRDF enterprise.
However, one may only at their own expense underestimate the self-preserving instinct of the ruling clique. They understand their survival depends on their capacity to stick together somehow, and if they do so, they know there won’t be any immediate and serious external challenge to their rule. It is therefore prudent to think of the Woyane regime as still strong and resilient. To think that the death of Meles will make it fall apart on its own would be wishful thinking. Despite Meles’ death, the Woyane regime is still vicious, organizationally better equipped, and determined to stay in power for as long as it can.
And regardless of how TPLF internal dynamics will play out in the months or years ahead, the regime will not by its own volition make any overture whatsoever to liberalize the political space, let alone share power with the opposition. The call from some opposition groups for an all-inclusive transitional government is simply a wishful dream. Meles’ successors cannot and will not feel they should change anything, at least, in the short term. Doing anything different now would be seen as betraying Meles and negating his legacy. More importantly, thanks for the unexpected and overwhelming (fake or real) mourning of Meles’ death by many Ethiopians, the successors must have convinced themselves that they have received a renewed mandate to continue to rule and behave like Meles.
If anything, the successors are now set up to outdo Meles! Talk about people getting the government they deserve!
The opposition cannot also expect donor countries to put any meaningful pressure on Meles’ successors to accommodate any of the opposition’s demands. These countries have time and again proved that seeing a just and democratic system in Ethiopia is not in their priority list. If at all they care about what happens in Ethiopia, they put peace and stability over democracy and justice, which, whether we like it or not, works in the ruling cliques’ favor.
The above is one side of the political equation in Ethiopia now. The other side is what the opposition is capable of and prepared to do. So the question is: is the opposition in a better position now than it was before Meles’ death? The answer is perhaps no. There may be several reasons for this, but the most important one is the fact that the opposition has not yet regained the public confidence it lost in the aftermath of the 2005 election. Since then the Ethiopian people’s enthusiasm towards the opposition has been diminished, lukewarm at the best of times. Not because they grew to like the regime in power, but because the hopes Kinijit had raised in 2005 in the opposition’s ability to bring change were dashed soon after the election. Many have long resigned to the idea that change will come only if and when the regime in power allows it. The utter disintegration of Kinijit, primarily caused by its own numerous tactical and strategic blunders following the 2005 election (which, by the way, none of the leaders took responsibility for to this date), had given the Woyane regime an image of invincibility in the public’s psyche.
The result of the 2010 election was partly a reflection of this psychological reality. With the Kinijit debacle in the background, the public saw the opposition as a divided house and hence unreliable. Not only has the public become submissive to the Woyane regime, strangely enough, it has increasingly become hopeful for a better future under this very regime. It is a common psychological phenomenon – when one is denied what they want, one reverts to appreciating whatever one has, however meager it might be. In the last several years, the public and the otherwise politically active elite in particular, have learned to desensitize themselves to the political reality, to the boundless injustice, and to the cruel repression of decent by regime and shifted their focus on the meager economic opportunities that are created by aid money and a distorted economy.
Furthermore, the public sentiment following the announcement of the death of Meles should worry the opposition. This sentiment seems to suggest that the public doesn’t still see a viable, let alone an inevitable opposition. This explains why many Ethiopians mourned (forced, faking or for real) the death of a tyrant instead of seeing his death as an opportunity to hope, demand, and fight to end the tyrannical system.
Going forward, the only way the opposition will be able to challenge the Woyane regime in a credible way is if it overcomes this psychological battle. The only way it can do so is by becoming stronger organizationally, which is not the same as being strong in vision, ideas, and policies. Organizational strength can come if at least two conditions are met.
First, there has to be a conscious and effective coordination between the domestic struggle and the one in the Diaspora. There was a level of coordination between the two fronts immediately before and after the 2005 election that was promising, but has virtually disappeared since. The tentative, sporadic, weak, and amorphous relationship over the last several years will have to be replaced with a focused, deliberate and practical relationship that could push the opposition struggle to a higher plane.
A key principle in forging an enduring and formidable coordination between the two fronts is that the opposition should be centered domestically, more so now than in the past. No amount of opposition from outside will by itself pose a real threat to the Woyane regime unless it is organically linked to the domestic struggle. (That is why the Woyane regime allows its fierce critics and notable members of opposition parties to leave the country freely; Andualem Arage and Eskinder Nega would have been happily escorted to Bole Airport by Woyane Security had they chosen to leave the country instead of fight the unjust system from inside).
However, one cannot overemphasize the contribution of the Diaspora opposition to the domestic struggle through direly needed financial, diplomatic, media and other logistical support. There has to be a conscious and clearly defined division and coordination of roles between the domestic and Diaspora opposition, where the former leads and the latter supports.
Second, the opposition has to move from fragmentation to consolidation using a different approach than has been tried in the past. It has been argued forever that the biggest problem of the opposition is lack of unity, which is generally understood to mean the inability of opposition parties and entities to forge a strong and durable coalition or front. Based on this diagnosis (disunity) and prescription (coalition), the opposition camp inside and outside the country has been in the business of forming and disbanding coalitions since 1991.
After two decades of trying and failing, the accuracy of the diagnosis and/or the prescription must be, at the very least, questioned. But even if one were to believe in the diagnosis, i.e., lack of unity is still a central problem for the opposition camp, it would be utterly irrational to follow the same, repeatedly failed prescription to mend the ailment, namely curing disunity via the formation of coalitions.
Coalitions are generally notoriously unreliable because they give unwarranted power to the leaders of the organizations that form the coalition. Personal ambition and ego, entrenched allegiance to own group, lack of collaborative skills, etc. sabotage the success of coalitions. And there is something fundamentally wrong in an approach that conditions the success of the opposition’s struggle on the propensity and whims of opposition leaders and their organizations to form coalitions or stay in the coalition.
The alternate approach is one where the opposition constituency take away some of the power from leaders of opposition parties and bestowed it on themselves. A fragmented opposition exists only in so far as the opposition constituency allows it, that is, only as long as the opposition constituency allows itself to be diced and divided by a divided opposition. If opposition leaders proved to be incapable of coming together to form a unified opposition, the constituency must take matters into their own hands and rally around the one party that has the greatest potential to challenge and unseat the regime in power.
By all counts, that party is Medrek.
Medrek is not only the largest opposition party, it is politically the most inclusive organization with clearly articulated and internally consistent policy positions on unity, democracy, and the rule of law. Its leaders have shown their political maturity by bringing national and ethnic parties together, transforming the coalition into a front, and at the moment working toward a unified party.
Granted, not everyone will find everything they want to see in Medrek, but that is a fair trade-off they must be willing to accept if they want to support the opposition decisively to get Ethiopia rid of the Woyane regime. The days of forming another opposition organization has to end. The days of forming a new coalition has to end. There is no new revelation a new party or a new coalition can uncover or a new opportunity it can exploit. The time has come for the opposition to use the best it already has and to use it more effectively.