By Teshome M. Borago | Satenaw-Zehabesha Columnist
“If I had not resigned, we would not be talking now,” said Hailemariam Desalegn, the former Ethiopian Prime Minister who was replaced by Dr. Abiy Ahmed in April.
And this, is not the first time that Desalegn has given credit to himself for the ongoing reforms in Ethiopia.
In recent weeks, Desalegn has been in the news cycle frequently since going to Zimbabwe as leader of the African Union (AU) election observers mission. Most notable was his famous picture with the former Ethiopian President Mengistu Hailemariam. He outraged many for speaking fondly of the former Marxist dictator, while sparking heated debates on social media on whether the new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed should pardon Mengistu and let him return home. Some Ethiopians said Mengistu should be pardoned, because Dr. Abiy has already forgiven the notorious TPLF and various exiled armed groups who were engaged in killings opposing the EPRDF and Derg regimes.
All this debate might be the original intention of Hailemariam Desalegn, who is getting a lot of attention from the public: whether it is rage or nostalgia for former leaders. Even BBC News run stories on the Mengistu-Desalegn controversy.
But people might have overlooked the other narrative from his recent comments, Desalegn’s contribution to the rise of Dr. Abiy.
In March this year, Desalegn stated that his resignation was designed to “facilitate reforms” toward democracy. He has repeatedly expressed his support for Dr. Abiy since then. Even Dr. Abiy said Desalegn played a key role to ensure that Ethiopia had peaceful transfer of political power. Desalegn was later awarded a national medal by the new premier. During the award and farewell ceremony, he made an emotional speech asking all Ethiopians to back Dr. Abiy.
Later in June, officials close to Desalegn said he was concerned for his safety, as some inside TPLF hold him responsible for “ruining Meles’s legacy.”
Meanwhile, Desalegn has not been shy of expressing his dislike for what he calls “the old guard” inside TPLF. In fact, some of the political and economic reforms being carried out today by Dr. Abiy were actually initiatives planned out during Hailemariam Desalegn’s time: to weaken this “old guard.” But Desalegn did not have the confidence personally as well as the mandate politically to exercise his “powers.” The problem was that, not only do the majority of Ethiopians saw him as weak and untrustworthy, but even his own EPRDF party viewed him as powerless. In fact, some EPRDF personals promoted themselves to any ambassadorship or ministerial positions they wanted – it was free for all season for officials seeking titles.
It is in this historical context that we now find Desalegn revisiting the events of early 2018 once again. In a new interview, Desalegn says he presented a proposal for “deep renewal” inside his ruling party, according to excerpts published this week by the Daily Maverick. But he admitted it was impossible for him to change the ruling party due to, in his own words: “my weak capacity and my weak constituency.”
It is true that his SEPDM branch of the ruling party was the weakest and the most divided branch. And that was why Meles picked him as a successor in the first place. Personally, Desalegn was seen as soft and insecure even among his own SEPDM group as well as in his purported Welaita constituency.
“I did not have a high degree of internal support if I took strong action within the EPRDF….I believed that there had to be a new person with a dominant force who could save the country. I also thought that this person should come from Oromia,” Desalegn added, as if he himself was hoping a leader from the OPDO rose to power.
Many observers believed the ANDM (Amhara) and OPDO (Oromo) branches of the ruling party were key to Dr. Abiy’s inner-party election victory. But since each of the four branches of the EPRDF ruling party carried only 45 votes, it is possible that Desalegn’s SEPDM branch played a larger role in securing the 108 votes that Dr. Abiy received, than originally thought.
In the end, it is unknown what exact moves Hailemariam Desalegn made or strategies employed to weaken the TPLF and get Ethiopia to this point. Perhaps he will write a tell-all book one day and share the details.
For Ethiopians who are hoping for real change, the one positive scoop from Desalegn’s recent confessions might his apparent discontent with the dreaded “Ethnic federalism.” He admitted the system is dangerous and it only benefits a few Tigrayan and Oromo nationalists.
“One of the flaws in our current system is the contradiction between a group right and a citizen right. We were skewed in favour of recognising group rights, of an ethnic identity over a national identity….How this is resolved depends on how Abiy presents himself and how we deal with the tension between these rights,” said Hailemariam.
Desalegn might be the highest government official to admit the shortcomings of ethnic federalism in 27 years. It is likely that more inside the EPRDF share his views. And this might be the best news for individual human rights and long-term peace in Ethiopia. Instead of another cosmetic change, Ethiopia might finally enjoy real change by getting rid of tribal federalism once and for all.
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