After weeks of speculation, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn today submitted his resignation both as Prime Minister and as head of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition. Hailemariam indicated that he would stay on in a caretaker capacity until his party and parliament accepted his resignation and appointed a successor. The move comes amid protracted political turmoil in Ethiopia. Since 2015, the country has witnessed successive waves of violent unrest in the ethnic-Oromo and -Amhara regions of the country. These have been fueled predominantly by youth frustrations over rising living costs and limited job opportunities, combined with a resentment towards the country’s political elite which is seen to pursue narrow interests and not represent its citizenry in some quarters. In this note, we explore some of the dynamics and implications of Ethiopia’s impending leadership transition.
In truth, the transition has been underway for some months now. Ethiopia’s protests have rocked the foundations of the EPRDF and brought a new generation of political leaders to the fore. Since the death of long-standing leader Meles Zenawi in 2012, the ruling party has looked less decisive and cohesive without the vision and artful deal-brokering of its central strongman figure. Meanwhile, although Ethiopia’s near double-digit growth has provided a degree of legitimacy to the government, pressures from the grass-roots are mounting. Like many African countries, Ethiopia has a huge demographic bulge and its weak mechanisms for political participation from the grass-roots up to the tiers of government that represent these constituencies is starting to take its toll.
On his appointment as Prime Minister in 2012, Hailemariam was seen as a competent figure who could oversee the running of government and the delivery of the government’s ambitious development plan. Coming from a minority ethnic group from the south of the country, he was also seen as an effective foil for the real power behind the throne, which centred on the ethnic-Tigrayan population which makes up approximately 9% of the population but developed considerable powers under Meles. Yet this dynamic was also Hailemariam’s undoing as he has struggled to assert his authority and manage the divergent interests of his own ruling coalition, which itself is in a state of flux.
Following a number of political changes in recent months which have seen prominent Tigrayan power-brokers retreat from frontline politics and a new generation of younger leaders emerge, Hailemariam’s resignation is likely to prompt a further wave of political changes. The President of the Oromia regional state Lema Megersa is likely to be a central figure in the ascendancy and could even be selected to take over Hailemariam’s role; a populist nod both to the youth and the Oromos who have been at the heart of some of the recent unrest. Powerful Tigrayan figures like Debretsion Gebremichael, Getachew Reda and Arkebe Oqubay are likely to continue to impose themselves in some capacity, underlining that the current flux in politics does not signal a complete retreat for the historically dominant Tigrayans. But what appears clear is that businesses can anticipate significant changes across the state apparatus in the coming weeks as a new government takes hold under new leadership.
There are several positives that may emerge from this change, even though short-term disruption is likely. The new government is likely to stick to the goals of its development plan, but wholesale reshuffles may open the door to more conversations around reform. A radical liberalisation of the economy seems unlikely if EPRDF precedent is anything to go by. But the country’s political leaders have grown acutely aware that things cannot go on as they are, and we anticipate that this change in administration will see creeping political, economic and commercial reforms, largely in a positive trajectory. Political change and any associated reform may also help to ease some of the tensions prevailing at the grass-roots level, and reduce the unrest which has been so damaging to business. Much will depend on the identity of the new leadership and the commitments they make on coming to office. For now, businesses will watch from the wings, but amid growing frustration around the slow pace of change and the unresponsiveness of government to a number of issues, the introduction of a new government will provide a potentially good opportunity for firms to seek a more constructive engagement with government, and to forge a path of shared advantage around the investments Ethiopia so sorely needs.
Roddy Barclay is Director of Intelligence and Analysis at Africa Practice. In this role he oversees a team of political analysts and business intelligence consultants across the company’s office network on the continent and in London. Roddy has been advising businesses on understanding and managing political risk in Africa for over eight years.