At the ruling party congress in Bahir Dar in March no-one questioned the succession plan devised by Meles a decade before, but differences rumble under the surface.
Any lingering fears that Ethiopia would suffer a bumpy period fol- lowing the death last August of Premier Meles Zenawi were put to rest during the ruling party congress in the Amhara Region’s lakeside capital of Bahir Dar in late March.
With more than 1,000 delegates in attendance, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn was elected chairman of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).
But in an organisation known for its rigid culture of discipline and secrecy, the avalanche of criticism from the party’s rank and file came as a surprise.
Inside and outside the $27 m conference hall, delegates, retired EPRDF leaders and prominent business people took the party hierarchy to task on a number of problems, the most serious of which, they said, was the leadership’s lack of accountability.
Larger than life
Such criticism was virtually unknown during the 21-year reign of strongman Meles. Whether it is a sign of an impending political opening is, however, an entirely separate question.
The party has pasted photo shopped images of Meles on the backs of buses and taxis, while state television and radio routinely adulate the late leader, taking the cult of personality to larger-than-life proportions.Back in Addis Ababa 10 days after the Bahir Dar meeting, the adulation was again officially endorsed by the unveiling of the Meles Zenawi Foundation.
Within the ruling party, the scramble to own Meles’s legacy is being played out between senior apparatchiks and Meles’s widow Azeb Mesfin. For now, the fierce sense of fidelity to the late premier’s ambitions both for the party and for Ethiopia’s development path works well for the new leadership.
Prime Minister Hailemariam is now seeking to consolidate his position. With two years to go before the next party convention and elections, Hailemariam has much to do to shrug off any suggestions that he is an outsider to the establishment, a front for a party leadership led by a Tigrayan elite that continues to dominate almost every sector of public life.
It was notable that the EPRDF implemented its succession plan to the letter. Meles devised it a decade ago to allow civilian politicians to replace the combatants of the struggle against the Derg.
In the cabinet and the party’s executive committee, only a few of the war veterans who came to power in 1991 remain.
Observers are quick to note, however, that this longer transition means that the incoming civilian political elite is faced with carving out a space for itself away from the legacy of the struggle.
For Hailemariam, the perception of his outsider status is enhanced by his ethnic and religious background. “[Hailemariam] is not from the northern Highlands, is not an Orthodox Christian, is in fact Pentecostalist, outside the mainstream of the Ethiopian ruling elite and is indeed the first leader in Ethiopian history, modern and ancient, not to have emerged from the Highlands,” says a Western observer and long-time resident of Ethiopia.
However, it seems fairly certain that Hailemariam, a former governor of the Southern Nations Nationalities and People’s Region, perhaps the country’s most ethnically diverse state, will be unchallenged at the EPRDF’s next congress in 2015.