Meles’ new cabinet (Part 2):Haile-Mariam’s rise by Eskinder Nega
Unusually for the impetuously explosive Meles Zenawi, his reaction to the turbulent events of the second half of 2005 was in the best manner of the (long idolized) silent, strong Ethiopian male:he internalized his emotions. Unsurprisingly, he was a decidedly depressed man by early 2006.
There is always the straw that inevitably breaks the camel’s back in such situations, and for Meles such were the findings of the Commission delegated to investigate the post-election riots.(Security forces had appallingly thrown grenades at unarmed protesters, the Commission found out.) The moody Meles that his mother once spoke of resurfaced, and suddenly, with an air of a leader let down( “I did not authorize the use of live ammunition,” he had sensationally told the Commission.), he was speaking of his last term in office. This of course was not the first time he spoke of leaving office, but unlike the past, the genie shot out of the bottle this time . In lieu of the transformed political milieu and his obviously elongated term in office, the proposition had to be taken seriously for the first time.
The possibility of change, even within the narrow confines of the EPRDF, invariably threatens vested interests. The first resistance instinctively came from them; and predictably, from fringe narrow nationalists( the Aiga crowd.). Meles was snappishly dismissive of the later.( He publicly ruled out the possibility of being replaced by a TPLF member, devastating the morale of the fringe.) But the issues and concerns of the former could not be dismissed. Meles is unavoidably part of the entrenched interests his administration nurtured—directly or indirectly—and as goes the political convention (and precedent) their continued sustenance demands political primacy. Astute Meles scarcely needs to be reminded of this enduring element to Ethiopia’s traditional politics.
The first opening to maintain the status-quo(Meles’ primacy in government),albeit stealthily, presented itself when murmurs in the OPDO against the ANDM, whose seniority in the coalition had positioned it in to the most probable successor to the Prime Ministership, began to be expressed audibly. Meles seized the opportunity. The setting was cast for a classic Machiavellian divide and rule; which, to cut a long story short, eventuated in the displacement of the ANDM by the weakest member of the coalition, new Deputy Prime Minister Haile Mariam’s Southern Movement.
There is no Southern community in Ethiopia that is naturally expressed through a common language, culture, ethnicity, or crucially, world-view ( what Stalin termed as “common psychological make up.”) And thus there is rationally no societal foundation for a Southern Movement. The South evolved as an administrative and political expediency for the EPRDF, which desperately needed a framework to
house 45 ethnic groups (representing about a third of the nation) in its coalition. But so reviled has the region become by “Southerners”(particularly the Sidamas), it could safely be hailed as a “prison of nations and nationalities.” In fact, so intense was the tension and mistrust in the regional administration between Sidamas and Welaytas on the one hand, and Gurages and Siltes on the other, that dissolution, in defiance of popular sentiment, of the all EPRDF affiliated ethnic parties in the region was deemed the only solution.( Which is against the raison d’être of EPRDF’s existence; as it envisages a political party for each ethnic group.) In their place now stands the unitary Southern Movement, utterly detached from reality. Barring the truly transcending (like Obama), the Southern Movement is an unsuitable terrain for politicians to cultivate a power base. Meles could not have imagined it better.
But this not all there is to the story. There is also the ideal persona of Haile-Mariam himself. This completes the picture-perfect setting for Meles’ ambitious drive to “Putin-ize” (after the Putin-Medvedev arrangement) post-2015 Ethiopia.
Few days after his surprise elevation to the position of Meles’ deputy in the EPRDF, Haile- Mariam sat with a pro-EPRDF newspaper for a lengthy interview. “ Will you assume the Deputy Prime Minister’s position?” asks the reporter. “ I don’t know,” replies Haile- Mariam warily. “ But your position in the party makes it a matter of default,” presses the reporter. “There is no way for me to know the secrets of the party,” answers Haile- Mariam reflexively, obviously caught off guard. Ten years after his accession to the Central Committee and Executive Committee of the EPRDF, ostensibly the inner-core of the party where all important decisions are made, Haile- Mariam had yet to consider himself an insider ( correctly, by the way.) Incredibly, in eight of those ten years, he was, as leader of the Southern Movement, in theory one of the coalition’s four most important people. But partly for reasons detailed above, and no less for a visibly less-than-driven persona, Haile-Mariam was(and is) contentedly low-key. In the EPRDF, he was even prepared to play second-fiddle to Kassu Illala, his underling in the Southern Movement, who has always been close to Meles. Haile Mariam is always happy to be where he is(at least in politics), never showing any urge to go any further. Each time it had seemed that he had finally peaked, touching the apex of his happy-go-lucky political career, he had, to the absolute amazement of friends and foes alike, miraculously moved up. Rest assured that he would be mighty grateful for a Medvedev role, and could comfortably counted on not to rock the boat. There is nothing more Meles could ask for.
For all intents and purposes, every piece seems to have fallen in the right place in the jigsaw puzzle. Consider the OPDO. Having been part (with Meles as a willing accomplice) of the thwarting of ANDM’s two-decade ambition to succeed Meles, the OPDO is “half-happy” (a strong sense of entitlement to the position of PM still persists), and could hardly be in a state of dissent. Consider the Southern Movement. It is clearly being co-opted as a weak junior partner. More than it has ever bargained for. Consider the ANDM. It is the humiliating plight of the ANDM, however, that gives this saga much less than a fairy-tale like happy-ending for Meles . In sharp contrast to its hey-days, when its influence and power peaked in the early 2000s as Meles’ most trusted ally in his make-or-break tussle with Seye Abraha et al, the ANDM’s declining fortune is now epitomized by the nonsensical Ministries it leads in the Cabinet. Aside from the relatively important Justice Ministry, ANDM Ministers have been relegated to the embarrassingly lightweight Ministries like that of Youth. Its new leader, Demeke Mekonen Hassen, who hails from the low-lands of the Awi(Agew) zone in South West Amhara region, is by
default one of EPRDF’s four most important leaders(along with the other three leaders of the coalition’s four constituent members), but is absurdly junior in the Cabinet hierarchy to his juniors in the party hierarchy. Both the third(Defense, after Foreign) and the fourth(Federal) positions in the Cabinet have gone to Ministers from the South.(The Defense Minister is Siraj Fergesa, an ethnic Silte; and the Minister of Federal Affairs is Shiferaw Tkele-Mariam, PhD, an ethnic Hadeya. Both are as colorless as bottled water.) But Demeke is in many ways similar to Haile-Mariam. His rags-to-riches rise from an obscure teacher in the mid-90s to the helm of the ANDM could not reasonably be accounted to merit. He personifies mediocrity.
His party’s loss aside, he personally could not ask for more. Meles knows this. But Demeke’s accession to the helm probably has more to do with denying the ANDM a rallying figure. He is devoid of links to the Amhara heartland.
So there you have it. Meles has brilliantly maneuvered the internal dynamics of the EPRDF in favor of his plans for post-2015 Ethiopia. The new Cabinet is the culmination of his success. If all goes according to plan, brace yourselves to more years with Meles Zenawi than the mere five in front of us.
But, like they say, a week is a long time in politics. And Meles Zenawi can not be denied his fantasies in-between.