The Great Succession Crisis of 2012: Death and illness of leaders threatens to distablize TPLF grip on power

Jawar Mohammed

The status of Meles Zenawi’s health is unclear. But one thing is not in doubt: we are already in a post-Meles era, and the ruling clique is scrambling to reach consensus on a successor. Two months after the strong man’s collapse, they do not seem to have been able to agree his replacement.  Sebehat Nega’s’ repeated interviews contradicting the official stories about Meles’ health, and his decision to appear on ESAT, an opposition media banned by the regime speaks volumes about the intense friction underneath the facade of calmness.   While they are struggling to overcome this incapacitating dilemma, the sudden and mysterious death of the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church has added more trouble to the situation.  Abune Paulos, a Tigrean, who was enthroned  in 1992,  by displacing a living patriarch  had been a staunch ally of the ruling clique. The choice of his replacement will undoubtedly be contentious, especially if the regime decides to install another loyalist Tigrean.

Adding to this is the fact that president Girma Woldegiorgis, who recently survived a near-death experience at age 88, will have to be replaced this fall as he is completing his second term. Even more contentious is the issue surrounding the fate of Alemayehu Atomsa, president of Oromia, the largest region in the federation. Having fallen ill just months after his appointment in 2010, Alemayehu has been too sick to effectively undertake his duties. The region’s administrative affairs have been so paralysed in the last two years that the demand to replace him with a healthy president has become widespread.  Currently, the OPDO central committee is in the middle of a heated debate in search of a replacement.

These calamities present a peculiar test to the continued domination of the TPLF.  Four important posts have to be filled within a month.  Any possible controversy about any one of them could generate a ripple effect on all. For the positions of prime minister and patriarch, the trouble for the regime is whether to replace the incumbents with Tigreans or entrust these key positions to outsiders. The federal presidency is a powerless position, and yet it will be closely watched due to its symbolic significance. For the Oromia region, the litmus test is whether, in the absence of Meles, the TPLF will be able to install a candidate of its choice against stubborn opposition from the OPDO leadership and rank and file.  Current developments show that if the TPLF succeeds in dictating who leads the OPDO – as it has done for 22 years – it will  perhaps has to be at gunpoint.

Filling the Big Man’s Shoes

At the heart of the contention is whether to replace Meles with another Tigrean or if the key position of premier and commander-in-chief can be entrusted to an outsider. Neither of the two choices are simple. Going for another Tigrean will have two problems. First, doing so would vindicate the growing criticism of the Tigrean monopoly of power, which the ruling elite has tried vehemently to deny. They can no longer maintain the usual promise to the affiliate parties that power will eventually circulate among coalition partners. Second, even if they choose to go with a Tigrean, it will be hard to find as clear  front-runner and dominant figure  that can be consensually endorsed by factions of the TPLF.   In his efforts to safeguard his power from internal threat, Meles has been adept at preventing the emergence of an alternative leader from within the TPLF by demoralizing, demonizing and purging capable individuals. Potential candidates such as Arkebe Ekubay  have been effectively emasculated. Hence the choice seems to be to go with a non-Tigrean, preferably from among the smaller ethnic groups. This in fact has been a strategic calculation behind the grooming of Hailemariam Desalegn even before Meles’ illness. This might be a safe bet, but could have tricky consequences. Since practically all important power us vested in the PM position, it will be a disaster for the TPLF if a weak leader like Mr. Desalegn should wake up one morning and want to play Morsi.  As in the case of Morsi’s swift move against the military, Hailemariam could take such an action and generate possibly an overwhelming endorsement both from affiliated parties as well as the opposition – each of whom would be all too happy to bring an end to the an happy TPLF’s monopoly of power.

Of the Patriarch’s sudden death:

The installation of Abune Paulos in 1992 had two objectives. First, it was part of the rising Tigrean elite’s strategy to reduce Amhara influence by displacing them from the helm of all key institutions in the country. The second was to take control of one of the most powerful institutions by appointing one of the TPLF’s own, so that the Church could serve as  an instrument of the ruling class rather than a source of re-empowerment for their archenemy. Consequently, the Church was split into two factions, one led by the exiled Abune Merkorios and the other by the late Abune Paulos. As a result, while the past two decades have been painful for the Orthodox faithful, it has been quite useful to the regime: the Church not only functions as another arm of the state, but also the fragmentation has successfully advanced the regime’s divide-and-rule objectives.

Suffice to say that maintaining direct  control of the Orthodox Church is crucial for prolonging the TPLF’s domination. Ideally, this could be done by replacing the deceased Abune with another Tigrean bishop. But this is not going to be an easy path.  First, the faithful expect his death to bring reconciliation and an end to two decades of friction; therefore, they may not tolerate imposition of another divisive figure. On the political front, appointing two Tigrean Abunes in a row would be highly contested. It could even lead to a full-scale uprising by the clergy, who have already been complaining about nepotism in ecclesiastical appointment.

Since the regime cannot afford an Orthodox uprising at the time when it is struggling to cope with the nine months long Muslim protest, it has no option but to find a less hostile Amhara bishop and enthrone him . Although the Church arguably has more Oromo adherents than Tigreans, there are very few Oromo bishops making them marginal players in the Church’s politics. Yet appointing an Amhara, regardless of how loyal the person might be,  poses serious dangers. First, in order to ensure continued loyalty of the new patriarch, the regime will likely surround him with  Tigrean bishops . Such action is unlikely to be accepted by the faithful, given the alleged corrupt scandals  committed by those who surrounded the departed Patriarch. The potential popular dissent could embolden the new Patriarch to assert his independence. Such a scenario renews the controversy,  this time in favor of the dissenters. Regardless of who might be enthroned to be the next Patriarch, the choice is bound to exacerbate the political crisis of post Meles TPLF.

The Presidency:Undesired yet contested

As the presidency is a ceremonial position with little real political power, the post will be contested not so much for its privilege but for the symbolic value set by precedent.  Although there is no official rule, it has become the norm for the post to be filled by an Oromo as is the case with the last two presidents.The TPLF  regularly makes the point that the spot is reserved for the largest segment of the coalition, a claim used as response  each time Oromos ask why they are denied posts comparable to their numeric weight. In reality TPLF has been appointing Oromos to this post to legitimize its own domination of the real source of power, the premiership of the government.

Nevertheless, having lost both of the senior ministerial portfolios of defense and trade, the OPDO is closely watching the president, not so much out of eagerness to retain  it but in order to exchange it for a more meaningful position.  Complicating the matter is a fact that TPLF has been agitating other affiliated parties to resent the continued occupation of the palace by Oromos. This is one of the reasons why filling this post has been dragged to the end of the term and the current president is pressured to remain in the position, despite not being in sound physical state to perform his official duties.

Regardless of who the TPLF wants to install in this position, there might also be a constitutional (if there has ever been a constitutional order) ambiguity  that will further complicate or facilitate the selection. Just as in the case of succession of the prime minister, the constitution is also vague when it comes to who might be nominated for president. Article 70(1) states that “[the] Council of Peoples’ Representatives shall nominate the candidate for President”. Whereas article 70(3) says, “[a] member of either Council shall vacate his seat if elected President.” Yet it is not clear whether a person has to be a member of the Council of Peoples’ Representatives in the first place in order to be eligible for nomination to the presidency. This is in contrast to Article 73(1), which clearly stipulates that “[the] Prime Minister shall be elected by the Council of Peoples’ Representatives from among its members.”

The practice so far has been to nominate a member of the parliament. Moreover, the so-called “Negasso Proclamation”, an amendment passed in 2001  to prevent the rebellious former president from being politically active, has led  a public perception that the  presidential nominee shall be an independent member of the parliament. Further strengthening this perception is the fact that during the 2010 election Dr Ashebir Woldegiorgis was made to run independently, though his sympathy and affiliation with the ruling party is public knowledge. However, although this the common understanding  held by the public, including members of the ruling party, legal experts contend that, since what is  not explicitly forbidden by the constitution is permitted, neither membership to parliament nor non-party affiliation is required of a presidential nominee. Either to continue with precedent set by practice so far, or adopt a new path is another issue  the ruling elites have to grapple with.

This constitutional ambiguity could be either advantageous or disadvantageous to TPLF. If they want to appoint the presumed choice, Dr. Asheber, they could easily eliminate other contenders by reading the constitution  as implying that the nominee has to be an independent member of parliament. They regularly use proclamations to bend the constitution in favour of the their objectives. The reported drafting of a new law, by the ministry of justice, that ‘enables’ succession of the prime minister is the newest example of  such constitutional manipulation.

On other hand if they want to choose someone else, they can do so by interpreting the constitution as leaving the door open for non-MPs. But opening that door, aside from further delegitimizing the supremacy of the constitution, could invite the affiliate parties to eye the post, making it hard for the TPLF to justify the eventual pick.

On a related note  the regime is spreading rumor that it  is planning to anoint a Muslim to the presidency in order to legitimize its crackdown against the ongoing Muslim protest. Yet this is unlikely to work as the demand of the protest is for religious freedom rather than who should occupy the ‘Lower Palace’.

OPDO-  Bringing back the Godfather

When the skyrocketing popularity of Abadula Gemeda was seen as threatening for Meles, he was demonized and replaced by Alemayehu Atomsa, an obscure bureaucrat, formerly with the EPRDF propaganda office and with little connection with the OPDO’s rank and file. However, Alemayehu fell sick within months of  his appointment, and has rarely been dispensing his duties as he has been traveling abroad for medical care for most of the last two years. Yet Meles kept him in position, while assigning a Tigrean member of the intelligence to run the show behind the scenes. Some two hundred of the OPDO’s rank and file were sent to jail when they publicly rejected the removal of Abadula from his position . At the present the rank and file is said to be extremely resentful both about keeping in place a man who was obviously incapacitated and also the return of the pre-2001 era in which the TPLF’s security men ran the show by undermining authorities of OPDO leadership . Now Alemayehu is said to have submitted his resignation, adding another vacancy that must be filled.

It is essential for the TPLF to ensure that the position is filled by someone  who lacks connection to the rank and file. But this too is not going to be as easy as in the past. First, Meles was able to reshuffle the OPDO as he wished and install candidates of his choice at will, because the upper echelon of the organization were personally loyal to him, be it out of fear or respect built over years of relationships. With Meles out of the picture, imposing the TPLF’s will over the OPDO and other affiliated parties is not going to be so smooth.

We are already observing the tell-tale signs of this. Apparently using the vacuum created by Meles’ disappearance, the leading men of the OPDO organized an unofficial vote of no confidence on Alemayehu, then gave him the option of resigning with dignity before being officially fired.  When the central committee convened this past week to choose a successor, as usual, the TPLF put forward its choice in Aster Mamo. The rank and file who have been demanding the return of Abadula dominated him.  However, the TPLF men who were “observing” and organizing the election as a “neutral body” rejected Abadula’s candidacy, claiming that he cannot run the state while being a speaker of the federal parliament. In protest, the OPDO refused to put another name forward and forced Aster Mamo to compete by herself. She has reportedly failed to get even a simple plurality, receiving less than 20 votes out of the total 51. Disappointed with stubbornness of the once loyal puppets, the TPLF men left for the capital leaving  the OPDO reconvened alone, and likely to pick Abadula or a candidate of his choice.

There are two factors that explain why the various factions and OPDO is rallying behind Abadula. First, the administrative efficiency and reform observed during his reign, earned him tremendous respect from young members of the organization and the public at large. Given the region has been paralysed in the last two years, there is huge popular demand to bring him back. The second reason is that since TPLF has humiliated almost all of the senior leadership, consensus has emerged that sticking together is the only way they could protect themselves. By nominating Abadula and refusing to endorse TPLF’s choice, the senior leadership is attempting to assert institutional independence. TPLF could still install its favored candidate, but it will have to do so not through cooperation of the senior leadership as in the past, but  rather by using force to crush this organizational dissent–in the process showing its ugly face.


Whether the ruling elites admit  or shrugs it off, nature has brought the most serious threat TPLF has ever faced, and how they deal with it will determine whether and for how much longer they can cling to power. For  the first time, they have to let go off and entrust to outsiders  two of the most powerful posts in the country, the premiership and the patriarchy. Appointment of the new president is also an issue that will inevitably disappoint   one or more of the affiliate parties, adding more aggrieved groups, further enlarging the number of enemies of the post-Meles TPLF. They have to try to reassert control of the most restless region, Oromia,  this without the benefit of the intimidating presence and manipulative shrewdness of Meles. The choice they make for one of the spots is will limit their option on the other.  Miscalculation in filling up these vacated posts could have a snowballing effect, at  this  time of severe economic stress, and rapidly growing and strategically sophisticated  social movements.


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