A bid by some in the ruling coalition to appoint an Oromo prime minister faces deep-seated opposition
The national crisis has entered an even more dangerous phase after a disputed parliamentary vote triggered another strike in Oromia, amid opposition concerns that the ruling party is preparing to select an establishment figure to replace Hailemariam Desalegn, who resigned the premiership on 15 February but remains in post while the wrangling over his successor goes on.
The 2 March vote approving a state of emergency put the widening rifts within the previously cohesive ruling Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and its four constituent regional parties on open display (AC Vol 59 No 4, The edifice cracks). Almost half of the 178 MPs from the Oromo Peoples' Democratic Organisation, the Oromo part of the EPRDF, mounted an unprecedented rebellion and objected to the decree. As Africa Confidential went to press, another three-day shutdown in Oromia, scheduled for 5-7 March, was in progress. A critical EPRDF committee meeting to choose the next prime minister did not start when it was supposed to, adding to the uncertainty.
Although the Speaker of the House, Abadula Gemeda, a veteran leader of the OPDO, announced that the State of Emergency had been ratified, he made several procedural errors, including miscounting votes.
Opposition legal experts argued that the 346 votes Abadula initially declared were in favour of the measure fell short of the required two-thirds majority, as the count had to be based on the total number of active lawmakers, 539 in all. Others suggested that the threshold required was 328, or two-thirds of the 490 MPs present. Regardless, parliamentary officials subsequently announced that Abadula had made a mistake and revised the tally of votes in favour to 395, inevitably leading to accusations that the process had been rigged. Deadly clashes followed in western Oromia over the weekend.
The other significant consequence of the drama was that it bolstered the argument of Front members who say the OPDO does not deserve the prime ministerial slot because not only can it not manage Oromia, it can't even control its own lawmakers (AC Vol 58 No 22, Oromia on the edge & Vol 59 No 1, Trouble in the engine room). Presumably, OPDO MPs voted against the decree because they believe the State of Emergency is a rearguard action by the security and political establishment controlled by the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) to suspend civil rights and assert federal control over regional states. The new measure has divided Ethiopia into eight security zones and observers believe it may foreshadow a more prominent role for the military in civilian affairs.
That 88 OPDO lawmakers rebelled betrayed the divisions within the EPRDF's Oromo base. It was also telling that senior figures such as the prime ministerial candidate and new OPDO Chairman, Abiy Ahmed, stayed away from parliament.
With the schedule unclear, the EPRDF now has to choose between: Abiy; Shiferaw Shigute, boss of the EPRDF Secretariat and Hailemariam's replacement as head of the multi-ethnic Southern Ethiopian People's Democratic Movement (SEPDM); and Demeke Mekonnen, who is Deputy Prime Minister, Deputy Chairman of the EPRDF and Chairman of the Amhara section of the Front, the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM).
It is still possible that Abiy will be elected, but the events in parliament make it less likely. Shiferaw and Demeke are creatures of the EPRDF establishment, but neither is seen as an inspiring or capable national leader. The TPLF also mistrusts Demeke and the ANDM because they have stirred anti-Tigrayan violence. However, if the OPDO does not take the reins of federal government there is a strong chance that Oromia will explode again (AC Vol 59 No 1, Trouble in the engine room).
With the ANDM, OPDO, SEPDM and TPLF entitled to 45 representatives each on the 180-member EPRDF Council, and every party poised to vote for its own candidate, the TPLF could well be the kingmaker. The Tigrayan leaders may plump for another southerner in Shiferaw, but whoever becomes prime minister will wield power that is rigorously circumscribed by the security high command. Ethiopia's crisis is sure to deepen.
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