A day after Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn of Ethiopia abruptly resigned, the country declared a state of emergency on Friday. The second such decree in less than two years, martial law was reimposed amid reports of a bitter succession struggle, a worrying development for a country buckling under years of political unrest.
Mr. Hailemariam came to power in 2012 after the death of Meles Zenawi, who had presided over the country since 1991 with an iron fist. Mr. Hailemariam was largely seen as an ineffective placeholder and from the outset, he faced difficulties, lacking a political base of his own. Hailing from a small minority group in the south of the country, the Wolayta, he quickly fell out with Ethiopia’s three dominant ethnic groups — the Oromo, the Amhara and the Tigrayans.
Neither the grass roots nor the leaders of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front were particularly enamored of him, but they couldn’t agree on an alternative. In theory, the party, in power for nearly 27 years, is a coalition of four ethnic-based parties. In reality, it is dominated by ethnic Tigrayans, who, despite making up only 7 percent of the country’s population, control the economy, the military and the security sectors.
Mr. Hailemariam eventually became a man without allies; his resignation was hardly a surprise, it just came earlier than anticipated. He was widely expected to be replaced later this year when the E.P.R.D.F. holds its congress.
At least one million people in Ethiopia were internally displaced in 2017, according to the United Nations, amid widespread unrest and an economy in free-fall. In a December meeting, the party’s executive committee blamed Mr. Hailemariam’s poor leadership for the country’s and the party’s woes — thereby sealing his fate. As the humanitarian, political and security crisis turned into calamity, he took personal responsibility for failing to stabilize the country rocked by stubborn protests from Oromo and Amhara ethnic groups, who together make up two-thirds of the population.
These protests, initially started by the Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, began in 2014 over opposition to a controversial plan to expand the jurisdiction of the capital, Addis Ababa. Security forces responded to peaceful protests with excessive force, provoking outrage and further protests, which eventually spread to the Amhara region. This culminated in the declaration in October 2016 of a state of emergency lasting 10 months. Tens of thousands were arrested in the ensuing crackdown. However, as soon as martial law was lifted in August 2017, the protesters, mostly young, returned to the streets, demanding regime change and the release of political prisoners, estimated to number in the tens of thousands.
Mr. Hailemariam resigned a day after some of these prisoners were released, including prominent opposition leaders and journalists. (More than 6,000 detainees have been freed in the past month in a government amnesty that Mr. Hailemariam and his party promised in January.) The pardoned leaders were met with euphoric freedom ralliesand homecoming celebrations across the Oromia region and in the capital, Addis Ababa. The outpouring of support for the freed leaders showed that the country can no longer be governed as it has been for the past 27 years — in the palm of one party.
More than Mr. Hailemariam’s departure, what is important is how the transition will shake out. The E.P.R.D.F. needs a leader who can unify the party, gain popular legitimacy and calm widening political and ethnic tensions. Moreover, beyond the change of guard at the top, a major policy shift is needed. Repression has outlived its usefulness. Unfortunately, the restoration of martial law suggests that the E.P.R.D.F. is still not prepared to learn its lesson. But continued authoritarianism in the face of fierce and determined protests will be futile.
To end the succession battle, the choice is clear: The new reformist leaders of the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization, led by Lemma Megersa, enjoy substantial public support. Everywhere they go, Mr. Lemma and his entourage receive a hero’s welcome, on a par with that received by the just-released opposition leaders — itself a significant change for a party whose support is often either bought or coerced. The O.P.D.O.’s youthful leaders relate easily to a generation now in revolt. Their support base cuts across political, ethnic and religious fault lines partly because they adopted the demands of the protesters and made bold commitments to democratization and unity.
Still, the transition is unlikely to be straightforward, as the imposition of a new state of emergency vividly demonstrates. The E.P.R.D.F. Council, which has the power to choose Mr. Hailemariam’s replacement, is expected to meet shortly to pick a successor. The Constitution stipulates that the prime minister be a member of the federal Parliament. This could be a source of further complication: Mr. Lemma isn’t a member of Parliament. There would have to be a snap election or an extraordinary political decision to facilitate his rise. That is unlikely in the short run, but not impossible — if the party so chooses.
The powerful military and intelligence services have to agree to such an arrangement and help pave the way for the emergence of a credible and competent leadership. In the end, this may be the deciding factor: The top military leaders, who are heavily involved in the country’s construction sector and implicated in rampant corruption and gross human rights abuses, have much at stake and may opt to resist change and maintain the current system. The declaration of martial law, which will put the country effectively under military command, does not bode well for the reform process that Mr. Hailemariam cited as a reason for his early exit.
Regardless, the winds of change sweeping across Africa have arrived in Ethiopia. The country’s future is shrouded in so much doubt and uncertainty, but it is impossible to imagine business as usual. The status quo is no longer tenable. And Ethiopia’s allies, including the United States, its biggest donor, can help mitigate these risks by pressing the regime to choose the correct path.
The E.P.R.D.F. can’t do it alone. In his televised address on Thursday, Mr. Hailemariam emphasized the need for a national consensus, but consensus is not a single-party affair. The country’s next leader must chart an inclusive transition that encompasses good-faith negotiation with the opposition. Otherwise Ethiopia is staring at years of instability.