By Juma Kwayera
Ethiopians are holding their breath following reports that Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is hospitalised in Belgium, with information about his health status hushed lest it heightens political tension in a country that is perpetually fragile.
Just as other countries in the Horn of Africa region, Ethiopian politics is riddled with deep-seated ethnic hostilities, with the larger tribes, the Amhara and Oromo, controlling economic instruments, while political power vests in minority tribes. Zenawi comes from the minority Tigre in the south and his deputy and Minister of Foreign Affairs Haile Mariam Desalegne comes from the north.
The fractious nature of Ethiopian politics is a source of concern in the West, especially US, which views Addis Ababa as an important ally in the war against terrorism in the Horn of Africa, concerns about the political tyranny not withstanding. Aware of the prime minister’s failing health, international organisations that have long attempted to reconcile hostile Ethiopian communities tried in February to work out a power sharing deal, but it did not materialise owing to a power struggle in the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Front (EPDRF). The talks, known as Ginbot-7 were intended to bring the separatist Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and Unity for Democracy and Justice Party (UDJ) led by prodemocracy campaigner and former political detainee Birtukan Midekssa, now exiled in the US.
According to the Ethiopian constitution, the Prime Minister enjoys absolute power, while the deputy, an appointee of the PM, exercises delegated power only. The position of the president, currently held by Girma Wolde-Giorgis (an Amharic), is largely ceremonial as it lacks executive powers.
According the Ethiopian power structure, Zenawi heads the government, chairs the Cabinet, security and the military. Accordingly, his absence creates a power void, which not even the deputy prime minister can fill in the prevailing circumstances without eliciting the revulsion of the politburo.
Political observers say Ethiopia is at a crossroads, with Dr Mohammed Ali, an expert on Horn of Africa politics and conflicts, saying it is not explicitly clear on the transfer of power in the event the office the prime minister falls vacant.
“The constitution does state whether the deputy prime minister can succeed the president. In the Ethiopian government structure the deputy prime minister does not have a job description. Ordinarily, he is supposed to exercise executive power, but Zenawi made sure that all power is concentrated in his hands for fear of ouster,” says Dr Ali.
He foresees a constitutional crisis in the coming days, an eventuality with the potential of touching off a fresh round political conflict.
The prime minister is elected by parliament, after which he is charged with the task of picking other senior government officials. The cronyism and nepotism that permeates all strata of government is expected to explode if the Prime Minister’s long absence begins to take a toll on the management of public affairs, which he controls whimsically.
EPRDP is an amalgamation of ethnic-based political organisations that converged following the ouster of former dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, now exiled in Zimbabwe since 1991 when he was forced out o power. EPRDP is made up of Tigre People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO), Amharic National Democratic Movement (ANDM) and Southern National and Nationalists Party (SNNP).