Can PM Hailemariam Desalegn Lead Change?
By Tesfaye Demmellash
Now that Ato Hailemariam Desalegn is sworn in as Prime Minster, officially confirmed in the position of power formerly held by the late Meles Zenawi, we can finally proclaim: “The Prime Minister is dead, long live the Prime Minister!” But, wait. We don’t yet know the real leadership status and function of the new PM. True, the swearing in was historic in that it represented the first peaceful transfer of power in modern, post-revolutionaryEthiopia. But what kind of transitional political figure is PM Hailemariam Desalegn?
Does his appointment usher in a new age of civilian national stewardship in Ethiopiathat leaves behind the era of armed, autocratic, tagai leadership? Is he or will he be his own man politically or an interim place-holder for the Woyanes, a Dmitry Medvedev, as it were, for their future Vladimir Putin who would emerge from their ranks and reclaim the position, perhaps after the 2015 election? Can we be cautiously hopeful about the new leader’s potential as a political innovator or reformer while still mindful of the daunting inertia of authoritarianism he faces?
Making democratic change “we all can believe in” is difficult in a country such as ours steeped in autocratic political tradition. In fighting for such change, we as a nation have shed blood, sweat, and tears, and suffered exile in massive numbers for decades with little to show for all that struggle by way of meaningful political progress for the Ethiopian people. Having endured an unenlightened, reform-resistant imperial rule which remained patently autocratic to the end, the people have put up with successive tyrannical revolutionary regimes whose democratic self-identification has been mere rhetorical conceit, nothing but a pretense, a lie.
And so a question suggests itself: how does actual democratic change get made inEthiopiaafter the demise of the last authoritarian leader? Or, more specifically, what are the possibilities and challenges of progressive political reform under the leadership of PM Hailemariam?
The end of the personal autocracy of Meles Zenawi appears to offer the nation yet another historic opportunity to try and make a real democratic turn, to find a way out from under debilitating authoritarianism. Sadly, the Woyanes have twice squandered such a chance in the past – once when they took power after the fall of the Derg and again in the aftermath of the 2005 election. Can we expect anything different from them this time around, namely, to allow Hailemariam to come into his own as PM, possibly to lead change and reform? Or will they reduce him to their front man, ensure in effect that he bow down to their dominance?
If the excesses to which the TPLF-EPRDF regime went in producing, staging, and directing the melodramatic public mourning of the death of Meles Zenawi are any guide, the regime appears to have no inclination to make any correction to its authoritarian course. We witnessed a politically over-orchestrated spectacle of public grieving involving the herding of masses of people for the occasion, many reportedly paid or compelled into displays of crying and wailing. We saw numbing formulaic testimonials by countless individuals from all walks of life, including members of the political elite, touting the greatness of Meles Zenawi and expressing “their” determination to continue and complete the work he started and to realize his vision of “democracy” and “development” for the country.
New Possibilities and Conditions of Change?
Still, in times of transition and uncertainty in the affairs of states, such as what we have in Ethiopia today, options and potentialities of change open up which could enable new or reconstructed political leaders within (as well as outside) such states to build on these possibilities and turn them into actual opportunities for significant change and reform. Such chances may not always be capitalized upon, as the failure of Kinijit following the 2005 election sadly demonstrated. But they generally afford leading individuals and groups openings for skillfully navigating uncharted political waters, moving in a new, more open or even democratic direction. Can we approach or view the shifting political terrain in Ethiopia today with the same expectation, that is to say, does PM Hailemariam have a chance to move ably on that terrain and lead change?
There are many among us in the Diaspora and at home who are quite skeptical of such a possible turn of events, some arguing that it is the height of naiveté to expect the Woyane regime to tolerate any internal reforms that will necessarily undo or lessen its monopoly of power. The TPLF, it is contended, can hardly be expected to preside over the dissolution of its own dictatorial rule. The ruling party is unwilling and unable, given its political history, ideology, and practice, to revamp itself out of power, allow PM Hailemariam to achieve success as a national leader by instituting much needed political and economic reforms.
There is some truth to this contention. But here is the thing: the matter is not all about what the ruling clique wants, about its willingness or unwillingness to entertain reform. It is, first, about increasing, possibly change-inducing pressures that are, or can be brought to bear on the post-Meles EPRDF state by opposition forces and the Ethiopian people generally; and, second, it is about the extent to which emerging or reconstructed political actors within the state, led by the new PM, manage to seize internal openings and spaces, methodically developing these into opportunities for building a new national consensus on democratic change and development.
This means a fundamental source of political reform inEthiopiatoday is the EPRDF regime itself, as it now undergoes an uncertain transition to a post-Meles era. Meles was not merely one among other top Woyane leaders. He was the linchpin of the entire TPLF-EPRDF party-state apparatus, its supreme architect, ideologue and executive, its dominant, nearly indispensable personification. He had intellectual curiosity and technocratic competence unmatched by his TPLF peers or many of his political opponents. Masterful in prettifying his unappealing tribal-authoritarian rule for credulous, admiring Western audiences, he moved deftly to transpose the terms of his autocracy into an alluring rhetoric of democracy and development. Consequently, his death was a huge setback to the EPRDF state, particularly to TPLF hegemony within that state.
So we can expect the post-Meles era to open up new or wider opportunities of movement for pro-reform forces within and outside the Woyane regime, to embolden alternative and oppositional political forces in the country and in the Diaspora in a way and to an extent they have not been before. The new era is bound to invite, as it should, increasingly insistent demands from Ethiopian patriots and progressives for transition to a new, freer and more just political order in the country. In short, the TPLF dictatorship is vulnerable to democratic challenge and change now more than ever.
The Personal in Political Leadership
The EPRDF state may have thrown up new openings or possibilities for political change in the wake of the death of its supreme leader, but the openings themselves are not going to spontaneously produce the democratic change the Ethiopian people want. The possibilities have to be developed into actual opportunities and conditions for the desired change by potentially reform-seeking leaders within the state (as well as by opposition groups). Here is where PM Hailemariam Desalegn comes in. Assuming he is not reduced to a play thing of the inner circle or a dominant faction of the TPLF and manages to establish himself as his own man in the position of authority he occupies, how could he proceed in leading change and reform, possibly evolving in the process into an innovative political figure in his own right, a new type of progressive Ethiopian leader?
This is an involved question that requires close study and analysis of ongoing events and developments in the country. We cannot attempt to answer it adequately at this point.
As is evident already, what I do here is mostly raise pertinent questions for discussion rather than offer ready answers. Let me first say a few words generally about individuality or the personal in political-national leadership before talking about the possibilities and challenges of PM Hailemariam’s stewardship.
We evaluate a national leader first and foremost by his personal integrity or wholeness within the political and the national, by his individual autonomy; we ask what he does himself in thought and practice, particularly in addressing national concerns, as distinct from simply reflecting or prioritizing the interests, ideas, and agenda of the particular party or group to which he may belong. A partisan hack or an ethnonationalist ideologue of a leader for instance is often preoccupied with attempting to impose on an entire country a predetermined political program which is not open to question or broad public discussion and debate.
Leaders are often assessed in terms of publicly noticeable traits and tendencies, such as the way in which they work with ideas, people, and political others or adversaries, their intellectual and political capabilities, their rhetorical style and communicative skills, and their policy choices and decisions, which reflect their priorities and values. But a leader can also be evaluated on the basis of a rarer, publicly not readily visible, yet no less important trait, namely, his capability to look back on himself and the conditions within which he operates, with an eye toward achieving higher levels of autonomous agency.
Thus, confronted with the constraints of a given political system, which can range from an authoritarian ideological dogma to narrowly circumscribed technocratic terms of development discourse, a leader asks questions like: “How free or autonomous am I as a political actor to make informed public policies and decisions? What choices are closed to me and why? What is right or wrong with existing definitions of national problems and with the ‘solutions’ offered for them?” A leader possessed of such reflexive awareness means a leader who has a mind open to difficult challenges, a problem-solving attitude toward things that do not work or work poorly, and courage to embrace the new or the innovative.
Enter Hailemariam Desalegn
Hailemariam was referred to in a recent commentary (Yared Ayicheh, Ecadforum) as “a new blood in the EPRDF,” with a background as “a post-armed struggle member of EPRDF’s leadership,” one who politically can be said to have an entirely “new mentality.” Granted that Hailemariam’s professional training (civil engineer), religious affiliation (Protestant), ethnic-regional origin (Wolayta, in southern Ethiopia), and the fact that armed struggle has not been a formative influence on his political career all mean that he is indeed a new type of Ethiopian national leader.
That said, questions about Hailemariam’s actual and possible function as a political leader arise: could he have reached the position of top national leadership that he has, shooting up through the TPLF-dominated EPRDF party-state hierarchy, without being thoroughly conditioned or “socialized” into the priorities, ideas, goals, and practices of that hierarchy? If he could not have, then what is the significance of, say, his ethnicity as such for his political orientation and loyalty? His novelty as a political and national figure notwithstanding, is PM Hailemariam assumed to be a passive player, entirely “guided” in his policies and actions by his Woyane handlers? If not, how can he claim any warrant to reform the existing political system while operating, of necessity, within it? Or, now that he is formally installed in the highest office in the land, could he invest himself with actual personal autonomy as a policymaker and national leader?
It is too early in the transition to the post-Meles era to say what kind of leader Hailmariam Desalegn is or likely to be, whether he has the motivation or the will to power that could drive him to impart his own intellectual, moral, and political stewardship to the formal position of authority he occupies. We don’t know nearly enough about the man or his leadership capabilities. But we can point to ways in which the new PM could operate relatively effectively through the transition and beyond, in the process growing in the position he holds, gaining innovative leadership skills, and perhaps helping to usher in a new, more democratic political order inEthiopia. The challenge he faces here, should he decide to push for meaningful political reform, is huge, though not insurmountable. For the Woyane ruling stratum at the core of the EPRDF regime is resistant to any change except the formal elaboration or marginal modification of the existing pattern of partisan-tribal rule which serves its interests well.
Assuming Hailemariam is open, at least potentially, to taking pragmatic steps to meet the challenge of peaceful transition to a new political order, his first task will be to build a pro-reform coalition within the state, which might conceivably include reconstructed members of the TPLF. He will then have to skillfully lead the coalition in actually bringing about the much needed change. As to how exactly PM Hailemariam proceeds in carrying out such challenging, politically risky measures of reform, limited tactical moves suggest themselves more so than a grand strategy. Why? What is the difference?
A strategy is a plan or set of goals formulated and enacted by an assignable agency – an organization, a political party, a revolutionary movement – that is distanced from an adversary or an established political system. It operates from a relatively secure or autonomous base, aiming to overthrow or transform a given political order. Tactics, on the other hand, could operate within a political system without opposing the system, its ideology and practice, explicitly or wholesale. They come into play in response to more immediate and practical needs and issues within a given order of things. For example, they make possible shifts in interpretation and usage of ruling ideas in particular contexts through extension to alternative meanings and applications. Why is this distinction significant in the context of current Ethiopian events and political developments?
Well, the new PM is politically in no position to attempt a major overhaul of the existing state even if he wants to. He has no space to operate in a strategic mode in pursuing change. He works, of necessity, within a tightly controlled authoritarian regime which has created him as its leader, at least formally, and which keeps him in relative power. Tactically, however, PM Hailemariam has some room for maneuver, should he choose to lead in paving a progressive path of reform ahead.
There are, undoubtedly, political risks and challenges that accompany this choice. But tactical movements mitigate the risks involved by allowing potential reformers to keep the ideology and policies of the state formally at play while skillfully “working the system” to advance alternative interpretations and applications of existing ideas, mainly “democracy” and “development.” In this way, tactical engagements enable potential reformers to work on the existing political culture while at the same time operating “within” it.
Tactical movements should not be seen simply as the initiatives of new or reconstructed leaders within the existing state. They have objective conditions of possibility in that they arise in part as responses to systemic problems and inadequacies. While the TPLF-EPRDF political system is a repressive authoritarian machine, it is not an absolutely closed circuit in which its ideas always carry predetermined, fully calculated and controlled meanings and its intentions and messages are never incoherent. The ruling ideology has to be constantly invoked, enforced, defended and rationalized in daily life, often exposing its fundamental problems and limitations – the hollowness of its democratic and constitutional rhetoric and the unpopularity of its exclusive, contradictory partisan-tribal agenda. These limitations create spaces or openings within the state which allow a pro-reform coalition led by PM Hailemariam to rework, even reverse, existing authoritarian ideas, codes, and practices, thereby tactically moving in the direction of a new, more open and democratic political order in Ethiopia.
I have here highlighted, hopefully in a reasonably optimistic, not merely wishful tone, possibilities and challenges of Ethiopian transition to a more open and just political order under the leadership of PM Hailemariam Desalegn. But, to really be effective and lasting, the effort of a pro-reform coalition within the state has to gain the active participation and support of civil society groups and dissident parties and coalitions outside the state. While change-oriented initiatives and movements within the state are vital, significant undertakings in themselves, they will have at best only limited impact if they remain unconnected to and unsupported by broader aspirations and struggles of the Ethiopian people for democratic change.
And this means there are some negative lessons – what not to do or how not to exercise national stewardship – PM Hailmariam needs to learn from the late Meles Zenawi. These lessons pertain to leadership style and substance. While the political capabilities and technocratic skills that Meles brought to his position as national leader cannot be gainsaid, the spirit in which he ruled the country was deeply flawed. In large part because of decades of association with an ethnonationalist dogma born of Leninism-Stalinism, he had difficulty even addressingEthiopiaas one nation or one people. To him,Ethiopiameant nothing beyond a collection of disparate “nationalities” or “peoples.” Even as leader of the whole country, he valued strident partisanship over political moderation and national consensus, often demanding submission from patriotic and democratic dissidents or insisting on their exclusion from the political process.
PM Hailemaraim cannot rule the country in this mode if he is to be a truly transitional political figure, a new type of progressive Ethiopian leader. He needs to jettison Zenawi’s exclusively partisan-tribal “revolutionary” style and clearly distance himself from his wily predecessor’s dubious intentions for Ethiopia. He has to see and present himself as a leader of one nation that is more than a simple aggregation of particular tribal “kilils.” And he needs to reverse the lack of Ethiopian national sensibility or concern that marked Zenawi’s dealings with foreign interests in the country, such as “investors” from theMiddle East andAsia. The new PM should likewise correct his predecessor’s culturally indifferent, at once overly technocratic and exclusively partisan vision of “development” for the country.
None of this is going to be easy, even if PM Hailemariam sees the need for significant reform and has the inclination and the courage to work for it. But no worthwhile undertaking ever is. The new Ethiopian leader’s success in helping bring about meaningful change is going to depend in part on how ably and skillfully he moves through the shifting political terrain, articulating a persuasive vision of progressive reform and building support for it within and outside the state.
The writer, Tesfaye Demmellash can be reached at: email@example.com