Hailemariam Desalegn’s resignation won’t stop unrest in Ethiopia

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Last week, Ethiopian prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn announced his resignation, following years of political unrest and violent protests in the country. It was a surprise move in which the PM took responsibility for failing to deal with Ethiopia’s political divisions more effectively – an apparent attempt to ease renewed anger against the government.

This follows an earlier surprise announcement that Ethiopia would free thousands of political prisoners arrested during recent unrest, which prompted new hope that a more democratic solution to the country’s political issues could be found.

However, suggestions that Desalegn’s resignation could pave the way for a new approach in Ethiopia are quickly proving to be overly optimistic. The government has declared another state of emergency, banning all political protests and giving security forces all the powers they used to arrest those political prisoners being released in the first place.

In the days following Desalegn’s announcement that he is stepping down as PM, his ruling party has done nothing to suggest it will address the concerns of those participating in protests, let alone change its approach in dealing with anti-government sentiment.

No signs of change

So far, it seems like the only thing that is going to change following Hailemariam Desalegn’s resignation is Ethiopia’s prime minister. The government’s recent announcement that thousands of political prisoners would be released felt like a landmark step in achieving political stability and the first indication that the country’s ruling coalition party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), was considering a more cooperative approach with opposition groups.

It was never going to address the root causes of political dissent in Ethiopia or the violent protests they inspired, but it was a much-needed positive step in the country’s deteriorating political space.

However, the government has missed two crucial opportunities to address these issues, without showing any intent to do so. The first was during the 2016 state of emergency, where instead of seeking dialogue with protest organisers the government arrested tens of thousands of participants and other people accused of spreading anti-government messages.

The second came a few days ago with the announcement of Hailemariam Desalegn’s resignation. This would have been the perfect opportunity for the government to change its stance on political opposition, if this is what the EPRDF really wanted. Instead, the ruling coalition has declared a state of emergency that only suppresses political freedoms during this important time for Ethiopia.

What are the EPRDF’s real motives here?

With Ethiopia settling in for another state of emergency – little more than six months since the last one ended – Desalegn’s resignation starts to look like a non-event. It’s not the government that’s taking responsibility for the violent unrest that resulted from peaceful protests or the sweeping arrests that followed. Desalegn is accepting culpability with his resignation and he’ll take this away with him when he leaves office.

The government’s quick move to declare a state of emergency says political unrest will not be tolerated during this transition process. So what is Ethiopia transitioning to, if it’s not a democracy where the political opposition is welcome to demonstrate its concerns?

Hailemariam Desalegn has been in office since 2012 and his economic accomplishments during this time have been widely celebrated. According to the World Bank, Ethiopia’s economy has performed at more than double the regional average over the past decade, growing by 11 percent each year – placing Ethiopia as one of Africa’s fastest growing economies.

However, Desalegn has never been as politically strong as his predecessor Meles Zenawi. Desalegn is by no means a “strong man” and he doesn’t come from the usual political elite that Ethiopian leaders are typically born from.

His departure paves way for a new prime minister that fits the more traditional bill of authoritarian – and this could make Desalegn’s resignation far worse news for Ethiopia than many realise. A state of emergency leaves little room for debate over who the EPRDF’s appoints next and denies any hopes that political opposition might be included in deciding where the heads from here.

Ethiopia’s next prime minister will have to deal with the same underlying political issues his predecessor is resigning over – there’s no getting away from this. However, it’s the approach his government takes that will determine how peacefully Ethiopia moves into the next phase of its political journey. Sadly, it looks like the government has already set the template for its approach under a new PM and it doesn’t look any more positive than the previous one.

Featured image: “2014-Hailemariam Desalegn, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister” flickr photo by United Nations Industrial Development Organization https://flickr.com/photos/unido/15524344647 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

About Aaron Brooks

Aaron Brooks is a UK journalist who wants to cut out the international agendas in news. Spending his early years in both England and Northern Ireland he saw the difference between reality and media coverage at an early age. After graduating from the University of Chester with a BA in journalism, his travels revealed just how large the gap between news and the real world can be. As Editor-in-Chief at East Africa Monitor, it’s his job to provide a balanced view of what’s going on in the region for English-speaking audiences.