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Although we must all face our own immortality and the fact that nothing lasts forever somehow this fact has been more historically complex in Africa.
It is complex because the emerging African leaders after the end of colonial era aspired to stay in power until they died. Some passed away in office while most were ousted through the military coup d’état. In fact in the 70s and 80s one clear way of power transfer or succession in Africa was through the coup d’état. Since the 1990s these acts taken by soldiers was thwarted because of the intervention of the continental organization.
In Ethiopia in 1974 the palace had fallen in to the hands of the soldiers through the military. The Monarchy had a succession plan written in the 1948 constitution. The son of the Emperor, who was by then called the Crown Prince, was entitled to take the throne when the emperor was incapacitated or died. Following the dethronement of the Emperor, the Crown Prince went to exile in London. What was clearly observed at that time was the complete failure of the constitution in the power transition process.
The armed struggle of the rebels pushed the military regime out of power in May 1991. In a way that kind of power transfer was unseen in Ethiopia in the last 130 years . Following the death of former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi the issue of succession was raised once again. Meles had the vision that he had been around for quite a long time. He used to say “Time to start thinking about doing new things,” as long ago as 2007. This means to hand over power freely. Before the 2010 Election he reiterated that he intended to retire. As he said later he changed his mind because of the request of the EPRDF, the coalition that represents four major ethnic fronts for him to stay.
Right after the 2010 Election some Ethiopians had the belief that he would be around to manage the succession plan as per the constitution. But instead he died unexpectedly at the age of 57. Of course, days after the 2010 Election Meles officially announced the introduction of a new kind of succession plan in which veteran ruling party members were put aside to be replaced by the younger generation of leaders. Along this line veterans like Seyoum Mesfin, Addisu Legesse and Tefera Walwa were either retired from active engagement in government and party work or became ambassadors. New blood party functionaries like Tewodros Adhanom, Minister of Health and Demeke Mekonen, Minister of Education took the stage.
But Meles’ succession plan was interrupted due to his untimely death. As expected the succession plan had never been as smooth as written in the constitution. Article 75 of the Ethiopian constitution that was adopted on December 8, 1994, states that the Deputy Prime Minister acts on behalf of the Prime Minister in his absence.
Article 74 sub-article 1: “The Prime Minister is the Chief Executive, the Chairman of the Council of Ministers, and the Commander-in-Chief of the national armed forces.” If we strictly follow this constitution the Deputy Prime Minister, in this case, Haile-Mariam Desalegn becomes the Chief Executive right after the announcement of the death of Meles on August 21.
But instead that day a vague statement was given by the Council of Ministers that said the current Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Haile-Mariam Desalegn will continue to lead the Council of Ministers.
Two hours after this was announced, Head of the Government Communication Affairs Office Bereket Simon, in a press conference at the Addis Ababa Hilton said that Haile-Mariam will continue to be acting Prime Minister and undertake all functions that were handled by the PM until the House gives its decision. Bereket further said that when the ruling party, EPRDF, held its congress it could elect its leader. The elected leader is entitled to take the position of the premiership until next election in 2015. Bereket was sure that the government respected the constitution.
But a couple of days after this announcement, Bereket brought a new version of succession in the official press conference held at Addis Ababa Hilton (August 23). He said: “Meles had an idea and a vision. The most important thing for us is that the Ethiopian people understood his prospects. Over the last two days we learned that the entire Ethiopian people understood what Meles was all about. We have seen that the people are with us. Therefore, we say succession is already successful. Meles is replaced by 80 million Ethiopian people.”
The same was repeated during the EPRDF executive committee meeting held last week. “What is urgent now is not the replacement of the premier by another man but the effective implementation of his vision of Meles which comes first.”
For a country that has known two changes of power by force in the last 38 years, it may not be surprising if power transfer faces a tricky transition period.