The King is Dead. Long Live the Party

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Back in the Middle Ages the medieval political embraced the concept of the “King’s two bodies” – the body politic and the body natural.  The polity recognized that the king’s natural body has physical attributes, suffers, and dies, naturally, as do all humans; but the king’s other body, the spiritual body, transcends the earthly and serves as a symbol of his office as majesty with the divine right to rule. The notion of the two bodies allowed for the continuity of monarchy even when the monarch died, as summed up in the formulation “The king is dead. Long live the king.”
On succession, the political spectrum – from left to right – displays a wide variety of processes: ranging from countries with a clear process to determine who succeeds to power, to those with peculiar succession mechanisms. Classical political thinkers, from Plato and Aristotle, have dissected the issue: how to pass executive power to a new generation. The answer can be as simple or as complicated you choose to make it. Last month, for example, when the Ghanaian President died, his Vice President took over without a hitch. In Ethiopia, however, the last few weeks have brought us anxiety and confusion to what many citizens thought a straightforward transition. Ever since the death of the Prime Minister, we are treated to a mixture of sycophancy, confusion, backtracking, fake news, and awkward statements by the politicos. And yet, we all were made to believe the Party had fixed this problem a year back. I suppose the Party, not content with its earlier fix, is now trying to fix the fix with a new fix.
By all informed accounts, the Ethiopian Constitution treated the issue of power transfer with obfuscation in mind. Obviously this has now led the country to the current hodge-podge arrangement, with a Deputy Prime Minister running the country (so we hear) but accountable to a no-existent Prime Minister! It’s clear the process to determine who will get to run Ethiopia is not yet institutionalized.
On Deputy Prime Minister Haile Mariam…
Media conjecture aside, succession politics is now on. At this very moment a noiseless Shakespearean power play should be going on for the race at the top of the political hierarchy. There are all kind of rumors running as to who is moving up or down, or who is allied to whom, or who is strong and who is losing it…..Nothing unusual there. At the same time whilst the politicos squabble over who is to ‘lead’ us next or after the next election, citizens seem to have already factored in the crowning of the late Meles’ choice as Prime Minister. Take note however, Heirs apparent were particularly unfortunate in modern Ethiopia: not one ever managed to consolidate power, eventually yielding to those whom the previous ruler had never intended to install. You heard it folks, Prime Minister Haile Mariam Dessalegn may ring fine to many Ethiopians. But will the Party let him take over. As for HM, he is young, stable and careful not to touch any controversial issue. So far he’s avoided to reveal his real political will. But, does he have what it takes to lead Ethiopia. Is he smart? Is he a good organizer? Is he persuasive? ABOVE ALL, IS THE EPRDF WILLING TO COMPROMISE? The challenge is not only whether HM has built a strong enough network in the past three years (critical), but whether he can gain the support of the military-security establishment to exercise power. Today, no one knows for certain if HM will or not become the next Prime Minister. All we can do is assess the odds of the outcome.
My friends,
As I said, successions were hardly smooth in Ethiopia; They are never meant for the faint hearted. So let’s trust the man Haile Mariam (if designated) is the thinking kind with a backroom political savviness, and a lifelong love for Ethiopian culture. Let’s hope he has his eye on the issues that matter, an energizing presence, a value system which respects liberty and loathes despotism, and most importantly, an indomitable spirit and persuasive talent to claim the unconditional support of his party, not just to govern but also to launch serious, comprehensive reforms in thinking and economics.
It’s clear that the one-man authoritarianism has ended, for, there is no “Meles-substitute” inside or outside of Ethiopia. Meles’ successors will not have the prestige and charisma of the people and international leaders; they will have to make life tangibly better for the vast majority of the Ethiopian people, or there will be protests and perhaps violence. The right path for Ato Haile Mariam, or any other comrade of his, should be clear: relax the party’s grip on dissent, lift its shroud of secrecy and make vital economic reforms.
On the EPRDF and the Military
For the sake of a stable and united Ethiopia, the EPRDF should now display its maturity. It should be willing to speed up internal reform and undertake fundamental, systemic reform, such as doing away with its ethno-centric based hierarchical ‘Front’, and move towards a unified and reformist party system. The new party should push for term limit, with say, two terms of five years for a Prime Minister, rotate the Presidency, say, every year between the regional states of the Federal Government to promote unity, make sure the induction of a truly independent judiciary, and quicken the opening up of the political space, and allow citizens to have more say in how the country is run.
The military… It’s the big elephant in the room, mostly controlled by Tigrayan military elite, with an interest in maintaining an authoritarian TPLF led political system, it may accept the reality that it is in no position to govern a nation aspiring to join the modern world, but can it accept to remain apolitical? Will it accept a candidate from outside the TPLF?
All said and done, only a smooth transfer of power will serve the interest of ALL. The succession game has began: Who will? The answer to this central question of Ethiopian politics is unknown.
The King is Dead. Long Live the Party!