Ethiopia prime minister in surprise resignation amid growing protests

Ethiopia’s prime minister resigned on Thursday, apparently sacrificed by his ruling party, one of Africa’s most ruthless, as it scrambled to secure its weakening hold on power in the face of swelling popular protest.

Hailemariam Desalegn’s announcement that he was stepping down was, on the face of it, a highly unusual moment in Africa. Only once since decolonisation in the Sixties — when Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere resigned in 1985 — has a leader on Africa’s eastern coastline resigned voluntarily midterm.

But although Mr Hailemariam’s departure closely followed the enforced resignations of South Africa’s Jacob Zumba and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, few observers saw it in the same mould.

Instead, his resignation was widely viewed as a desperate act of self preservation by the tiny Tigrayan ethnic elite accused of using Mr Hailemariam as a cipher to entrench its domination over Ethiopia since the end of the country’s civil war in 1991.

Representing less than seven percent of the population, Tigrayan domination has been shaken by three years of crippling protests by the Oromo and Amhara ethnic groups, who account for 60 percent of Ethiopia’s 105 million people.

Hailemariam Desalegn attending the closing session of an African summit meeting in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-SheikhCredit:

Hundreds have been killed, undermining the stability of a regime that is perhaps Washington’s closest ally in Africa against Islamist extremism.

“Unrest and a political crisis have led to the loss of lives and the displacement of many,” Mr Hailemariam said in an address broadcast live on state television. 

“I see my resignation as vital in the bid to carry out reforms that would lead to sustainable peace and democracy.”

Seeking to assuage the protest movements, having failed to do so through brute force and a now-lifted state of emergency, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Development Front (EPRDF) has been forced into a series of major concessions in the past months.

Thousands of political prisoners have been released, although many more remain incarcerated, including Andargachew Tsege, a prominent government critic and British national.

Hailemariam Desalegn is welcomed by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in CairoCredit:

But the concessions have only emboldened protesters, forcing the government this week to release Bekele Gerba, an Oromo opposition leader whose widespread popularity could easily turn him into the leader of a popular movement that has been largely inchoate.

Mr Hailemariam, as a member of a small southern tribe, was a compromise candidate selected by the Tigrayan elite after the death in 2012 of Meles Zenawi, the revolutionary who toppled the Communist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam 26 years ago.

In many ways as ruthless as the man he succeeded, despite being hailed by Tony Blair as a model African leader, Meles was able to entrench Tigrayan privilege, allowing his kinsmen to accumulate disproportionate wealth and dominate both politics and the armed forces.

But the EPRDF, a coalition of four ethnic parties, is now riven by divisions, with its Oromo and Amhara wings fighting back against Tigrayan overlordship.

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Mr Hailemariam had fallen foul of both the hardline and pragmatic Tigrayan factions, analysts said. The hardliners objected to the speed with which he released prisoners, and are hoping for a more conservative successor who will slow the pace of reforms.

The pragmatists want to see him replaced with an Oromo from within the EPRDF, hoping that appointing a member of Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group to the country’s most powerful position would be enough to deflate the protests.

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