By Sammy Awami
Dar es Salaam. Africa has in less than three months lost one President and one Prime Minister namely Ghana’s John Atta Mills and Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi.
While they are both a loss to the leadership of the continent and the Horn of Africa, in particular, Zenawi’s death is a of closer proximity especially in geo-political context.
Having lived in Ethiopia for eight years during the Haile Selasi era as an embassy officer and during Meles Zenawi’s leadership as Tanzania’s envoy to the Horn of Africa country, Dr Mohammed Omar Maundi, says Zenawi’s death though may have come as a surprise, he has left his country in good shape.
“He has completely restructured the Ethiopian leadership and politics at large, taking the country from the ruthless Ethiopian autocracy to a now democratic one,” he says
The smooth power transition the world is witnessing in the country is but only one of the products of Zenawi’s great leadership.
Hailemariam Desalegn taking over power as per the country’s Constitution, according to Dr Maundi, is a living testimony of Zenawi’s intentional mentorship of future democratic leadership of his country.
“If you look at the posts which Prime Minister Desalegn has so far held, you will realise that it has never been a coincidence,” he says.
Dr Maundi explained that Zenawi had ensured he remained at peace and that the majority of his people continued to enjoy even after he steped down from the leadership of the country.
Desalegn has been Ethiopian deputy prime minister and Foreign minister since 2010. He was elected deputy chairman of the ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), after the party’s fourth win in 2010 when it got a landslide victory.
“Zenawi had seen this gentleman right from the local politics he was involved in,” Dr Maundi recalls. Desalegn hails from the southern part of Ethiopia inhabited by a minority group called Wolayta.
According to Dr Maundi, Zenawi spotted the Prime Minister’s potential when he served as the president of the region for about five years.
Owing to the fact that the Ethiopia’s federal system is based on regions, the government was wary of strongest ethnic groups orchestrating a rebellion any time.
Either Amhara ethnic group to which Haile Selasi belongs or Zenawi’s own ethnic group of Tigrinya, or Tigray as some call it, could stage a coup if the fallen statesman was not smart enough.
Realising that supporting the ruling EPRDF alone was insufficient; Zenawi picked Desalegn from the minority ethnic group to join his administration.
“This was absolutely not an accident, as it aimed at neutralising competition among ethnic groups,” observes Dr Maundi, explaining that his policy served several interests, including equitable distribution of wealth and empowerment of ethnic groups themselves.
Zenawi himself maintained that Ethiopia’s ethnic democracy stemmed from the government’s fight against poverty and the need for an equitable distribution of the national cake. “If you think something is a threat, it will become so and if you think it is beneficial, it will also become so,” the fallen leader is quoted as saying, as he concluded that with economic growth coupled with his country’s assimilation process, ethnicity was not a threat.
Dr Maundi says Zenawi’s approach of mentoring successors was rare in Africa save for few countries such as Tanzania. But for how long will Ethiopia maintain the power devolution which Zenawi had introduced while the rest seem implementing the same with doors closed? Analysts query.
Critics, however, point an accusing finger at Desalegn’s experience compared to many in the ruling elite who, unlike him, took part in the rebel movement which toppled Mengistu.
Berhanu Nega, an exiled opposition leader and former mayor of Addis Ababa, for instance, told the BBC that “ Desalegn is a political novice, he has not been part of the old guard, he has not been in the bushes fighting with the rebels.”
Desalegn is also a Protestant, unlike the majority of Ethiopia’s Christians, who follow Orthodox traditions.