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Ethiopia on the brink: Prime Minister Hailemarian Desalegn Resigns

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By Emma Ruiters, MSc Development Economics

On February 15 this year, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) resigned, igniting the greatest political crisis to rock the country since the end of communist rule in 1991.

Desalegn had risen to power in 2012 following the death of long-term leader Meles Zenawi, of whom he was a close ally. He has since been praised for invigorating Ethiopia’s economy, but remains tarnished by accusations of human rights violations and lack of democracy.

In recent years Ethiopia has turned into an economic powerhouse with an average growth rate of 10.5% for over a decade, making it the fastest growing economy in the region. However, its per capita income is still low at $660, with the second largest population in Africa at a staggering population of 102.5 million.

Desalegn’s resignation has left Ethiopia in turmoil until a new leader is selected. Ethiopia’s complex political landscape runs along ethnic lines, with ethnically-based states ruled by a coalition of four parties. The Tigrayan minority dominates this coalition. The cause of the uncertainty is an issue of succession: from which ethnic group will Desalegn’s successor come?

The coalition government declared a state of emergency to assure stability in the transition, which was later ratified after a vote. However, the opposition party has cast doubt on the validity of this vote, after parliamentary video footage showed the parliamentary speaker announcing a lower number of votes than was officially stated. The government has thus been accused of rigging in favour of the ratification of the state of emergency.

Commentators such as Hirut Zemene, a senior foreign ministry official, have said that the state of emergency is necessary for political and democratic reform. The government has cracked down on the media, controlling access to the internet and mobile networks. This is with the intent to maintain law and order.

Unrest in Ethiopia, with its large military and strong economy, may destabilize a region already beset by strife in South Sudan and Somalia. Domestically, widespread protests and the government repression have resulted in the death of hundreds, and thousands more arrests. This has been particularly notable in the Oromia region of Ethiopia where there has been discontent over land seizures, unemployment and reform. Youths who call themselves “Qeerroo”, meaning “Youth”, have been protesting for a more equal spread of economic gains. It is these disaffected youths who pose a threat to the current regime, with some fearing that even the military may not be able to quash the resistance.

Bekele Gerba, a prominent critic of the government, was released from prison along with other dissidents after Desalegn’s resignation. An admirer of Martin Luther King Jr, he has been meeting with the Qeeroo to inspire them to pursue politics and governance rather than just protesting, saying: “The idea is to bring the Qeerroo to power, the good Qeerroo, the educated Qeerroo. This old generation [of politicians] must go.”

Ethiopia must resolve the inequalities caused by its rapid economic growth in order to achieve political stability. It remains to be seen how Desalegn’s resignation will impact the country going forward.

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