Ethiopia’s Hailemariam Desalegn pulled a shocker when he announced his resignation as prime minister.
Hailemariam became both the first Ethiopian, and wider eastern African leader to give up power without a gun to his head. It’s however, not yet clear why Hailemariam jumped, and whether the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) will accept his resignation.
Coming after his government’s recent decision to release political prisoners, and open dialogue with the opposition, a popular view is that he was pushed out by hardliners. This is given currency by the fact that a few days later, the government announced another state of emergency.
The clampdown only seemed to arouse further protests in restive two largest regions of Amhara and Oromia.
Some critics say Hailemariam, lacking his predecessor Meles Zenawi’s authority and charisma, failed to get on top of things, and was largely ineffectual — so good riddance.
The optimistic line is that he has played a deft political hand. With the ruling coalition seemingly divided, the fact that Hailemariam is from a small non-threatening community in Ethiopia’s tribal politics, makes him a compromise candidate, and that the EPRDF might reject his resignation, and thus hand him greater authority to move Ethiopia toward a more democratic direction.
It looks like too long a shot, but were it to happen, as one of Africa’s hottest economies, an injection of democratic blood, a take down of corruption, and a shift that unleashes new creative energies potentially could enable Addis Ababa to radically shake up the regional economy.
However, the opposite could happen, should the EPRDF take a turn further down into a dark hole, and its repression leads to a more violent result.
Think of an Ethiopia, that already hosts nearly a million refugees, falling off the wagon, and into a crisis that instead creates refugees.
It’s a frightening prospect for East Africa, because after nearly five years, the conflict in South Sudan only seems to be getting worse.
South Sudanese refugees continue to stream into Uganda, to join the more than one million who’ve arrived there since the recent resumption of war. Despite its reputation for having one of the world’s most progressive refugee policies, recent revelations that the Ugandan government and UNHCR officials have colluded to loot millions of dollars of refugee aid money, have raised troubling questions.
Meanwhile, there are fears that the recent squabbles between Uganda and Rwanda, could actually end in the two countries fighting a proxy war in the Democratic Republic of Congo where Joseph Kabila clings to power, as his long-suffering nation descends further into chaos.
Relations between Burundi and Rwanda are rocky, and sources indicate that Kigali is apprehensive that Bujumbura and Kampala might join common cause against it and support its rivals to destabilise it from DR Congo. Burundi itself remains uneasy, with President Pierre Nkurunziza, also finally making a formal move to turn into a president for life, like several of his peers.
The difference is that Ethiopia has a massive population of 100 million. A troubled Ethiopia would be easy game for rival Eritrea, and could tempt its Somali region to peel off.
Hailemariam is easily the region’s most boring leader. His resignation, however, could easily have the most long-lasting impact on it – if it goes kaboom.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is publisher of Africapaedia and explainer site Rogue Chiefs. Twitter@cobbo3