Azeb Mesfin and EPRDF's 8th Congress
By Eskinder Nega | October 2, 2010



Meles Zenawi and his wife, Azeb Mesfin
Meles Zenawi with his wife, Azeb Mesfin
Pronouncing himself a “TPLF/EPRDF supporter”, Zegye (last name not given), could not help exploding over the Internet: “First, I would like to declare that I was a strong supporter of the TPLF/EPRDF. If I were Meles, I would have blocked her (Azeb Mesfin, Meles’ wife) ascendance to such high power (the Executive Committee of the TPLF) for the simple reason that it damages his image.” Another supporter was harsher: “ Is Azeb competent (much has been said about her behavior which is almost all negative and less reassuring) or is she there owing to her connection, as wife of PM Meles Zenawi?”

A few days after such rare utterances of dissent were daringly posted on pro-EPRDF websites, it was time for the eighth congress of the EPRDF; this time scheduled to be held in long-booming Nazreth (when has Nazreth not been booming?), a hundred kilometers to the east of Addis Ababa.

The night before the opening of the congress, as one thousand and six hundred delegates were wined and dined at a lavish dinner hosted by the OPDO, Azeb's ascendancy dominated whispered conversations between friends. The judgment: A major public relations disaster for the EPRDF. Luckily, many mused, the absence of an “aggressive press” has meant that it’s less than an open scandal.

But Azeb’s divisive ascendancy is more than mere public relations debacle for the EPRDF. At issue is whether opportunism, the debilitating culture that has always left three of EPRDF’s four constituent members in a permanent state of paralysis -- a major factor for the enduring stability of the EPRDF -- has gone mainstream in the TPLF, too -- thus threatening the viability of the EPRDF in the cut-throat competition between Ethiopia’s political actors.

In a major reshuffle a few weeks ago, the since the early 2000s , when the TPLF lost most of its veteran leaders, including its deputy, Tewolde Welde-Mairiam, the Executive Committee (EC), the party’s highest body, dropped one of its most trendy and experienced leaders, Arkebe Ekubay. With the departure of Seyoum Mesfin and Abay Tsehaye as well, presumably at their request (Abay’s tenure at the top since the early 2000s has openly relied on Meles’ goodwill rather than his popularity; the same is true of most of the others, but much less blatantly), Meles has become the last of the veteran leadership (above CC during the insurgency) still in the Executive Committee.

The three new members of TPLF’s EC -- in place of Seyoum, Abay and Arkebe -- are Azeb Mesfin, voted in unanimously (sigh!); Beyene Mikru, a political non-entity; and Debre-Tsion Gebre-Mikael, a mysterious -- and controversial -- veteran of Ethiopia’s KGB (secret police.) The person widely expected to ascend to the Executive Committee, Getachew Belay, who made his name as a competent Minister of Revenues in Meles’ cabinet, was surprisingly sidelined. Whisked from his position as Minister and tasked with what many say is almost impossible, salvaging the troubled EFFORT, the unofficial -- and haphazardly audited -- business empire of the TPLF, Getachew’s relegation to toil in obscurity now seems more like an effort to ebb his rising popularity than a concern for EFFORT.

Abay Woldu, who replaced Seyoum Mesfin as Meles Zenawi’s deputy in the TPLF, is the presumed heir of Meles in the party; that is, if Meles keeps his word and resigns from his position in 2015. (But only if his party agrees to let him go -- wink! wink! “I will not break with the party in which I have invested a lifetime,” he has said hotly.)

Abay Woldu is one of the middle-rankers of the insurgency who were catapulted to prominence after the expulsion of Seye Abraha et al from the party, and now constitute the majority in the EC. Their track record in Tigray, where they have dominated the regional government for the past decade under the leadership of Tsegaye Berhe, is at best mediocre. Tigary’s trend setting days had quitely come to an end after the dissolution of Gebru Asrat’s administration. ( Addis Ababa, for the duration of Arkebe Ekubay’s mayoralty, had briefly assumed that position. There is no trendsetting region now. Everything radiates from Meles.) Whether Abay Woldu et al will have the acumen to uphold the dominance of the TPLF is now a hotly disputed subject -- mostly because almost no one believes that they owe their positions to merit.

This does not mean that the TPLF EC is wholly devoid of competent people. The Health Minister, Tewodros Adhanom, is broadly credited with sharp technocratic skills and a pleasant personality. But he is also instinctively apolitical, representing the genre that make up most of TPLF’s supporters -- the silent (vast) majority that are enamored more by the spectacular successes of the party rather than the power of its message.

Overall though, the sweeping neglect of the broad reservoir of really qualified people that the TPLF has at its disposal is breathtaking. And nothing embodies the resultant malaise -- which breeds opportunism -- more than the ascendancy of Azeb to the EC. While Azeb’s determination to break free from the anachronistic traditional Ethiopian first-lady role is no doubt commendable (and admirable), her bubbling enthusiasm also betrays a palpable lack of intellectual complexity. Her evident obliviousness to the damage she is causing her husband damns her even more in the eyes of her numerous critics -- particularly those who admire him. And one can not help but wonder whether their relationship will eventually suffer under the pressure. (I hope not. And I mean it.) The awkwardness of the new setup was evident at the congress, where Azeb, in breach of protocol for a new member of the EC, but in deference to her status as a spouse, sat next to Meles, a seat usually reserved for more senior members of the EC.

Azeb now has multiple responsibilities as head of the Social Affairs Committee in Parliament; as EC member of both the TPLF and the EPRDF; and as the most-feared board member of EFFORT. However, there is nothing in her intellectual and job-related background to indicate that she is qualified and prepared to undertake these tasks. Meles most probably knows this. But maybe he needs time to realize that he is clearly failing in the delicate act of balancing his duties as a party leader and a supportive progressive husband.

In the meantime, we are at least treated to a spectacle akin to the best soap that TV could offer. Enjoy!

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The writer, prominent Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega, has been in and out of prison several times while he was editor of one of several newspapers shut down during the 2005 crackdown. After nearly five years of tug-of-war with the 'system,' Eskinder, his award-winning wife Serkalem Fassil, and other colleagues have yet to win government permission to return to their jobs in the publishing industry. Email: serk27@gmail.com


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