Ethiopia’s prime minister resigns amid political turmoil
February 15, 2018, ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (Washington Post) — Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn submitted his resignation in a televised announcement on Thursday amid political turmoil in one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies.
The announcement came just after the government released hundreds of political prisoners, including some of the most prominent opposition members in the country, sparking massive celebrations in the cities and towns around the country.
A staunch U.S. ally in the fight against terrorism and the second-most populous country in Africa, Ethiopia is a regional powerhouse with grand economic ambitions. But for the past few years it has seethed with social unrest that has killed hundreds, and thousands have been imprisoned, including top opposition figures.
Desalegn’s resignation also comes just hours after another African powerhouse, South Africa, saw its president resign amid political turmoil
According to the state Ethiopian News Agency, Desalegn resigned both as prime minister and chair of the ruling party “to be part of the efforts to provide a lasting solution to the current situation.” He added he would stay on until a successor was chosen.
“Unrest and a political crisis have led to the loss of lives and displacement of many,” Desalegn said in a televised address to the nation, according to Reuters. “I see my resignation as vital in the bid to carry out reforms that would lead to sustainable peace and democracy.”
Earlier in the week, there were widespread demonstrations by the Oromo — the country’s largest ethnic group, representing more than a third of Ethiopia’s 100 million people — over the perceived slow pace of prisoner releases promised in January.
Young men blocked roads leading out of the capital with rocks and burned tires, disrupting public transportation networks. Businesses throughout the vast Oromo region were shuttered as part of a strike.
The strike was lifted on Wednesday with the prisoner releases. Opposition figures in Ethiopia’s extensive diaspora claimed the government had capitulated in the face of popular pressure.
Just two days before the resignation, U.S. Ambassador Michael Raynor expressed a degree of concern over the unrest in the country and urged political opening and peaceful dialogue.
“People need to be free to express themselves peacefully, and to be confident that they can do so,” he wrote on the embassy’s Facebook page. “Lethal force to protect the safety of the public, even in the face of violent protests, must always be a last resort. At the same time, people need to demonstrate their commitment to peaceful expression and dialogue.”
Desalegn became prime minister in 2012, succeeding Meles Zenawi, the architect of Ethiopia’s recent economic boom. The country saw a decade of double-digit growth, based largely on state investment in infrastructure. Growth has slowed in recent years amid severe droughts and social unrest.
Though Ethiopia is ostensibly a democracy, its ruling coalition controls 100 percent of the parliament, and critics say the nation is dominated by the northern Tigrayan minority, which makes up 6 percent of the population.
Desalegn, who comes from the south, was seen as a caretaker and consensus figure without a great deal of power himself. It was widely rumored he would be resigning after the party congress scheduled for next month.
The Oromo have been protesting for increased rights and against their perceived economic marginalization since the end of 2015, and at one point the government declared a 10-month state of emergency in October 2016 to restore calm.
Fighting also broke out last year between Oromos and the country’s ethnic Somali people, killing hundreds and displacing a million people, according to the International Organization for Migration. Despite repeated government assurances that the strife is under control, reports still surface of continued fighting.
The ruling Ethiopia People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, of which Desalegn was once chairman, has also faced internal divisions as the parties representing the other ethnic regions, particularly the Oromo and the Amhara, jockey for position. The Amharas are the nation’s second-largest ethnic group.
Following a party executive council meeting, the government announced in January a plan to start releasing political prisoners in an effort to broaden the political consensus.