Meles' new cabinet: The real story

By Eskinder Nega / October 22, 2010
 "Ethiopians can never be reconciled to a dictatorship that maintains itself by brute force alone." Prof Al
Ideally, a Prime Minister is only a first among equals in a cabinet. The cabinet, the traditional name allotted to a Council of Ministers, is a collective decision-making body which formulates government policy. But with the unabated expansion and increasing complexity of modern governments, the primacy and dominance of Prime Ministers is acknowledged even in mature democracies.

In the flagship of parliamentary democracies, the UK, the potency of cabinets varied with the Prime Ministers. Margaret Thatcher, the indomitable Iron Lady, more or less ignored the mass of her cabinet members and relied on few trusted advisers. One of the world’s first “post-modern” politicians, Tony Blair, was famously censured for his “sofa government” of inner core of Ministers, who made major decisions in seclusion and imposed them on the wider cabinet. John Major, who succeeded Thatcher, on the other hand, consciously maneuvered within the confines of the cabinet’s collective leadership. The prerogatives of the powers invested in the Prime Minister’s office, however, were never challenged.

In the Ethiopian setting, the first five years of Meles Zenawi’s tenure as Prime Minister, between 1995 and the early 2000s, marked years of diffused power when the powerful TPLF politburo served as a bulwark against the traditionally unlimited power of the leader of government. But once Meles prevailed over the politburo, he lost no time in assuming the “Presidential Prime Minister role”; a position akin to that of a US President, who is neither by tradition or constitution obliged to make decisions jointly with his cabinet. The grandiose public posturing of Bereket Simon -- the lone Minister with some touch of flair -- notwithstanding, Meles does not even have room for a “kitchen cabinet”; which allows for a number of favored Ministers to involve in major decisions. Meles chooses to tower singularly over his cabinet.

But even with their diminished stature, Ministers still matter in an Ethiopia where the state is omnipresent in all spheres of life. Ministerial appointments and dismissals are thus followed with keen interest. And the latest Ministerial reshuffles have particularly attracted public interest; perhaps, to an extent only second to the excitement generated by the first cabinet constituted after the overthrow of the Derg in 1991, when the OLF assumed several Ministerial positions.

On the surface, there is no rational to question the latest reshuffle. Several Ministers have long overstayed their welcome; chiefly, Seyoum Mesfin, who lasted more than 19 years as Foreign Minister ---a record that will most probably never be surpassed. Plus, there were no high-flying Ministers who had won the public in the way Arkebe Ekubay had once did when he was Mayor of Addis Ababa. It was high time to bring in new faces and boost cabinet morale. This of course does not mean that anyone expects incoming Ministers to compete with Meles for the limelight. Meles demands total obedience and a low-key persona; a fact obviously lost to an ANDM upstart, Dr Sentayehu Welde-Mikeal, who was suddenly appointed as Minister of Education from the midst of the political wilderness in 2005, and, much to the detached amusement of veteran Ministers, asked too many question in cabinet sessions. And suddenly….pooh!....he was no more a Minister. His departure is subject to much speculation, but the majority consensus is that his is a cautionary tale against the over-enthusiastic upstart.

Five years ago, in the immediate aftermath of the post election crises, Meles’ hastily-constituted cabinet was composed of twenty Ministers. Addisu Leggese, a physical education instructor by training, and the official Deputy Prime Minister (which no one took seriously) would have made the ideal Minister of Youth and Sports, but was yet again inexplicably assigned to the Ministry of Agriculture -- a position, needless to say, that requires sophisticated technical and scientific knowledge. This would have been the mother of all Ministerial mismatches if not for the accession of Kuma Demeksa, whose professional career as a solider peaked at the level of a Corporal in the Derg’s army, to the position of Minister of Defense. (In Kuma’s defense, however, another famous Corporal, Hitler, had become Commander-In-Chief of the proud German armed forces.) Junedin Sado, whose training as a geologist would have been useful at the helm of the Ministry of Mines and Energy, was instead entrusted with Transport and Communication; where he had to learn from scratch. Over at Federal and Information Ministries (the latter was dissolved in 2008), two new Ministers, Siraj Fergesa and Berahnu Hailu, much to the amusement of EPRDF’s critics, assumed their positions with noticeably perplexed expressions. Five more years seemed too much for the visibly aging Kassu Illala, but he still retained the taxing -- often as a micro-manager -- position as Minister of Works and Urban Development. And for close watchers of Seyoum Mesfin, his increasingly baggy eyes told everything. After 30 years of doing essentially the same thing over and over again, he was evidently bored by the avalanche of routine that had dominated his life.

But 2005 was not the year for radical change. Nor was it time to test new territory with new blood. Everyone understood this. In light of the unexpected election results, which the ruling EPRDF had clearly lost but swiftly reversed by brute force, preserving a semblance of continuity was naturally to be given precedence. Old and familiar faces -- Meles, Seyoum, Addisu, Tefera (whom I am obligated to leave in peace. He is suffering from cancer), Girma, Kasu, Bereket, Kuma, Junedin -- had to unavoidably crowd a worn-out cabinet.

But tedious though the work at the Ministry of Trade and Industry has always been, Girma Biru apparently enjoyed the boring details and transparently thrived in his position. And he had an able deputy in the person of Taddesse Haile, who was (and still is) the Industry State Minister. But as his star shone too bright, mysterious outbreaks of rumors plainly demoralized him. Mohamed Dirir, who passes for the cabinet’s most cosmopolitan personality, worked diligently at Culture and Tourism, but an alleged lack of intellectual depth undermined his seriousness. And so invisible was the Justice Minister, Assefa Kesseto, even some cabinet colleagues, let alone the public, struggled to recall his full name. The cabinet’s two women, Aster Mamo and Hirut Delbo, at the Ministries of Youth and Women respectively, were universally ignored; but hardly the ideologically driven feminists whom Meles reportedly disdains, they never complained -- at least, not in public. No one knew what to make of the then new Minister of Health, Tewdros Adhanom, a malaria expert with a PhD from the UK, but he proved to be a success in due course.

At the State Ministerial level, Arkebe Ekubay, at the Ministry of Work and Urban Development was visibly less enthusiastic than he was at the helm of Addis Ababa. Abera Dersa, PhD, continued to provide much needed advice to Adissu at Agriculture as State Minister, and was soon the Ministry’s most respected official. Mekonen Manyazewal, now the only non-EPRDF cabinet member in Meles’ new cabinet, continued to toil contentedly as State Minister at the Ministry of Finance. At Justice, Hashim Tewfic, PhD, and an anti-CUD zealot, inevitably dominated the Ministry as one of two State Ministers. Low-key Tekeda Alemu, continued in his uninterrupted stint as one of two deputies of Seyoum Mesfin. Over at Defense, Major General Haile Tilhaun, a Southerner born in Debre-Birhan, and one of the founders of the ANDM, became one of three State Ministers under Kuma Demeksa.

2010, however, was set to be the year of change. And Meles’ perilous plan for post-2015 Ethiopia has begun to unravel.

(To be continued next week)