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. Hundreds of people have been killed and thousands have been imprisoned, including top opposition figures.
Hours before Desalegn’s resignation, the president of another African powerhouse, South Africa, stepped down amid scandal and charges of mismanagement.
According to the state-run Ethiopian News Agency, Desalegn resigned both as prime minister and chairman of the ruling party “to be part of the efforts to provide a lasting solution to the current situation.” He added that he would stay on until a successor was chosen.
In his speech, Desalegn noted that people were displaced and injured, and property was damaged in the recent unrest. He said he believed that his resignation was necessary to carry out democratic reforms that are underway.
Widespread demonstrations this week by the Oromo ethnic group — the country’s largest, representing more than a third of Ethiopia’s 100 million people — broke out over the perceived slow pace of prisoner releases promised in January.
Young men blocked roads leading out of the capital with rocks and burning tires, disrupting public transportation. Businesses throughout the vast Oromo region were shuttered as part of a strike.
The strike was lifted Wednesday with the prisoner releases. Opposition figures in Ethiopia’s extensive diaspora claimed that the government capitulated in the face of popular pressure.
Desalegn was seen as a caretaker and consensus figure without a great deal of power, implementing the orders of more influential figures in the army and the ruling Ethiopia People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front. Rumors had circulated widely that he would resign after the party congress scheduled for next month.
Mohammed Ademo, an analyst of Ethiopian affairs running the website Opride.com, which is often critical of the government, said the resignation was apparently moved up because the ruling party wants a more assertive person in charge during a time of crisis.
“I think from the party perspective, it is clear he has no power and lost control of the streets,” he said. “We should be very clear, this change — the prisoner release and the fact that the party is trying to make amends and reform — is the result of years of relentless opposition and protest.”
He warned that choosing a figure from the old guard to be the next prime minister, rather than a rising ruling-party politician with greater public support, would result in more opposition.
The Oromos have been protesting for greater rights and against their perceived economic marginalization since the end of 2015, and the government declared a state of emergency in October 2016 to restore calm. It was in place for 10 months.
Just two days before Desalegn’s resignation, U.S. Ambassador Michael Raynor expressed concern over the unrest 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 U.S. 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.
Although 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.
Fighting also broke out last year between Oromos and the country’s ethnic Somalis, killing hundreds and displacing a million peopl e, according to the International Organization for Migration. Despite repeated government assurances that the strife is under control, reports still surface of continued violence.
The ruling party, of which Desalegn was once chairman, has also faced internal divisions as 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.
The question now is whether the new prime minister will continue to pursue rapprochement with the disaffected segments of society or initiate a crackdown.
“It is a crucial moment — who is going to take his place and what difference he or she will bring about?” said Befeqadu Hailu, a member of the Zone 9 blogging collective, which has written critically about the government and domestic issues. “He couldn’t manage the public grievances.”