Ethiopia’s authoritarian ruler, Hailemariam Desalegn, on Friday appeared to channel the spirit of Khomeini and bury his enemy in a speech at the high court, where his second wife was being judged. Hailemariam’s wife is in the dock facing embezzlement charges.
Hailemariam, who is also the deputy prime minister, saluted Oromo protesters in his speech and referred to demonstrators in the regions of Oromia and Amhara as “our people.” But it was in his characterization of the trial that he may have gone too far. Hailemariam invoked a familiar adage from Iran, especially after the revolution in 1979: “Where the police don’t dare to stand, the judge will lead the way.”
Hailemariam sounded like the old man of Iran, who once said he could not prevent mobs from pillaging government buildings.
The judge, for her part, seemed unimpressed. She rebuked Hailemariam for speaking to “the trouble-makers,” and threatened to lock up the country’s first lady if she did not stop it. Her apparent sentencing, however, raises more questions about whether the ruling will serve justice or just serve to further entrench the status quo.
Why on earth would Hailemariam try to channel Iran?
To answer that, you have to understand the course Hailemariam has been on for some time.
In 2011, when the constitution was amended to give him wide powers, Hailemariam made it clear that he would not just make things difficult for opponents of the government. He made sure that anyone with any kind of opposition was treated very, very badly.
The fierce repression came from within. A few days after the constitution was changed, members of the security forces turned on the opposition, killing hundreds of people and torturing many more. A popular blog was called out and the case was leaked to foreign journalists. When the first couple’s lawyer asked to be taken off the case, he was arrested and dragged away from his home.
The government told reporters that his alleged crime was a simple disagreement about his treatment. His wife, Indho Zeresenay (not to be confused with the former prime minister Meles Zenawi), who was organizing a peace movement, was paraded by the government as the mastermind of the plot. She was beaten up, hung in the sun and tried to kill herself. Now she stands in court, facing economic abuse and emotional violence, as the judge reads her sentence.
Some observers now say the ruling is not so much punishment for the opposition as a way of forcing Indho Zeresenay to accept her fate, and ensuring that little opposition will arise from the grass roots.
Hailemariam’s hardline policies have paid dividends. Stifling competition and using extreme violence have been effective in keeping him in power, from an electoral point of view. His government has won two successive elections, including one in which the opposition boycotted the polls.
But long-term stability can be extremely difficult to maintain. Ethiopia has roughly 25 million opponents of Hailemariam’s regime, according to Africa Confidential, the only credible nonpartisan group. By many estimates, the fact that the opposition is allowed to stay alive is significant. Add to that the widespread conviction in Ethiopia that the majority of government leaders are corrupt, and Hailemariam is under pressure from people angry at his failure to help.
Why then, would he try to channel Iran? The risk of stimulating other groups inside the country is high, and his efforts to portray Indho Zeresenay as a troublemaker certainly won’t help. This leads to a question about his real motive: Is he simply trying to protect himself, or will he do anything that’s necessary to survive?
What also remains unclear is how the government will respond. It is perfectly within its power to order Indho Zeresenay’s imprisonment and sentence the case to an ordinary trial.
The Ethiopian government probably hopes that international pressure will make this look like another political move, and will be ignored. Perhaps the so-called Non-Aligned Movement will finally demand that their friends of only a few years ago, like Hailemariam, be exposed for their mass killing of a political opponent and internal opposition.
If that happens, there is a possibility that Hailemariam will bow to pressure and protect Indho Zeresenay. But even if he does, the world knows that Hailemariam is one of the loudest critics of the actions of the United States and the West.
There are many ways of seeking regime change.