Ethiopia’s leadership race: Lemma Megersa at the front

Lemma Megersa

Africa Report

By Tom Gardner

The surprise resignation of Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn has got some people looking at Oromo leader Lemma Megersa as a potential successor

Until recently, few people outside of Oromia, Ethiopia’s largest and most populous region, had heard of Lemma Megersa. But by the beginning of 2018, the clamour around the 47-year-old had turned him into a household name. He is now one the most popular Ethiopian politicians since the governing Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) came to power 26 years ago.

After the central government declared a state of emergency in response to mass protests in October 2016, the then little-known speaker of the Oromia State Assembly was elected chairman of the regional ruling party and president of the Oromia National Regional State.

This moment’s significance was under-appreciated at the time: the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO), one of the four parties that make up the EPRDF, had for the first time in its history chosen its own leadership without outside interference.

After the shock resignation of Hailemariam Desalegn as prime minister on 15 February, many are betting on Lemma as his successor. That would make him Ethiopia’s first Oromo national leader.

Young, articulate and confident, Lemma burst onto the national political scene in 2017 by distancing himself from his coalition partners and adopting the rhetoric of street protesters from his home state. “Why persist with costly street protests when we have made your demands our own?” he said in a recent speech. “If we failed to deliver using existing legal and institutional mechanisms, I and all of us here will join you in the protests.”

Such words raised the hackles of some observers, who noted that Lemma was by no means a political outsider. He had been part of the region’s security apparatus for more than a decade, inside the regional government since the 1990s and a member of the EPRDF for his entire political career.

Lemma and his team have worked hard to reform the OPDO and the regional administration. He promised an “Oromo economic revolution”, picked fights with foreign investors, replaced more than 8,000 regional officials and embarked on a campaign against smugglers and “rent seekers”.

Sceptical activists, especially among the vocal Oromo diaspora, have been largely won over. OPride, an influential Oromo website based in the US, argued at the end of 2017 that “Lemma is already looking like Ethiopia’s new leader. He has the charisma. He has the eloquence. He has the base.”

He also won admirers in other regions, especially Amhara, where on a recent visit he ditched the polarising language of Oromo nationalism for a more inclusive pan-Ethiopianism, declaring that a united Ethiopia was to him an “addiction, like crack”.

By the end of 2017, Lemma had “unprecedented control” over the OPDO, according to Hallelujah Lulie, a political analyst.

Despite the widespread goodwill in Oromia, many in other regions blame him for the recent uptick in harassment of non-Oromos. “We don’t trust him,” says Gera Hiwot, dean of the College of Law at Mekele University in Tigray Region.

Another southerner like Hailemariam, or the deputy prime minister, Demeke Mekonnen, an Amhara, might be more palatable to such sceptics, at least for a transitional period prior to elections in 2020.

Lemma may also face challenges for the top job from others in the OPDO. Since he does not have a seat in the federal parliament his route to the premiership is much trickier than it is for Workneh Gebeyehu, Ethiopia’s foreign minister, who also has the advantage of closer links to the TPLF and the security apparatus.

Then there is Abadula Gemeda, speaker of the federal parliament and a former president of Oromia. He and Workneh both lack Lemma’s popularity on the ground in Oromia, but they may have greater support among key EPRDF powerbrokers.

Before national leadership can become a realistic prospect Lemma’s challenges will include stabilising Oromia and allaying the fears of those in other regions. “Ethiopian people are always looking for a hero,” says Aregawi Berhe, a former leader of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front. “But it doesn’t last long.”

• This article was amended on 17 February to change the name and title of one of the sources. Kindeya G. Hiwot, dean of Mekelle University was changed to Gera Hiwot, dean of the College of Law at Mekele University.


  1. The likes of ethioash that have been brainwashed and programmed to be totally heartless creatures:— they believe deceptions and manipulations, planting evidence, false witnessing, armed robbery, starving the poor, mercilessly torturing and slaughtering innocent human beings, and children is a sign of intelligence.
    Simply evildemented!!

  2. Well… If does not work for them and the protest continues unabated(That is for sure), the deep-pocketed despots will pack and leave. And they will leave an inferno behind. They will deliberately leave a vacuum so every bigoted tribalists can come in and carve out a personal fiefdom. As it is evident now over there, they and their predecessor equally demonic Mengistu have successfully weakened to the brink of eradication the aura of level head individuals in every community. You can see it here in the Diaspora also. There are numerous groups roaming around among us that are not ready to accommodate and compromise. Just start counting them and you run out of breath just counting. This has been going on since the 1960’s. I have seen; you have seen it. The despots know this reality pretty well. So they will pack up and leave with their deep pockets. They will kiss and make up with Al-Toweel Isaias. Then they will run coordinated raids into a mess they left behind to loot. Why not? Everyone is busy killing and pillaging each other. Just like the Congo-Kinshasa. They will continue arming bigoted groups they already know very well. They will watch from a distance when my own Oromos and Somalis duking it out with each other and their marshal plan of all my Oromos in constant war-footing with our noble neighbors Amharas. Now nobody is watching therefore perfect scenario where they can send in convoys after convoys of semi-trailers to haul away every natural resources they know extremely well. What the heck, they may even be talking about building a wall between them and the rest of the inferno. Do you think this is impossible? Well…just look around. Read around. Take a glimpse at their diatribes and what they are chicken-scratching on their website. The blood from Korum all the way to Asmara is thick with the same blood, we are being told. We are being told that the recreation of an Agazian Nation is on the Horizon. But first, along with next of kin Al-Toweel, they will make sure that a raging inferno is well lit up where people are busing murdering each other like rival beasts. They hear thing like I do that a heated arguments have already erupted to determine where should be the capital city of a new republic. Some are saying Finfine and others are adamant about it to be at the birth place of Irreechaa, Bishoftu. Then we will be witnessing and the entire 100 plus million people on the move, internally displaced with no chance of returning. If such carnage needs to be averted, the responsibility is in the hands of all those in the opposition. They need to call for a convention of all opposition groups. Those who declined to participate should be called out so they will be known. Who should be given the task of calling for such a convention? I on my part I had deputized the dear editors of this website which we have been holding dear to our hearts as our waterhole to call and egg every group known to come to a convention at a designated place. I mean every opposition with no discrimination. Then we will know unequivocally who is for the people and who is for himself. This is not the time sling insults at others. It is not funny, okay. The gallant youth of my own Oromo and its equally gallant youth of Amhara are showing ingenuity in coordinating their tooth and nail peaceful bout with the despots. They have scored victory number one. They have forced the demonic Marxists to call in their military’s assistance. This has been acknowledged by the US Embassy and the EU. Way you go my Oromo youth!!! Way you go my Amhara youth!!! You will share the same podium with those gallant South Korean students of the 1970’s and 80, who brought down the Park juggernaut. You deserve to be noted by historians!!!

    • Ittu,

      The youth have no options left for them other than fighting. Practically speaking, they are raised in a country where they are counted as second citizens. They are on a mission to save and reclaim their country. There is an Amharic saying:
      እናት ብትሞት – በአገር ይለቀሳል፣
      አባት ቢሞት – በአገር ይለቀሳል፣
      አገር የሞተች ዕለት ወደዬት ይለቀሳል? ( Lit.
      If a mother dies, one grieves in own country
      If one loses a father, he/she grieves in own country
      If a country dies, where else a man grieves?) — Am not good at the translation, sorry but hope you will get the idea.

      Every time I watched a news my Ethiopian sisters and brothers riding a crowded boat in mass and losing their lives in high sea, it breaks my heart. They are fleeing their country whereas the children of the very few groups fly by the criminal woyane commercial & military airline for vacations and paid education in Europe and America. The Oromo, Amhara and other marginalized youth have no choice other than owning a country first. The tigre liberation front has been choking to kill Ethiopia, we can’t let their hands any more around us. These youngsters born and raised in a despotic regime now asking their rights and making history is so amazing

      • Dear countryman,

        The genie is already out of the bottle and seems to have discovered its mojo. The youth has located its charm and the making of things. When it forced the Marxism honed despots to cough up the peaceful protesters in jail, the youth responded by saying ‘that is good but not good enough. We want you to cough up every political prisoner in your gulag. And your replacement by a transitional government is a must’. How more clear should that be? ‘Out of my sight or I will not back down!!!’ Now the youth needs to be reminded to stay away from doing harms to industrial and business settings and should rein in those in its midst prone to uncontrollable rage. That will give hard excuse for the despots to jail and murder peaceful protesters. Above all factories and modern business settings are there for the good of the people whoever owns them and they will be there to do good in the eminent good governance. Good governance is for sure to come, no ifs or buts about it. Because Taiwan of the late 1980’s has said so; Chile of the late 1990’s has said so; South Korea of the 1990’s has said so. Even Tunisia which is right there just a stone throw away from Arat Kilo of the 17 years ago is saying so. Once the rage starts spilling over from Goba to Metema, from Babile to Dembi Dolo, the writing is becoming clarion clear on the wall. Those who don’t or refuse to see the writing on the wall is those who are intoxicated by political power and all the fringe benefits that come with it. It is natural that the longer one stays in power he/she will be prone to make mistakes and improprieties even those with fair minds. In our case, ethnicity has been the modus operandi for the Marxist despots in power. Ethnicity does not mean rights of ethnic groups to make their languages to run their administration. That comes out of the principle that respects citizens’ Almighty Blessed right to speak and develop their mother tongues. It does not mean to funnel the lions share to your enclave. It does not mean that one ethnic group is more qualified than others to do anything. It does not make one ethnic group a ‘golden’ race and others made of some rusty metal stuff that can be gunned down to make a point or get the message across. For what I have been reading and hearing right from the source, ethnicity has been used from the bottom of the deck to line pockets of the well connected through ethnicity into billionaires(in Birr). When I say this it does not mean that I am against capital accumulations but only when it is earned in total transparency and fair/regulated competition. Free enterprise is in my blood. The politics of ethnicity has proven to be a hindrance for fair and transparent governance just because it carries that faulty preference which is deeply embedded in it. You need proof? The entire Africa is my witness and hard proof. What the US and EU are worried about is a possible and eminent vacuum emerging. To me it is rearing its head already. The regime is not able to rule as usual including by killing protesters. It has killed kids just for singing protest songs for crying out loud!!! But the youth is not backing down in its millions. You, I and many others who still hold that glorious people who produced us all dear to our hearts should watch out for those smart alecks who have been waiting for the opportune moment standing on the periphery to go in and carve out a territory to call it their own vassal along ethnic and religious lines. We have to learn from our past experience of 1974. We have to be determined in exposing them with no preference for our ethnicity. They will be another omen set to bedevil our people even longer. They will be equally and even more murderous. That is how I see it and am resolute about it until I am proven wrong practically.

  3. The fate and the future of Ethiopia will be decided by the majorities of Ethiopians, Tigrians are entitled for 6 % of ideas. once they returns the lands they looted from Gonder and Oromo farmers.

    • We need our bros and sisters back from their opportunistic ideology and align with the majority of Ethiopians. To assure us they have nothing to do with TPLF, they need make a clear statement that TPLF is not Tigray and Tigray is not TPLF. Time is fast approaching for judgement day!!

  4. Every decent God-fearing Ethiopian should refuse to be a Crime-minister and a puppet of a bloody-hand TPLF regime!!!

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