Blog of the International Journal of Constitutional Law

Leadership Transition in Africa: Perspectives from Ghana & Ethiopia

Gedion T. Hessebon, SJD Candidate, Central European University, Budapest and Assistant Lecturer Addis Ababa University (on leave), African Network of Constitutional Lawyers

Laura-Stella Enonchong, University of Warwick, African Network of Constitutional Lawyers

In much of Africa and other fragile democracies, succession to the helm of national leadership often creates a lot of uncertainty. The risk of violent political upheavals is intensified when leaders die unexpectedly. Ghana and Ethiopia have recently been faced with the deaths of their leaders but contrary to the trend, were able to surmount potential succession crisis. In the wake of the Arab spring and recent political upheavals in countries such as Guinea-Bissau, Côte d’Ivoire and Mali, the relatively smooth leadership transitions in Ghana and Ethiopia are remarkable experiences which are indicative of a varied trend in Africa.

In this contribution we attempt to briefly analyse the constitutional and socio-political context of Ghana and Ethiopia and how they might have been influential in the smooth leadership transfer. We attempt to highlight how in both cases, although the outcome was similar the dynamics were relatively different.


In Ghana, President Atta Mills died unexpectedly on 24 July 2012. Within hours of his death his Vice-President John Mahama was sworn in as the new President of Ghana. The smooth and uneventful transition was remarkable even for a country like Ghana which has been said to be a beacon of peace and democracy in Africa. There appeared to have been little or no controversy as to the path of succession given that such an event is contemplated and addressed in the Constitution. Article 60 (6) provides that whenever the President dies, resigns or is removed from office, the Vice-President shall assume office as President for the unexpired term of office of the President with effect from the date of the death, resignation or removal of the President. Thus, the Constitution is clear and leaves little ambiguity as to who should succeed the President in the event of his death. Moreover, in terms of the timing of replacement there is also a normative time frame which in effect requires the new President to assume office almost immediately.

But was the constitutional position so clear as to pre-empt controversy and promote adherence to the rule of law? There is an extent to which constitutional provisions in and of themselves are sufficient to promote adherence. In deed, in many cases they are insufficient. Clarity of course is a virtue without which uncertainty may ensue (as in the case in Ethiopia discussed below) or worse, a constitutional crisis as in Nigeria. Such scenarios may provide scope for detractors to attempt to manipulate the situation to thrust themselves or their allies into power. In the case of Ghana, the socio-political context can be said to have contributed to the need to adhere to the constitutional position thereby preventing any controversy or a constitutional crisis.

Ghana has made progressive reforms in democratic governance evident in part in the establishment of relatively strong institutions such as a judiciary that has often demonstrated its independence, a free and fair electoral system and a strong and independent civil society. Civil society organisations have developed due in part to the relative openness of the government and have been able to contribute to democratic governance and popular awareness of governance issues. Ghanaians are willing to engage in political debates and to assertively defend their rights and entitlements against the government. In addition, they appear very protective of gains in democratic governance made so far and are therefore intolerant of any moves that may potentially jeopardise them. Moreover, the political opposition has been very fierce in challenging the government and acting as a potent oversight mechanism in ways that contribute to ‘democratic alertness’ of the government. One thing that can also be said of the leadership is that, successive Presidents seemed under a democratic ‘spell’ to consolidate and enhance the gains achieved thus far.

Armed with that constitutional and socio-political context, it seemed rational that following the death of Mills, Mahama should be sworn into office without delay. President Mahama now carries Ghana’s ideological and physical democratic baton and has promised to consolidate the legacy of his predecessor. While Ghana can celebrate passing the succession test, it cannot rest on its laureates as the next presidential election scheduled for December 2012 may yet prove to be another crucial test for its democratic advancement. President Mahama has been selected by his party the ruling National Democratic Congress as their candidate for that election to run against the popular opposition candidate Nana Akufo-Addo who very narrowly lost to Mills in the 2008 presidential election runoff. How well the election process is managed now, then and thereafter would be another lesson for democracy in that country and perhaps the rest of Africa.

With those reflections in mind, we now look at the position in Ethiopia.


The late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi had been a dominant figure in Ethiopian politics in the last two decades. After the Marxist-Military regime fell in 1991, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the rebel armed group led by Meles Zenawi took over the reigns of the state. Till the adoption of a new constitution in 1995, Meles Zenawi served as the president of the Transitional Government of Ethiopia. After the adoption of the new Constitution, he became the Prime Minister of the Federal Government. When he passed away on August 20, 2012, Prime Minister Meles was serving his fourth and what was widely expected to be his last term as Prime Minister. Through out this period, he was also the chairperson of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the EPRDF (the TPLF being the founding and dominant member of the four ethnic parties constituting the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front).

Once the illness of the Prime Minister and his absence from the country was confirmed, a debate regarding the constitutional implications of his absence started to rage. Some opposition politicians and those in the politically active opposition leaning Ethiopian Diaspora, started to argue that the country is facing a constitutional crises because the Constitution does not provide what happens in case of the death or long term incapacity of the Prime  Minister. They argued that the Constitution only foresees the possibility of the Deputy Prime Minister acting on behalf of the Prime Minister in cases of very short, brief absences. They contended that Article  75(1)( (B) which stipulates that the Deputy Prime Minister shall “Act on behalf of the Prime Minister in his absence” does not apply to  cases where the Prime Minister is absent for an extended period of time . Very often, such arguments were made by referring to the experience of the US and Ghana which are countries with a presidential form of government. Many critiques of the Constitution who argued that there is a constitutional crisis at hand seem to have failed to notice the differences between the parliamentary and presidential forms of governments and what this difference entails. Some from the side of the ruling party argued exactly along these lines and contended that article 75(1)(B) covers such situations as well and till the Parliament elects a new Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister could legally discharge the responsibilities of the Prime Minister.

Two things are worth noting about the entire debate. The first is the fact that the debate was largely happening outside the country on the Voice of America, Deutsche Welle , and various websites and blogs based outside Ethiopia (most of which are blocked and inaccessible in Ethiopia). The state owned media did not entertain such discussions and the government confiscated and brought charges against a news paper that covered the succession issue in a manner deemed to be unacceptable to the ruling party. Another interesting thing worth noting is that assertions about an ‘unfolding constitutional crisis’ by opposition political activists seemed to have been largely motivated by a desire to indict the Constitution as defective. Since the Constitution is seen as the handy work of the EPRDF drafted and adopted without the participation of political parties and groups that did not share its constitutional view, the legitimacy of the EFDRE Constitution is always a controversial topic. In that debate on whether or not the Constitution adequately regulates the issue of succession to the premiership, the view of the opposition was tainted by the belief that the Constitution is illegitimate and somehow defective.

While these debates were going on, rumors of the Prime Minister’s death started to spread while the Government maintained that the Prime Minister is recovering and will return to his office shortly. However, these reassurances were hardly accepted whole hardheartedly given the overall lack of transparency on the part of the Government regarding the whole affair and the conflicting statements coming from the official government spokesperson and a senior member of the ruling party who kept giving statements in his own individual capacity. Finally the Government announced the death of the Prime Minister and after a two week long official mourning period, the ruling party elected the Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister, Hailemariam  Desalegn as its new Chairperson and ended all speculations regarding the succession of the Prime Minister. Hailemariam Desalegn was Meles’s deputy both in the EPRDF and the Federal Government for the last two years and as a result he was widely considered to be the presumptive successor of Meles. So, his election to replace Meles by the ruling party was not surprising even if there have been some speculations and rumors of power struggle within the party. Given EPRDF’s virtual absolute control of Parliament, once Hailemariam was elected as party chairperson, his election as Prime Minister by the parliament was a forgone conclusion. Accordingly, he was duly elected as the second Prime Minister of the FDRE on 15 September 2012.

One interesting development prior to his election is the promotion of about 34 senior military officers in the army. According to article 71(6) of the Constitution the president grants high military titles upon recommendation of the Prime Minister. These promotions occurred after the death of Meles Zenawi and before the election of his replacement. The odd timing of the promotion and the fact that about two third of the officers who were promoted happened to be from the same ethnic group as the late Prime Minister seems to suggest that it was part of a bargain to assuage fears of declining influence among the Tigrayan elite.

Overall the succession of the premiership went rather smoothly. The ruling front had exhibited a cohesion and discipline that proved fears of instability and an ugly power struggle as being exaggerated. The constitutional rules regarding the assumption of the office of the Prime Minister were duly observed and the death of the Prime Minister did not induce a constitutional crises.

However, it is still too early to tell if the new power balance within the ruling party will hold given the complicated ethnic arithmetic which is bound to leave one or the other group dissatisfied. Given its dominance in the past twenty years, the TPLF seems to be Ok with handing over the top position to others while retaining its dominance in the army and the national security apparatus. The Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM) to which Hailemariam belongs have no reason to complain about the new arrangement. The Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM) also appear to be satisfied with the new state of affairs since they have secured the second top position in EPRDF and collectively they seem to have came out stronger from all the four parties after the transition. However, the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization (OPDO) which in theory represents the single largest ethnic group in Ethiopia seem to be doing some soul searching after finding itself the least influential party in the EPRDF. Whether or not the cohesion in the EPRDF will continue and the new leadership will avoid major internal political crises depends on how the frustration of the rank and file OPDO members evolves.


As discussed above, in both Ghana and Ethiopia, the deceased heads of government were replaced in conformity with their respective constitutions and without any instability or crises. However, a closer look at Ghana and Ethiopia reveals that, the former had a more smooth and swift succession than the latter. Ghana, a country where there have been two prior peaceful transitions of power in the last twenty years and where the opposition harbours no ambivalence towards the constitution managed to have a transition that was more smooth and reassuring. Moreover, other socio-political conditions as highlighted above, contributed in cementing the smooth transition. Unlike Ghana, in Ethiopia, there were few weeks of uncertainty and arguably a ‘constitutional crises’ of sorts.  These have arisen partly as a result of constitutional ambiguity and the perceived illegitimacy of the Ethiopian constitution among some opposition political groups.

In sum, taking in to account that a similar smooth transition happened very recently in Malawi, it may be safe to assert that some African constitutional orders are coping well with potentially destabilizing moments of leadership succession. Perhaps the successes registered in our positive case studies may prove influential to other constitutional orders in the region.


One response to “Leadership Transition in Africa: Perspectives from Ghana & Ethiopia”

  1. Uba Babs Avatar

    I think Ghana and Ethiopia should serve as role model to other African countries and beyond,because they have displayed high level of discipline and maturity in getting a new leader of their country.It should serve as example for all other country.

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