Ethiopia: Hailemariam’s Big Challenges

Hailemariam Desalegn
Hailemariam Desalegn’s must strengthen Ethiopia

Ethiopian leader Hailemariam Desalegn pledges to ‘continue legacy’ of former leader Meles Zenawi as he was sworn in Friday; the PM faces significant domestic and international troubles

New Ethiopian leader Hailemariam Desalegn, relatively little known and long overshadowed by his late mentor Meles Zenawi, faces tough challenges at home and in the volatile Horn of Africa.

In a peaceful handover of power for Ethiopia, former water engineer Hailemariam, 47, was sworn in Friday as prime minister to succeed Meles who had ruled since toppling dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991.

In a country long dominated by its major ethnic groups — most recently the Tigray, the ethnic group to which Meles belonged — Hailemariam notably comes from the minority Wolayta people in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region.

President of the region for five years, he was a close ally of Meles and was appointed to be deputy prime minister and foreign minister in 2010 after the ruling coalition party’s fourth win, a landslide victory.

Hailemariam, deputy chair of the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) for the past two years, was promoted to party chairman last week.

But within the EPRDF some of the most influential figures — members of Meles’s ex-rebel group turned political party, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) — hail from the northern Tigray region.

Hailemariam, while a protege of Meles, is therefore seen as an outsider by some, although many expect an outwardly smooth transition with little change in policy.

But he will face tough regional challenges, including relations with arch-foe Eritrea, which split from Ethiopia in 1993 before the two spiralled into a bitter 1998-2000 border war, and whose troops still face off across the frontier.

Neighbouring war-torn Somalia, where Ethiopian forces are battling Al-Qaeda linked Shebab insurgents, as well as tensions between Sudan and newly independent South Sudan, will pose major regional hurdles for Hailemariam. Not to mention and increasingly belligerent and aggressive Egypt whose new islamist government seems intent on monopolizing the waters of the Nile river.

At his swearing in on Friday Hailemariam pledged to “continue Meles’s legacy without any changes.”

“Many see (Hailemariam) as a figurehead, part of a gesture by Meles and the ethnic Tigrayans to give more prominence to other ethnic groups,” said Jason Mosley of Britain’s Chatham House think-tank.

But Mosley also said that the choice of Hailemariam — who will remain in the post until national elections in 2015 — was a sign the ruling elite is “intent on maintaining the status quo” of Meles’s stable, if authoritarian, rule.

However, the International Crisis Group (ICG) think-tank suggests Hailemariam’s appointment may be “window dressing, designed to placate potential critics, while the Tigrayan TPLF elite keep real power.”

Hailemariam — in Ethiopian tradition, known by his first name, meaning “the power of Saint Mary” — is also a Protestant, the first to lead Ethiopia, where the majority of Christians follow Orthodox traditions.

But others say Hailemariam’s position outside the Tigray power base could in fact prove a strength.

“His ethnicity is considered an advantage, because it is a minority in a multi-ethnic region and, most importantly, not from the numerically dominant Oromo or Amhara,” the ICG added in a recent report.

Critics also point to his relatively young age, lack of experience and the fact he was not part of the rebel movement which toppled Mengistu, unlike many in the ruling elite.

Instead, Hailemariam, who studied civil engineering in Addis Ababa, was completing his master’s degree at Finland’s Tampere University when Mengistu fell.

“He is a political novice, he has not been part of the old guard, he has not been in the bushes fighting with the rebels when they fought against Mengistu,” exiled opposition leader and former mayor of Addis Ababa Berhanu Nega told reporters.

“He is a Medvedev for a group of Putins in the ruling party with their own internal squabbles,” he added, drawing parallels with Russian political dynamics.

Rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have appealed for an end to what they criticised as a crackdown on opposition groups and journalists under Meles, but there is little beyond rhetoric to judge how Hailemariam will act.

The new prime minister has spoken enthusiastically about ensuring democracy and accountable rule for the country, and two Swedish journalists jailed under Meles were released last week.

Like Meles, Hailemariam has praised Ethiopia’s close ties to both the West — most notably Washington — and to China, a key trade partner.

Speaking at the opening of the US embassy in Addis Ababa in 2011 he praised the “long-standing and time-tested relationship” with Washington, while he told Beijing’s state broadcaster CCTV in July that Ethiopia’s “cooperation with China is a win-win approach.”