East Africa is a generally known as a region where leaders can settle down and make themselves comfortable in power. Look at Eritrea, where Isaias Afewerki has been president for nearly two decades and in charge for even longer. Or Djibouti, where Ismail Omar Guelleh assumed office in 1999 from his president-for-life uncle and looks all set to continue the family tradition.
Then there’s Ethiopia – before his death, Meles Zenawi was one of Africa’s longest-serving heads of state. Somalia is the exception, its chaos throwing up new leaders regularly in Mogadishu, while Somaliland has been lauded for its regular elections that have resulted in a change of government.
In this context, last week was momentous for the Horn of Africa, when not one but two new leaders were appointed. This is change on an unprecedented scale. Firstly, in Somalia, a parliamentary vote produced a thoroughly surprising outcome when the unheralded (but well-qualified) Hassan Sheikh Mohamud was chosen as Somalia’s president, replacing the much-maligned incumbent Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed. Hassan Sheikh is a civil society activist and academic, considered unsullied by the politicking and corruption to which Somalia’s leaders too often fall prey; his election has convinced many previously skeptical observers that the new government might be something more than just a re-branding of the old, failing government.
Secondly, in Ethiopia, the country’s ruling party ushered in the Ethiopian New Year by finally settling on a successor to the departed Meles. As expected, his deputy, Haile Mariam Desalegn, is the new man in the Prime Ministry, although it took a little longer than expected for the confirmation to come through. Although he’s expected to follow in Meles’ footsteps, Desalegn might rejuvenate politics in Ethiopia simply by virtue of his very different background. Desalegn is not from the Tigray ethnic group, which dominated most areas of government since Meles took power; nor is he from the mainstream Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Instead, he considers himself a Protestant. He is also not a veteran of the armed struggle against Mengistu. This might help to open up the political space a little. Desalegn’s appointment will be approved by parliament at the end of the month.
Both men have a raft of challenges to deal with, although of the two, it is Hassan Sheikh who will be having more sleepless nights. Journalist and respected analyst Abdi Aynte neatly summed up the most urgent things in his overloaded inbox, and it’s a daunting list.
The new president needs to get rid of the corruption which has plagued the government – the United Nations estimates that seven out of every $10 of international assistance is siphoned off into some official’s bank account. Then he needs to strengthen government institutions, which are hopelessly inadequate. “Virtually all other institutions [besides the intelligence] are nothing more than a few lanky men with laptops, folders and Gmail accounts preying upon the innocent public and unsuspecting donors,” writes Aynte. Sheikh also needs to figure out a political solution to Somalia’s problems, starting with negotiations with the nationalist elements of Al-Shabaab and the leadership of the breakaway region of Somaliland. Finally, he needs to re-think Somalia’s constitution and federal structure, finding a way to make the country more representative and more stable.
Fortunately for Ethiopia’s prime minister, he takes over a country with a little more going for it. Still, he’s got a few thorny issues to address. First among them must be the unrest from the country’s Muslim population, in response to perceived government interference in religious matters. Given their growth rate, Muslims will most likely outnumber Christians in Ethiopia within the next decade, if they don’t already. However, the country’s main decision-makers are mostly Christian. To keep tensions at bay, Desalegn needs to incorporate more minorities into his government and, more importantly, disassociate the politics of state from the politics of religion.
Next on Desalegn’s agenda is to manage Ethiopia’s double-digit inflation, which has contributed to high unemployment. This risks stalling the country’s otherwise impressive economic growth, a key justification for the government’s intolerance of opposition. That’s something else the new prime minister would address, in an ideal world.
Ethiopia has an awful reputation when it comes to censoring media and any kind of dissent, but don’t count on this changing: Desalegn is Meles’ protégé, after all.
It’s said that a change is as good as a holiday, and the Horn of Africa could sure use one of those. Neither of the two new leaders is likely to make much difference to regional dynamics, however. Ethiopia’s long track record of interfering in neighbouring countries, specifically Eritrea and Somalia, is likely to continue – Meles’ death did not remove Ethiopia’s pressing need for secure access to a port, or its willingness to target secessionist groups operating from outside its borders.
Somalia, meanwhile, is a long way away from being a fully-functioning state; its destabilising effect on its neighbours will remain in place for the foreseeable future.
Still, it’s exciting to think there will be two new faces from the Horn of Africa at summits of the African Union or regional body IGAD. Don’t expect this to happen again any time soon.