After Meles: Hailemariam’s Ethiopia

By IndepthAfrica
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Sep 24th, 2012
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By Samuel Gebru

Modern Ethiopia is not known for peaceful and orderly transition of power.

In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

Mengistu Hailemariam was overthrown in 1991. Haile Selassie was killed in 1974. When Meles Zenawi died last month, many Ethiopians were worried over the political future. I would have been surprised if people were not concerned.

But now it is official: through Hailemariam Desalegne, Ethiopia has undergone its first orderly and peaceful transition of leadership. Hailemariam was inaugurated on Friday, September 21 at 9:40am Addis Ababa time as the new Prime Minister of Ethiopia.

I have insisted since June that should Meles die, EPRDF would follow protocols to elect a new Chair and nominate to Parliament a new Prime Minister. The old guard EPRDF leaders are so committed to leaving party leadership that they did not even compete for Chairmanship. As one EPRDF founder told me, “Even if you grabbed me by the throat and threatened to kill me, I would never return to a senior government position.”

What surprised me most about EPRDF’s Leadership Succession Plan was the new two-term limit on their prime ministers and the retirement requirement of 65-years-old. One term is five years, and a ten-year limit as Head of Government is enough. But parliamentary democracies do not typically have constitutional term limits. The EPRDF’s self-imposed term limit on their future prime ministers is truly encouraging.

Hailemariam was elected as the new Chair of EPRDF on Saturday, September 15. In this capacity, he became the nominee for prime minister, which Parliament approved. The EPRDF’s nearly absolute control over Parliament made his confirmation a non-issue.

Will Hailemariam’s rise to power mean anything?

Despite naysayers who mistakenly claim Hailemariam is simply a placeholder, his rise is not accidental nor was it a forced decision. It’s important to realize that the EPRDF and its founders understand the only way the party can stay relevant is if new, post-revolution leaders take the helm. One EPRDF official claimed of Meles before his death, “We’re not in the business of making him Ethiopia’s Vladimir Putin. He really wants to retire.”

Some argue the problem with EPRDF is that it is still stuck in a guerilla war mentality of external secrecy and internal suspicion. Its leaders are mostly former freedom fighters who toppled Mengistu Hailemariam’s government and are part of a generation of Ethiopians who contain scars of the bloody past. When EPRDF was entering Addis Ababa, Hailemariam was in Finland receiving his graduate degree. Where most see black and white, those who were “not” directly impacted by the Ethiopian Civil War see shades of gray.

And these are the ones who should lead the post-Meles Ethiopia.

Of course, there will always be a presence by the old guard. So long as they are alive they will hold a considerable amount of influence behind the scenes. Hailemariam, who has executive experience as a state governor and served as an advisor to Meles before becoming his deputy in 2010, was elected as Deputy Chair of EPRDF in 2010 following a contested party election. His election wasn’t an accident.

Prime Minister Hailemariam is a capable, intelligent and humble person. Expectations are high for him to perform very well. There are serious challenges Hailemariam will need to address, namely Ethiopia’s economy is struggling with rising inflation and that the road to human rights needs to be strengthened. He’ll have to deal with Somalia, Eritrea and the two Sudans while balancing Ethiopia’s delicate relationship with the West and China. A serious political commitment must be made to combat corruption at all levels and involve opposition parties in decision-making processes beyond the usual role of a spectator.

Hailemariam represents the post-1991 wave of Ethiopians who returned to the homeland, leaving their careers and schooling to help rebuild and rebrand Ethiopia. I look forward to seeing the Prime Minister in action and wish him the best.

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