By William Davison
Hailemariam Desalegn, an amiable sanitation engineer from southern Ethiopia, has succeeded late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. At first glance, the technocratic Hailemariam looked an unlikely candidate to succeed Meles, the stern overlord of Ethiopia’s political and economic reforms and one of Africa’s most respected statesmen.
Meles, who led Ethiopia since his guerrilla movement overthrew Mengistu Haile Mariam’s junta in 1991, died at the age of 57 of a still-undisclosed illness on 20 August. Deputy prime minister and foreign minister Hailemariam was named acting prime minister the following day. Despite speculation about the intentions of the secretive generals and other factions of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, Meles’s wishes have been respected and 47-year-old Hailemariam has won the support of both party and government.
Married with three children, Hailemariam is a relatively affluent Protestant from Boloso Sore in Wolayita Zone in Ethiopia’s Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Region. Along with the Gurage and Sidama people, the Wolayta – numbering around two million – are one of the main groups in this ethnically diverse region. The Amhara make up a quarter of the popularion, the Oromo over a third and Meles’s Tigray less than a tenth. However, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which led the guerrilla war under Meles, is regarded as politically and militarily dominant.
A close observer suggests Hailemariam’s background will restrain him: “Do you know any Wolayta generals? Do you know any Wolayta intelligence chiefs?” Protestants are also a minority, with about half the country’s 94 million people Ethiopian Orthodox and more than a third Muslims.
Hailemariam is a loyal party servant and has a formidable command of policy. That is why Meles transferred him from the presidency of the Southern Region and installed him in the Prime Minister’s Office in 2005. After he served a stint as government chief whip with ministerial status, Meles appointed him as his deputy in the party and government in October 2010.
Experts differ on whether Hailemariam will relax controls on opposition parties and civic activists. Ethiopian analyst Solomon Dersso from the Institute for Security Studies is hopeful: “It looks like we may see a more accommodating, conciliatory, relaxed approach,” he argues.
Since Hailemariam took over as caretaker, prosecutors dropped charges against Temesgen Desalegn, the outspoken editor of Feteh newspaper. The government is in peace talks with rebels in the Ogaden National Liberation Front and pardoned almost 2,000 prisoners, including two Swedish journalists convicted of terrorist offences. It emphasises that both talks and amnesty were initiated during Meles’s rule.
As stand-in chairman of the 25-strong Council of Ministers, Hailemariam showed a “command, a strong authority over other ministers,” Solomon says. A senior diplomat called him a forceful, steely presence in meetings.
When this correspondent spoke to Hailemariam in January 2011, this commanding personality was not on display. Instead he held commanding views about Nile Basin politics. Egypt’s monopoly of the Nile’s water is a historical injustice, he said. Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo would soon sign a new Nile accord designed to replace colonial-era treaties barring downstream development projects.
Within months, Burundi had signed. Then Meles announced the building of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a short drive from the Sudanese border. It was a populist masterstroke. If Hailemariam is to continue the project, he will need not only to master the details of hydro-politics but also develop the chutzpah that the late leader showed when he made that bold move