There are many reasons to believe in Prime Minister Hailemariam as long as he stands to be a man of himself and treat himself as one
An opposition activist approached by this magazine to comment on the rise of Hailemariam Desalegn as Ethiopia’s Prime Minister concluded his remarks with the ancient Chinese curse of “May you live in interesting times.” He didn’t implicate the saying as bearing the meaning of a blessing – as it may seem to appear – rather he meant what he said. He saw no pleasure in the whole affair; like many dissidents the regime has created over the past 21 years believe, he believes the coming into power of Prime Minister Hailemariam as nothing but a futile attempt to dance different with the same song. There are thousands of Ethiopians in and outside of the country who share his views. They are entitled to their beliefs.
Ethiopia under the late PM Meles Zenawi has shown hopes for many of countless promising starts such as a free press, a multi-party political system, an economic progress that benefits all and a federated Ethiopia that treats none more equal than others, but in the process the country has seen off hundreds of dissidents to jail and to exile and some of these promises ended up being mere hopes shattered soon or later. So for the skeptics of the system the coming of Prime Minister Hailemariam, whose rise meticulously orchestrated by his predecessor, is nothing but a contemptuous implanting of “a weak puppet.”
But for millions of Ethiopians both in and outside of the country, his rise is not politics as we know it. For starters, he is a shroud technocrat; a man of dignity; a man who symbolizes an end to a select few; a man with a unique intellectual caliber; and above all, a symbol of hopes ignited that will last long than quickly fade. They are entitled to their beliefs too. After all, it is partly his hard work as a student and partly the Ethiopia of the last 21 years that saw Prime Minister Hailemariam, a son of a father who was a teacher by profession but relegated by a brutal Marxist regime and a mother reduced to become a mere housewife, rise up to become one of the few remarkable presidents of the finest universities in the country; it’s the Ethiopia of the past 21 years that saw him to become a president of a region torn by ethnic sectarianism and a ridiculous bureaucracy that he fixed both; to finally become the Prime Minister of a country of more than 80 million odd. So for this lot his rise has ignited hopes that will most likely die last than shattered soon. It is very simple: if he can make it, so will many others.
There are many reasons to believe in Prime Minister Hailemariam but three of them are exceptional. First, as head of the government, he replaced a leader who passed away while still feeling – as many Ethiopians believe – the Ethiopia he fought for 17 years and fashioned for 21 years is in owe of him and his ethnic minority in-group. Prime Minister Hailemariam, save for his political affiliation with the ruling EPRDF, is a true outsider. He came from an ethnic minority and a religious attachment marginalized by almost everyone and every government that came in to power in the history of the country. In an Ethiopia of today where key establishments including the army and intelligence is still controlled by the first generation of revolutionary fighters who brought the current regime to power that counts for plenty of things.
Second, Prime Minister Hailemariam comes from a seasoned intellectual background. This magazine had an interview with Dr. Seleshi Bekele, a longtime friend and colleague of him, who says the Prime Minister is one of “the most seasoned, assertive, experienced and intellectual” persons he ever met.
Fondly referring to him as ‘Haile’ Dr. Seleshi recounts his memories of the man he first met in 1989 at Arba Minch University in Southern Ethiopia. “He is not a person of mediocrity; he believes in strong institutional capital,” Dr. Seleshi said. When the current ruling elites were fighting in the jungle, the young Hailemariam was fighting the same government with his determination to push his studies further and did incredibly well in every study he pursued. He is a graduate of distinction in civil engineering from Addis Ababa University, has an MSC in engineering with honor from Tampere in Finland and has an MA in organizational leadership from Azusa Pacific in the US. A sign of respect for professionalism and trust in others who may know better than him, when Hailemariam was the Foreign Minister from 2010-2012 he often consulted with intellectuals for research papers in many areas. Dr. Seleshi said he and four other researchers were invited by him to produce a paper on critical issues and concepts of water centered growth in Ethiopia. “He believes in value of knowledge,” Dr. Seleshi said. It appears he also knows other intellectuals always possess something he may not. His value of excellence can also be traced to his wife Roman Tesfaye’s impressive intellectual background. She has a BA and an MA in economics from Addis Ababa University and Aligarh Muslim University in India respectively. She participated in more than a dozen trainings in and abroad and held positions, including lecturer of economics at Arba Minch University, that are not easily attainable for average Ethiopian women. Hailemariam was in charge of their three daughters, two of them now studying medicine and engineering at a public university, when his wife was away to pursue her masters in India. Many of us know this is not just a political coincidence. In an Ethiopia of today that pushed hundreds of its seasoned intellectuals away from the government affairs for issues of political loyalty and ethnic affiliation that counts for plenty of things.
Third, during his acceptance speech at the national parliament, his statesmanlike manner and his language showed he is a world apart from his predecessor. To the relief of many Ethiopians, there was no trace of the often “I know all” attitude in his tone. His speech touched upon the monumental challenges his government is faced with from institutional nepotism to a backward agriculture and infrastructure to education and health to corruption to human rights and freedom of the press. He offered no immediate panacea, nor was it necessary to expect one at this stage, and to the frustration of many, he more than once vowed to stick to the policies designed by the “great leader.” However, he did say so with a virtuous gesture that with the people, he was ready to turn his government for the people, and in his tone was that humbleness millions of Ethiopians took comfort from. That fits perfectly to what Dr. Seleshi said three days before the Premier was sworn-in: “he is a very humble person; he has a good sense of humor; he sees everyone with equal eyes and he is quite a friendly person.”
Pictures of Prime Minister Hailemariam showing him with his former students during his wedding have become social media sensations. In an interview he gave in January 2010 to Me’eraf, a religious magazine, he was quoted as saying, “there was never a time when I intentionally did something to hurt others; I am too afraid.” This may be his religious view, but for many Ethiopians who read it there was something soothing about the whole interview. Dr. Seleshi corroborates that when he told this magazine, “Hailemariam has an emotional maturity and intelligence to sympathize with people of different religious beliefs.” In an Ethiopia of today which has seen its leader of 21 years publicly scorn members of parliament and anyone who dare asks him tough questions and in an Ethiopia of today whose leader was increasingly isolated both physically and ideologically from the people he ruled that counts for plenty of things.
The man that has it all
Critics of the system are already up in arms and are pointing at faults in his previous engagement. Some of his former university students at Arba Minch University are blaming him for “brutally suppressing” students’ riot against the management of the University in the late 90s; while many political activists see his premiership as nothing of a game changer and express their skepticism at his lack of political experience.
What they don’t know, or are unable to accept is that Prime Minister Hailemariam had left good track records in everything he touched so far. After 12 years of a remarkable academic achievement that started as an assistant lecturer to the registrar of the institute and then to vice dean and dean of the university, he transformed the Arba Minch University from a mere institute to one of the biggest universities in the country. “He was the architect of the expansion that happened in that university,” says Dr. Seleshi, who took over the presidency of the university after Hailemariam. “When he left, he left an excellent legacy; a well-developed department; a staff working together in good spirit; and a functioning institutional bureaucracy.”
His time in Arba Minch may be that of a pure academic excellence. But after he left in 2000 for Hawasa, the Southern region’s capital, he became a member and later chairman of a little known Wolayita Gamo Gofa, Dawro and Konta Party. He then became member and later vice chairman of the Southern Ethiopia Peoples’ Democratic Front (SEPDF). During this time, he had cleaned a messy house rocked by corruption and ethnic sectarianism and brought 21 feuding political parties and 56 nations and nationalities under one umbrella called the Southern Ethiopia Peoples’ Democratic Movement (SEPDM), one of the four sister parties forming the current government. Under a pen name, he was publishing thought provoking articles on leading local newspapers on his experiment of bringing the parties together and had stirred up discussions that helped him measure the fever for or against his idea. He finally won.
It didn’t stop there. He became vice president of the Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples’ Regional State (SNNPR) and just after a year assumed the presidency in 2001until he became a minister and special advisor to the late Prime Minister on social affairs, civic organizations and partnership from 2006-2008. As many would assume, his rise to this rank may have been orchestrated by the late PM Meles. But what many don’t know is the two men had their first encounter in the late 90s during a visit by the late PM to Arba Minch University. Dr Seleshi thinks that may have been the time when the late PM saw that spark in Hailemariam.
A close associate at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs says Prime Minister Hailemariam’s reign as the Minister of Foreign Affairs may look insignificant for his critics, but the late PM had left it to him to organize his last cabinet reshuffle. “Almost all of the ministers we have since 2010 were handpicked by Hailemariam,” he says. He was surfing knee-deep through the political wave long enough.
Gather worthy people
It is cynical to expect many wrongs to go right let alone now but in the coming year or two. So for the time being, and under the circumstances, Prime Minister Hailemariam would do the people of Ethiopia, himself and his career good if he starts to surround himself with people of higher caliber in many areas including his soon expected pick for the position of the Minister of Foreign Affairs. His government must take a systematic turn away from party loyalty and ethnic affiliation and give unambiguous priority to excellence.
No doubt he is a seasoned technocrat but many are cautious, and rightly, if he could be able to assert himself as a powerful technocrat in the face of what is now becoming the old guard that packed the political scene from the army to the intelligence. Government Communication Chief Bereket Simon may have dismissed allegations that internal fighting have raged within the party following the death of its founder former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. But the conspicuous absence of the former first lady and member of the council of ministers Azeb Mesfin from Prime Minister Hailemariam’s and his Deputy Demeke Mekonnen’s swearing in ceremony suggest the party may have as well been consumed by ugly infighting. That will present him with acute dilemmas but posing as a man of himself and treating himself as one may do the trick. Whether many in the party like it or not, he is the one.
However, those who expect him to turn everything upside down are may be in for a big disappointment. As an adult he and his parents have lived through a Marxist brutal system that strapped them of dignity (the only reason he couldn’t be chosen to stay at Addis Ababa University as a lecturer after having been graduated with distinction was because he refused to belong to any political party); but he very well knows he simply can’t disown the system that has seen him excel in his academic and political career for the sake of pleasing those who are pushed by it. No matter what, politics has this annoying habit of displeasing a good number of people. But that by no means should translate into keeping the status quo in dealing with some of the most burning and glaring issues either. It is tempting to say he could stay good for just the next three years. But these are three decisive years and time enough to show, at least the first steps, that he meant what he said about improving the lives of every Ethiopian, fighting corruption, working with human rights and press institutions, and opposition party members – issues that saw hundreds of able Ethiopians locked in jails and have driven thousands away from their motherland.