For Ethiopia's new premier, a tightrope act By ARGAW ASHINE | Thursday, September 20 2012 at 16:09
Hailemariam Desalegn takes over the reins in Ethiopia under the watchful eye of hawkish ruling party power brokers who are expected to ensure that he does not rock the boat too much in what is expected to be a business-as-usual term for the Horn of Africa country of close to 85 million.
Hailemariam, Meles Zenawi's deputy, was last week finally elected chairman of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) after a furious behind-the-scenes battle for control of the powerful ruling party.
He was consequently due to be sworn in on September 21 as prime minister in what is the first peaceful and constitutional power transition in Ethiopia's recent history.
The new premier would be in place until the next general election set for 2015, a tenure probably too short to consolidate any meaningful political base and influence, suggesting an authoritarian Meles-like approach to matters of government would leave him vulnerable.
His appointment is also a major milestone in Ethiopian politics as it marks the first time a minority ethnic group has ascended to power in the country's modern history.
All Ethiopian leaders have tended to emerge from the north, particularly the Amhara and Tigray ethnic groups. Hailemariam is from the marginalised Wolyta ethnic group of the South. He is also a Pentecostal Protestant adherent, unlike his predecessors who have all been Coptic (Orthodox ) Christians.
Having started his political career in his own region in the mid 1990s, he became a president of the Southern Ethiopia federal region before later being elevated to the federal government as a social affairs advisor to the late prime minister Meles.
Humble and smiling, Hailemariam, 47, is a hand-picked successor after Meles appointed him as deputy prime minister and also foreign affairs minister in 2010.
The sudden death of Meles on August 20 sparked an internal power struggle between the ruling party elites in the EPRDF, which is a coalition of four parties representing the Amhara, Oromo, Tigray and southern ethnic groups.
The party was at pains to downplay the dispute, thought to have mainly involved Meles' minority but core Tigrayan Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) party, which holds control of the key intelligence and security apparatus and key areas of the economy, as it fought to remain in charge.
A TPLF factional effort to retain the premiership failed after rounds of official and unofficial negotiations, but the new leadership sees them retain control of the key power institutions such as the military and the intelligence agency, the Foreign Affairs ministry and other crucial economic sectors.
Ethiopians hard hit by inflation.
Ethiopians hard hit by inflation.
Consequently, Hailemariam's elevation is expected to cause little policy change in the political and socio-economic structure of the Ethiopian government.
Meles was often cited for clamping down on the media and civil society including through restrictive laws and incarceration of his opponents and critics. Following his exit, Ethiopia's opposition, media and civil society who had hoped for a more liberal approach by the new premier may have to continue waiting given Meles' regime is all but intact.
Any attempt by Hailemariam to stamp his constitutional power on particular issues may cost him a lot, even his leadership. A former non-combatant university lecturer, he is less experienced in political gambling compared to the former guerrilla war veterans in his government and who constituted Meles' inner circle.
His government is ringed by party old guards who are highly influential in the day-to-day government operations and also dominate the multi-billion business empire run by the EPRDF.
In a September 4, 2012 televised message, the acting leader urged Ethiopians to unite in the realisation of the vision of the late Meles in a pointer that little would change once he became substantive premier.
"We will never stop even for a moment until we reach the end. We must realise the dream of our great leader by achieving prosperity and build a strong nation," Hailemariam said.
On the economic front the new leader may however introduce minor changes aimed at reining in runaway inflation, which has been above 35 per cent for the last eight months.
Ethiopia's robust economic growth--more than eight per cent for nearly a decade--and rapid infrastructure expansion is the handiwork of Meles, but hyper-inflation and the high cost of living has bled the low income groups and will require a speedy fix, in itself a difficult job for Hailemariam.
There would be little shift on foreign policy, with Ethiopia militarily involved in neighbouring Somalia. But rivalries with Eritrea could become more tense with the rise to power of a non-Tigrian in Addis Ababa.
Most Eritreans, particularly the ruling class, and Ethiopian Tigrians, speak the same language and have some inter-marriage relations.
The giant Renaissance Dam on the River Nile, inaugurated by Meles last year, could also be a major priority for the Hailemariam leadership potentially stirring relations with Sudan and Egypt. Both countries are greatly worried about the possible impact of the dam on the flow of water which almost single-handedly sustains their agricultural economies.
The dam is not only a power generation plant, but also a symbol of patriotism and pride for Ethiopians and is routinely used as a political tool.
Hailemariam would be less impressive on the international stage such as the G8 or UN climate summits where his predecessor excelled as he spoke on behalf of the continent, but western allies mainly the US have reaffirmed their cooperation with Ethiopia.
President Barack Obama spoke with Hailemariam early this month.
But at home, the new man at the helm faces an uneasy two years ahead, with ruling party confrontations and government power squabbles, already simmering under the surface, prone to erupting into the public domain.
Political and economic competition between the old guard and the new leadership could deepen existing fault lines, and for many Ethiopia watchers, it is only a matter of time.
Any divisions in the authoritarian ruling party tends to greatly affect Ethiopia's political sphere, and Hailemariam will need to be adept at putting together smart compromises, unlike Meles who is remembered for running a one-man show, and with an iron fist.
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