By Jenny Vaughan -
New Ethiopian leader Hailemariam Desalegn, relatively little-known and long overshadowed by his late mentor Meles Zenawi, faces tough challenges at home and in the volatile Horn of Africa.
In a rare peaceful handover of power for Ethiopia, former water engineer Hailemariam, 47, takes over as interim leader from Meles, who had ruled with an iron fist since toppling dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991.
In a country long dominated by its major ethnic groups — most recently the Tigray people, like Meles — Hailemariam notably comes from the minority Wolayta people, from the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region, where he was president for five years.
A close ally of Meles as deputy prime minister and foreign minister since 2010, Hailemariam was elected deputy chair of the ruling coalition, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), after the party’s fourth win, a landslide victory in 2010.
But within the EPRDF, some of the most influential figures hail from the northern Tigray region, members of Meles’s ex-dissident group turned political party, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
Analysts have suggested that several others are still jostling for power behind closed doors in the often secretive ruling coalition, even if in the open they are not taking part in the running for the top job of prime minister.
Hailemariam, while a protege of Meles, is therefore seen as an outsider by some, although many expect an outwardly smooth transition with little change in policy.
“Many see (Hailemariam) as a figurehead, part of a gesture by Meles and the ethnic Tigrayans to give more prominence to other ethnic groups,” said Jason Mosley of Britain’s Chatham House think-tank.
Government spokesman Bereket Simon has said Hailemariam will remain in the post until national elections in 2015, although formally he must be selected by the
ruling party, which holds all but one of the parliament’s 547 seats.
But the International Crisis Group (ICG) think-tank suggests Hailemariam’s appointment may be “window dressing, designed to placate potential critics, while the Tigrayan TPLF elite keep real power.”
But others say Hailemariam’s position outside the Tigray power base could in fact prove a strength.
“His ethnicity is considered an advantage, because it is a minority in a multi-ethnic region and, most importantly, not from the numerically dominant Oromo or Amhara,” the ICG added in a recent report.
Critics also point to his relatively young age, lack of experience and the fact he was not part of the dissident movement which toppled Mengistu, unlike many in the ruling elite.
Instead, Hailemariam, who studied civil engineering in Addis Ababa, was completing his master’s degree at Finland’s Tampere University when Mengistu fell.
“He is a political novice, he has not been part of the old guard, he has not been in the bushes fighting with the dissidents when they fought against Mengistu,” exiled opposition leader and former mayor of Addis Ababa Berhanu Nega told the BBC.
“He is a Medvedev for a group of Putins in the ruling party with their own internal squabbles,” he added, drawing parallels with Russian political dynamics.
Rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have appealed for an end to what
they criticised as a crackdown on opposition groups and journalists under Meles, but there is little beyond rhetoric to judge how Hailemariam will act.
At Meles’s funeral, Hailemariam vowed that “all his initiatives will keep going forward”, and the interim prime minister has spoken enthusiastically about ensuring democracy and accountable rule for the country.