Profile: Ethiopia’s ‘placeholder’ PM quietly holds on

Profile: Ethiopia’s ‘placeholder’ PM quietly holds on

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By Barry Malone

It must be tough to be barely a few weeks into a new job and read articles and academic reports in which people theorise that you are unlikely to hold onto it for long.

That was the fate of Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn when he was shoved into the spotlight by the shock death of the country’s long-serving leader in 2012.

And Meles Zenawi, one of Africa’s most high-profile heads of state, was widely thought a tough act to follow.

Hailemariam, a well-respected technocrat, was little-known internationally and was seen by analysts as a compromise and placeholder candidate who would do as he was told by powerful backroom figures.

“Hailemariam Desalegn, Ethiopia’s new leader, may not be in place for long,” said a headline in an Associated Press article at the time.

Analysts, journalists and diplomats queued up to express fears for the transition and doubts about his ability. But, in the end, things went largely smoothly.

Party officials now say the handover of power was his first big success.

The ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front party is a complex coalition of four ethnicity-based parties and the party from which Meles hailed, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, has long been thought the dominant force within it by political analysts.

Hailemariam, a former water engineer and university professor, was plucked from the least influential of the parties in a move that surprised some. Many Ethiopians, though, saw it as a shrewd move to stop the other three parties from battling for one of their own to take the top spot.

If that was the strategy, it has proven successful with the 49-year-old still firmly in the seat almost three years later and securing a controversial election win on Wednesday, according to provisional results released.

Hailemariam Desalegn Boshe was born in Hombareka village in southern Ethiopia in 1965, the son of a man who would later join the rebellion to overthrow the country’s communist regime.

Now Hailemariam is part of a new generation of politicians slowly replacing those who cut their teeth in those rebel groups, one of which came to be led by his predecessor Meles.

But the newer leader, analysts and diplomats have told Al Jazeera, has not much departed from his predecessor’s policy platform.

Opposition parties that once accused the Meles government of harassing, intimidating and jailing their officials and supporters say that, under the softly spoken Hailemariam, it has been more of the same.

‘No Meles’

Opposition parties have cried foul over the election, accusing the government of arresting their supporters, stealing ballot boxes and jailing disloyal journalists.

The government denies those charges, points to its verifiable achievements in development and economic growth, and says voters are rewarding it for that.

“Democracy for us is not only an election that is conducted in a period of time,” Hailemariam told Al Jazeera in an interview last week.

“It is making people participate in all aspects of their life, including their development. I think participatory democracy in this country is something you can learn rather than criticise.”

With a mandate – though disputed – that is his own and not that of Meles, Ethiopians will be watching for any sign that the government’s policies, or its manner of dealing with dissent, will change.

Though there is the possibility that he will face a challenge, Hailemariam is expected by most political analysts to be reinstalled as EPRDF leader at a party conference before the end of the year.


WATCH: Hailemariam talks to Al Jazeera about democracy, development and the future


“There is an opportunity for Hailemariam, once he secures a mandate in his own right, to continue opening up the political space,” J Peter Pham, of the Atlantic Council, told Al Jazeera.

“And, to be fair, Prime Minister Hailemariam, while he is not the larger-than-life figure on the African and global stage that his predecessor was, has been a steady leader with some significant successes.”

Observers will also be watching to see if a man, who some say has even adopted similiar body language to Meles, can emerge from his shadow and pursue his own agenda.

“We like him. He’s a steady hand and will keep things moving in the right direction,” one Western diplomat told Al Jazeera shortly after he took over.

“But he’s no Meles.”

Hailemariam, though, who is said by analysts to lead the EPRDF in a more consensus-driven style than the former prime minister, insists he’s his own man.

“There is no individual person’s policy in this country. We have a party, he was the chairman, but if you say they were ‘his policies’, that’s a mistake,” he told Al Jazeera.

“They are the party’s policies, which then became government’s policies. I am here to implement whatever policy is there.”

Follow Barry Malone on Twitter: @malonebarry

Source:: Al Jazeera

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