Hailemariam Desalegn was sworn in as Ethiopia’s new prime minister last week. He has some big shoes to fill.
A cult of personality surrounds his predecessor, Meles Zenawi, who died last month..
Zenawi was a regional leader, fighting terrorism in Somalia and mediating the Sudan-South Sudan conflict. At home, he was the impetus behind Ethiopia’s domestic transformation. Since 2004, Ethiopia’s economic growth has averaged somewhere between 7 percent and 11 percent. (The number varies depending on whom you talk to.)
As a leader, Meles was remarkably effective. But his rule was by no means perfect. He and his Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) demonstrated little respect for human rights or individual liberties. This was most apparent during the post-election protests of 2005 and 2010 when hundreds were killed.
Hailemariam was appointed deputy prime minister and foreign minister in 2010, and appears to have been groomed as Meles’ successor. Unlike the rest in the EPRDF, who hail from northern Ethiopia and are largely from the Tigrayan ethnic group, Hailemariam is from the south. This is politically advantageous as many Ethiopians have long-felt marginalized by the northern elite.
A relatively uncontroversial figure, Hailemariam has demonstrated the ability to navigate the competing interests of the EPRDF’s senior members. Should he secure the backing of the EPRDF and the country’s influential military, he’s virtually certain to win what would be his first electoral race in 2015. For this reason, he is not likely to deviate from the policies of his predecessor.
Despite the limited prospects of reform, there is some reason for optimism in Ethiopia. The nation’s small opposition groups have slowly gained momentum over the last few years. Muslim protestors, outraged by the government’s interference in religious affairs, have been allowed to stage demonstrations. Though many protestors have been arrested for allegedly instigating unrest, the mere fact that protests were allowed constitutes a step forward in the opening of political liberty.
In a region of mass instability, Ethiopia is a leader and one of the few countries with which the United States has amicable relations. As Hailemariam gets comfortable holding the reins of power, Washington should look for opportunities for potential reform (see here). Change will be slow, but if the will is present, the United States can play a significant role in facilitating democratic growth in Ethiopia.