My personal reflection on Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn and current events
Dr. Seifu Gebremeskel Guangul
The motivation to write this article is primarily driven by the need to contribute my share of knowledge on the ongoing debate about Ethiopia’s current prime minister. Mainly I am attempting to debunk some of the misperception and often misguided comment about H.E Hailemariam Desalegn that question the influence and power he hold within the current government. In doing so I made some reference to politics and political parties based on my understanding, as an external observer and as I see them fit into my argument. That means, there might be a possibility of inaccuracies or misrepresentation of how the parties I referred to actually function.
First let me start by saying few words about H.E. Hailemariam Dessalegn that may shade some light on his personality, integrity and his outlook on life in general. This is a man I know very well; used to work together (him as Dean and I staff at Arba Minch), lived as neighbors (literary our houses were next to each other), we used to talk candidly about life, belief and family. In addition, our families are very close to each other. I know well his wife First Lady Roman Tesfaye, a well-educated woman on her right (she holds Master’s Degree in Economics). Also, she was sessional lecturer in economics at Arba Minch University in addition to her formal job. Both the Ato Hailemariam and W/z Roman come from a humble background, but succeeded through hard work that come with humility and honesty both of them possess. I also too well know all their three children, who were always kind to my two little daughters growing up. In addition, both Ato Hailemariam and W/z Roman used to support their siblings, from both sides of the families, by hosting them at their home in Arba Minch.
Ato Hailemariam is someone who never likes to take the easy road. Otherwise, he could have simply gone to Germany, completed his PhD and made a living by criticizing everything and all things in Ethiopia from a safe distance (like many so called intellectuals do). But rather he committed himself to public service; at the expense of what would have been a successful academic career. This is a man who knows clearly what he wants in life and makes decision that is in his personal, family as well as the nation’s best interest. He has a balanced view towards everyone regardless of background, belief or ethnicity. He treats everyone fairly but at same time he is someone who would never allow himself to be treated with disrespect or bullied let alone to be a puppet to anyone.
It is beyond my apprehension to see some label Ato Hailemariam, the man I know very well, just a puppet? How can the Hailemariam who I intimately know and a person who gave up great opportunity to train abroad for his PhD, allow himself only to be an outward symbol of authority in Ethiopia? When he first decided to enter into politics, as I reckon now, he wasn`t even certain about where the destiny of the inherent political process could take him in the end. But he still got the courage to enter into public service, with all real and perceived risks. So why should a man of such caliber abandon his academic career just to be symbol not substance of the system he decided to engage fully with? Ato Hailemariam chose a deliberate course of action for his life that ends him to be prime minister; with all power, privilege and of course limitation.
Probably our understanding of power and politics in Ethiopia is too much skewed and even clouded by the country’s own history. Centralized power in the hand of one man used to be the norm in Ethiopia. Our past leaders were the ones who ‘makes or breaks’ things in the country. The concept of power sharing and division of authority was unfathomable in this country. On the contrary, such approach to power was seen as a weakness to one’s authority. Too much power was consolidated around one man, and in fact the country had known nothing but a one man rule. This is what leadership meant in the Ethiopia that we read in history books. That approach to power and politics had done much harm to the country. When the macho and powerful leader removed by force or nature, there had always been power vacuum that often led to instability, bloodshed and chaos. This used to be our history and this is what fits the description of strong leader some people has in mind.
But EPRDF made an end to such type of power monopoly by an individual and adopted system of governance based on the principle of power sharing. This attribute of EPRDF traces its root in the political culture of TPLF. What had been started by TPLF became blue print for EPRDF and its affiliates. Collective leadership and decision based on consensus are the hallmark of TPLF and to EPRDF by extension. In EPRDF, there is no single man on which the fate of the party hinges on. The fate of post Meles EPRDF and the nation itself are testament to this fact. Meles had long gone, but the system he help build is still vibrant hence guaranteed political continuity in the country. But on the contrary, when Hailesilassie was deposed from power; so did with him the system of government he built for 50 years. When Mengistu fled the country, so did the powerful military government he built for seventeen years. Both Hailesilassie and Mengistu and even the pervious Ethiopian leaders were busy building image of strong leader with little regard to creating a mechanism or system that would allow for power sharing. That left the country on shaky ground and leaders’ legacy in tatter. TPLF/EPRDF understood well the risk of building party/nation around one man. That is why we have division of power and responsibility in the present day Ethiopia.
As far as I understand, within EPRDF a collective group of people generate ideas, debate on them, and at the end come to consensus so us to make a group decision. The role and responsibilities of individuals within the party is clearly mapped. And so is the role and responsibilities of leader of the party. It is true, in the beginning, and given the situation, TPLF was the dominant party with in EPRDF. In the last 24 years, however, the dominance of TPLF within EPRDF has been deliberately diminished while at same time the role of the other affiliate parties is propped up. The idea, as far as I can tell, is to embolden and bolster the other parties and close power and influence gap between them.
Other than that, it is wrong to suggest that the other parties and their members including PM Hailemariam are nothing but puppets to TPLF. Yes TPLF formed the genesis of EPRDF. But once EPRDF was formed and in the subsequent years, all affiliate parties generate, debate, and decide on ideas in mutually beneficial manner to all of them rather than the `master-puppet` model some try to depict. EPRDF has a leader. But the role and responsibility of the leader is limited by party rule. His role mainly is to execute the decision up on which party members agreed. The era of one man rule and top-down command that was too familiar to Ethiopians has long gone. However, its lingering effect is still hanging on as cloud over many people’s head. The new political reality and approach to power might have created some bewilderment, or even confusion, to extent that makes some to label the new prime minister as ‘puppet’ or someone who does what is told by his ‘masters’. In my view the perceived weakness that many people see in PM Hailemariam in fact shows the strength, durability and guaranteed continuity of the party and his leadership as well as that of EPRDF. Ato Hailemariam and W/z Roman are well educated, family oriented, determined above all God fearing yet powerful couple. They know what they are doing and they are no one’s puppet.