The Ethiopian Federal Parliament on Friday convened a rare emergency session. The agenda items were equally extraordinary, appointing a new prime minister was unthinkable as recently as a month ago.
After missing from the public eye for weeks, former prime minister Meles Zenawi was announced dead on 20 August at a Belgian hospital. Illness? Not disclosed to date.
Meles, who ruled the country since 1991, was both prime minister of Ethiopia and chairman of the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). The ruling party, which unseated the previous communist regime after a bloody 17-year armed struggle, has a formidable control of the nation’s politics with over 5 million members, among which the leadership takes up over 99 percent of all Federal and Regional Parliament seats in the country.
After a month long of speculations and mixed signals from the EPRDF leadership following Meles’ death, a little over 40 minutes Parliament’s emergency session promoted little known Hailemariam Desalegn as the country’s new Prime Minister on Friday, 21 September 2012.
Kirubel Tadesse, a freelance journalist and Associated Press writer in Addis Ababa, met and interviewed Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn more than a few times. Kirubel examines Hailemariam’s journey to become Ethiopia’s Prime Minster.
The child, who would grow to become the leader of one of the oldest nations in history, was born on 19 July 1965. Hailemariam Desalegn Boshe, 47, was born in Hombareka village in the Wolayeta Zone of Ethiopian southern region.
Desalegn Boshe, a teacher and political activist, strongly believed in providing best education to his children. His first child Hailemariam was sent to a private school, Catholics’ Saint Mary.
After completing elementary school, Hailemariam went to a boarding school in Hossana, the capital city of Hadia zone, located 185 kilometers from Addis Ababa.
Sodo, the capital town of Wolayeta zone, is where Hailemariam successfully completed his high school education and said goodbye to head to the country’s capital Addis Ababa.
Addis Ababa University Arat Kilo campus wide opened its doors to Hailemariam. He didn’t come alone – a sweetheart from his high school also joined the university. His girlfriend, Roman Tesfaye, studied economics and completed a four-year undergraduate program while Hailemariam finished a five-year Civil Engineering program.
“She was my friend in high school as well as in university. We were in the same batch, graduating together,” Hailemariam told me in a 2010 interview.
“After graduating she spent one year in a work environment, and I joined the work force later. By then, we thought we don’t need to stay long without being married…so we got married right away in a church,” Hailemariam looked back with a big smile on his face and very fondly talking about now First Lady Roman.
Hailemariam, a fresh civil engineer, was recruited to the then newly-established Arba Minch Water Technology Institute immediately after graduation in 1988. The oldest child of his father, Hailemariam was later joined by his siblings who, like him, have excelled in their education – all thanks to their father who was a high school dropout but pressed his children to go all the way and enjoy the many benefits of good education.
“I have seven brothers and one sister. All of them are very clever, and most of them are teaching in universities, may be 5 of them are teaching in universities now. I think most of us have passed through university education and teaching in universities— that I like very much,” Hailemariam said.
Hailemariam worked for Arba Minch Water Technology Institute for less than a year. In 1989, he received a two-year postgraduate scholarship in Finland, which he completed six months early. However, the timing coincided with Ethiopia’s political turmoil in 1991 as the then rebels, now the ruling EPRDF, took control of the country by ousting the Dergue regime. Hailemariam returned to Ethiopia that same year.
But why would a postgraduate holder with many opportunities return to a country in chaos?
“I had two reasons to come back to Ethiopia. I knew that there would be a better situation in the country than during the Dergue regime. I have been following the media and was in contact with some of my friends, who all indicated [to me] that things would be better. I noticed that the EPRDF was handling the community and people fairly and democratically, so I didn’t worry too much about what would happen to me as a person. I said to myself: I have to go back to my country and see what was happening at that time – that was the first reason.
“The second reason was my family. They were in Ethiopia. It would have been very selfish [of me] to stay [in Finland] when my family was here. My baby daughter was born as I was leaving for Finland; she turned two in 1991. I was willing to take any supposed sacrifice with my family – my wife and daughter.
“In the first place there would not be any sacrifice. But if there is any, I have to take it together with my family,” Hailemariam told me in the 2010 interview.
Upon his return to Ethiopia, Hailemariam rejoined the Arba Minch Water Technology Institute and served there for thirteen years in different positions, including as registrar, vice-dean, lecturer and dean of the institute.
His political participation also started at that time.
As a child, since he was a seventh grader to be exact, he started hearing about some of the activities of the then popular political movement, namely the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Party (EPRP).
“I was too young to join them but my father was a member of the EPRP and I read some of the pamphlets he brought home. I used to hear him discuss with his friends about the setup of a popular government of the public’s choice.”
Hailemariam’s father was a fighter – though from a feudal family like the idolized Germame and Mengistu Neway of the 1950s, he took part in their failed coup to topple Ethiopia’s last monarch Emperor Haileselassie. He had to drop out of Teferi Mekonnen School in Addis Ababa and flee to his home to avoid persecution. This has inspired Hailemariam to look to ways to realize his father’s dreams.
“Despite my education in science and technology, I have the aspiration of [working in] public service and to see justice prevailing. I was involved in founding the revolutionary party in the South,” he said.
The university lecturer finally saw an opportunity to make his mark in public administration – his experience from serving the Arba Minch Water Technology Institute with its population of diverse students would have prepared him well to the high profile posts that were in store for him subsequently.
Straight from Arba Minch University he was appointed vice president of the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ State in 2000. After a year, he rose to the position of president and served in that capacity until 2006.
Six years later, it was time for Hailemariam to once again come to Addis Ababa. In the nation’s capital, the late prime minister Meles Zenawi appointed Hailemariam as his advisor on social affairs and civic organizations and partnerships in 2006
A rising star in the ruling party, Hailemariam entered the country’s cabinet in 2008 as government whip at the Federal Parliament.
His big and surprising breakthrough came later in September 2010. After the fourth successive election victory in May 2010, the ruling party held its congress in the regional city of Adama. There, Hailemariam was elected a deputy chair, only next to Meles. Weeks later, when the new Parliament commenced, Hailemariam once again was appointed not only as deputy prime minister but also to double as foreign affairs minister – a position Meles’ Tigrian inner circle tightly held since 1991.
The sudden death of Meles Zenawi, 57, has pushed Hailemariam, 47, to the limelight.
Married to his childhood sweetheart Roman Tesfaye, and a father of three daughters, who like him have excelled in their education [the oldest two are currently studying engineering and medicine], the devoted Protestant Christian Hailemariam has now a chance to do good by the country like he did with his family.
Hailemariam has now an opportunity to write his own legacy in the hearts and mind of 80 million proud Ethiopians. Last Friday he seemed to fully understand the gravity of his job.
“I must express my heartfelt gratitude for the honor bestowed upon me by the House of Peoples’ Representatives, allowing me the further opportunity to serve the peoples of Ethiopia following the decision of the ruling party last week. It is indeed an exceptional honor,” said Hailemariam in his first address as leader.
As I made my way out of Parliament through the back door from the press balcony after Hailemariam’s swearing in ceremony was over, I saw House Speaker Abadula Gemeda seeing off the new Prime Minister and I wished him good luck. In a highly polarized politics of a nation that still swims deep in poverty, its new leader needs all the good luck that he can get. Hopes and expectations are high, but only time will tell if the new Prime Minister can rise to the occasion and chart a new course for the country, free those jailed unjustly, bring together the divided nation and sustain the country’s recently booming economic growth. Good luck Mr. Prime Minister!