Failure Mishap or Triumph?
Hailemariam Desalegn’s political history is filled with surprises. In many ways, his journey from being born in a family of 11 in Boloso Sore in Wolayita Zone, to Prime Minister, is a story of the possibilities that Ethiopia affords. Nonetheless, his triumphs have not been short of challenges; his term was characterized by humanitarian, political and security crises. So much so that he gave up his post as the chairperson of the ruling party and Prime Minister. Yet his resignation has left a mixed legacy of achievements and failures. EBR staff writer Samson Berhane, examines.
Perhaps only history can accurately judge Hailemariam Desalegn’s six-year tenure as Prime Minister of Ethiopia. But there is no doubt that his political career, that began the late 1990s when he became a member of the EPRDF, has been full of surprises. He quickly rose in the hierarchy, assuming the post of Deputy President of the SNNP regional state. In 2002, he became the President of the state, replacing Abate Kisho, who was removed from power on corruption charges.
His political journey in the Southern state lasted only until 2006. After this, Hailemariam’s prominence within the EPRDF leadership and the ranks of the federal government skyrocketed. He held several important positions in the ruling party, as well as the government, rising as far as Deputy Chairman of the EPRDF, Deputy Prime Minister, and Minister of Foreign Affairs until he became the unlikely candidate to succeed the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who passed away unexpectedly in 2012. This was the propelling force that led Hailemariam to occupy the highest office in the country.
There were mixed feelings when he was first appointed. Those who opposed his nomination noted his lack of experience dealing with complex politics, which is needed to run one of the most diverse nations in the world. Others preferred to give him the benefit of the doubt, at least during his initial years in office.
Girma Seifu, who was the lone opposition Member of the Parliament (MP) between 2010 and 2015, was among the MPs who supported his appointment. “I was so confident that he could bring a change to the country as he was new blood in the political arena, and [he was] an academically efficient person,” Girma recalls.
But it didn’t take long for Girma to change his mind. “Although I was hoping he would exercise strategic leadership by having a more accommodating and relaxed approach than his predecessors; it did not take long for me to be proven wrong,” Girma added. “His intention was maintaining the legacy of his predecessor, instead of building his own.”
But from his first day in office, Hailemariam was clear as could be in regards to how he planned to govern. “I will continue Meles’s legacy without any change,” he told MPs, and the nation, after he was sworn in before Parliament.
Hailemariam’s Economic Achievements, Defeats
As he promised to continue the legacy and vision of Meles, who was credited with the double-digit economic growth the country registered—especially since 2003, Hailemariam managed to sustain the development trajectory with a yearly average growth rate of 9.9Pct until 2016/17. During his tenure, the real gross domestic product (GDP) grew by a whopping 60Pct from ETB517 billion to ETB828.4 billion, which enabled Ethiopia to become a major economic powerhouse in East Africa.
Still, many of the targets outlined in the first phase of the Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP I) didn’t materialize. One case in point was the plan to increase the export of goods and services as a percentage of GDP from 10.5Pct in 2009/10 to 31.2Pct in 2014/15. Five years down the line, the figure had slumped to 9.7Pct. The share of the manufacturing sector in GDP also stayed put below five percent. On the other hand, many megaprojects, such as the construction of 10 sugar factories and fertilizer plants, remained unfinished.
However, especially after the end of the GTP I period, many development projects took place, some of which were targeted at promoting the manufacturing sector. According to many, only the rapid spread of industrial parks came close to the developmental pace set by Hailemariam’s predecessor. One of these people is Lidetu Ayalew, a prominent opposition figure in Ethiopia since the mid-1990s. “I believe it was during Hailemariam’s administration that the country made practical moves towards the development of the manufacturing sector,” he says.
Indeed, during Hailemariam’s term, Ethiopia demonstrated significant commitment to expanding industrial parks in a bid to attract foreign direct investment (FDI). Over the past two years, six parks—including Hawassa Industrial Park (HIP)—were constructed. Moreover, the construction of nine parks is underway. Close to one billion dollars in export earnings is expected from HIP when it starts to operate at full capacity.
Despite all this, the country’s rank on the Ease of Doing Business Index dropped from 124 to 161 during Hailemariam’s tenure. Likewise, tighter regulations that deterred the growth of the private sector were also adopted over the past five years, according to many businesspeople. The micromanagement of commercial banks by the National Bank of Ethiopia and the total exclusion of the diaspora community from participating in the financial industry—a lifeblood of the economy—are illustrations of this, according to Zafu Eyessuswork, a financial industry guru. “In fact, most importantly, it was a period when the very existence of the nation was at a crossroads,” he says, adding that ensuring peace and stability should be the priority of the incoming Prime Minister.
Nonetheless, Endalkachew Sime, secretary general of the Ethiopian Chamber of Commerce & Sectoral Associations argues that the engagement of the private sector in economic matters was more noticeable during Hailemariam’s administration. “We witnessed more dialogue and openness to accommodate the needs of the private sector during the time the outgoing PM was in power,” he says, mentioning that Hailemariam has been the only Prime Minister to establish a PM-led council to provide solutions for investors.
But behind the achievements, there have also been disappointments. One case is the failure of the administration to formulate a strategy to promote the private sector, as Endalkachew explains. “Additionally, the fact that the outgoing Premier continued to prevent the private sector from participating in areas like the telecommunication industry at the expense of users is another major flaw.”
Be that as it may, one aspect that characterizes the current administration is the surge in unemployment among graduates. The problem of youth unemployment, particularly in urban areas, has been a challenge for politicians and policymakers in Ethiopia, but it has been more severe in recent years mainly due to the growth in the number of graduates from public universities. While the number of universities doubled to 44, many degree holders have not managed to find jobs.
“This has been a major fault of the outgoing administration,” stresses Atlaw Alemu (PhD), an economist who has done various studies on unemployment patterns in Ethiopia. “It is also the main cause of youth protests across the country over the past few years.”
Violence and Protest Becomes Inevitable
On top of the rise of youth unemployment, exclusion from the country’s political process and economic growth, as well as lack of accountability, corruption and inefficient governance led to political turmoil that has shaken the country since 2015—exactly three years after Hailemariam became Prime Minister. The unrest began unfolding after protests broke out when people started to protest against the 10th Master Plan of Addis Ababa, which was drafted to expand the capital to parts of the surrounding Oromia Special regional state.
In the first wave of anti-government protests, particularly in the states of Oromia and Amhara, over 400 people lost their lives, according to a report by the Human Rights Commission. In the same period, flower farms and manufacturing companies were ransacked, destroyed, and vandalized by protestors, leaving the country under a State of Emergency (SoE) that lasted for almost ten months.
In September 2017, a month after the SoE was lifted, another dispute—this time an inter-regional one between the states of Oromia and Ethiopian Somali—resulted in protests across towns and public universities. The crisis in the eastern parts of the country spread to places like Woldiya, a town located in the North Wollo Zone of the Amhara regional state. Consequently, a three-day strike across the state of Oromia not only saw towns at a standstill, but also brought transportation to and from the capital to a halt. As a result, the problem reached a point of no return, and forced the government to declare a second SoE in March 2018, seven months after the first SoE ended.
Hailemariam Steps Down
Frustrated with the persistent political turmoil and party politics, Hailemariam went as far as to release hundreds of political prisoners, including some well-known opposition party members. Then on February 16, 2018, he stunned the nation and announced his resignation from party and government posts. “I see my resignation as vital in the bid to carry out reforms that would lead to sustainable peace and democracy,” he told the nation in a televised address.
Those who closely monitored Hailemariam’s unsuccessful ventures and empty promises, support his decision. “It was the right decision made in a timely manner, considering that the leadership failed to bring about much-needed peace and stability,” explains a member of OPDO whose name has been withheld upon request.
Zafu disagrees. “Hailemariam should have completed his term. He was supposed to solve the problems before giving up his power,” he asserts.
Besides winning every single parliamentary seat along with its allies, the EPRDF, under the chairmanship of Hailemariam, was criticized for being unable to stabilise the political situation in the nation after the death of Meles Zenawi. Extensive mismanagement of public resources, bad governance, questions over identity and revolts over unfair distribution of economic resource were more common during Hailemariam’s tenure.
Lidetu, who was a Member of Parliament from 2002 to 2007, believes the cause of the problems is a failure of leadership. “It is a problem that came about with the inception of the ruling party,” he says. “The way the party was formed, based on ethnic groups, is the cause of the violence, which unluckily broke out during Hailemariam’s term.”
Political commentators and activists stress that the increasing power and self-ruling tendencies of some regional states ultimately pushed Hailemariam out of office. Such attempts became visible especially after the changes made at the helm of Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO), which resulted in Lemma Megersa becoming President the state Oromia, as well as Chairman of OPDO.
Different measures undertaken by Lemma and his colleagues over the past two years show that regional states sometimes contradict the orders of the federal government. Repetitive requests to the federal government to stop its involvement in regional affairs, the shutdown of hundreds of investments, and 121 mining companies licensed by the federal government in the state of Oromia, asserts the growing power of regional states. “This is commendable,” argues Girma, signalling that the regional states should be more autonomous.
Despite the domination of the EPRDF and its allies of Parliament, some MPs from OPDO started to actively engage against the will of the party. This was seen during the Parliament session, when a record high 88 MPs voted against the most recent SoE, while seven abstained.
But Lidetu believes the self-governing nature of the regional state, and the self-direction of the coalition parties, show that there is a lack of consensus and integration within the EPRDF. “If this persists, dissolution is very likely. I believe there should be a balance in making the regional state autonomous and exercising power by the federal government.”
Beyene Petros, an opposition figure for almost three decades and member of Medrek Party echoes the same sentiment. “I don’t expect any change by assigning a new premier or chairman of the party, unless the party is ready to make radical shifts.”
Since Hailemariam’s unprecedented resignation, the EPRDF has faced a hard test to pick a new leader from the four coalition member parties. The coalition parties have carried out marathon meetings, resulting in a change of the guards.
Abiy Ahmed (PhD), the former Minister of Science & Technology, was named chairperson of the OPDO, placing him in the running to be the next Prime Minister of the country. He replaced Lemma, who holds the post of deputy chairperson and maintains his role as president of the Oromia Regional State. At the time, Lemma also hinted that the OPDO would be willing to take over high-level seats. “We are ready to pursue a high level position in the federal government,” he said in an interview with Oromia Broadcasting Network (OBN).
By the same token, the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM) elected Shiferaw Shigute as chairman in place of Hailemariam Desalegn, who had been chairman since 2012. The action of OPDO was followed by an election that maintained the status quo at the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM). Demeke Mekonnen, the current deputy prime minister, was elected chairman of the ANDM again.
These measures show that there is contention amongst the coalition parties, according to activists such as Seifeselassie Gebre. “The EPRDF is exhibiting hesitation in terms of which direction to take and perhaps has even reached an impasse in trying to reach a consensus and elect a new prime minister,” Seiefeselassie wrote in his commentary published on Aiga Forum. “Collective leadership and the formation of a premiership council composed of each coalition party with rotating chairmanship will buy the EPRDF much-needed time to thoroughly deliberate and come up with a long-term solution that will guarantee the continued viability of a peaceful, democratic, and prosperous Ethiopia.”
Collective leadership is not a new concept for the EPRDF. Subsequent to the appointment of Hailemariam as Prime Minister in 2012, collective leadership was put in place with the aim of ensuring the continued implementation of existing policies and strategies. Besides appointing Demeke Mekonnen as his deputy, he named Debretsion Gebremichael and Muktar Kedir, who was later replaced by Aster Mamo, as coordinator of Finance and Economic Cluster and Good Governance Reform Cluster with the rank of Deputy Prime Minister, respectively. However, during his latest cabinet reshuffle in late 2016, Hailemariam dropped this plan and removed the two from power.
“Unless there is a strong leader, collective leadership might lead to fragmentation. So, implementing such style of leadership is not viable in the current situation,” Lidetu argues. “Changes can be brought by reshuffling individuals. If the party wants peace and stability to be restored, it has to open up the political space and make itself ready for a transition.”
In many ways it may be too soon to assess Hailemariam’s influence over the entire nation. But one thing is for sure: he will be remembered as the second Prime Minister of Ethiopia who handed power over peacefully, even if it was to his party comrades.
6th Year . March 16 – April 15 2018 . No.59