Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn: Up Close & Personal

The Ethiopian Federal Parliament, in late September, convened a rare emergency session. The agenda items were equally extraordinary because appointing a new Prime Minister was unthinkable as recently as a couple of months ago.

After missing from the public eye for weeks, the death of former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, at a Belgian hospital, was announced on August 20. The illness has not been 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 formidable control of the nation’s politics with over five million members. The party controls over 99 per cent of all Federal and Regional Parliament seats in the country.

After a month of speculations and mixed signals from the EPRDF leadership following Meles’ death, a 40 minute parliamentary emergency session promoted little known Hailemariam Desalegn as the country’s new Prime Minister on Friday, September, 21, 2012.

But who is Hailemariam Desalegn?

The child, who would grow up to become the leader of one of the oldest nations in history, was born on July 19 ,1965 in Hombareka village in the Wolayita Zone of the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Regional State (SNNP) which is home to over 50 nationalities.

His father, Desalegn Boshe, a teacher and political activist, strongly believed in providing the best education for 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 seat of Hadiya Zone Administration, located 185Km from Addis Ababa.

Then he went to Sodo, the seat of Wolayita zone for his high school education before heading to Addis Ababa.

Addis Ababa University’s Arat Kilo campus opened its door wide to Hailemariam. He did not 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 said in an interview in 2010 with the writer of this article.

“After graduating she spent one year in a work environment, and I joined the work force later. By then, we thought we didn’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, very fondly talking about the now First Lady Roman Tesfaye.

Hailemariam, a fresh civil engineer who completed his studies as the second highest scorer was recruited to join the department where he studied as a graduate assistant. However his employment process was banned by the Ethiopian Revolutionary Youth Association branch in the Faculty of Technology at AAU on account of his religion, Ababu Teklemariam (PhD), a former faculty member at Arba Minch University who has known Hailemariam since 1984 reflected on his social media account regarding his personal experience with Hailemariam Desalegn. Ababu, who used to be Hailemariam’s boss at Arba Minch, describes the now Prime Minister, as a humble, intelligent, considerate and dedicated man.

Hailemariam then joined to the newly-established Arba Minch Water Technology Institute, established to be a center of excellence by the Dergue regime, in 1988. The oldest child of his father, Hailemariam was later joined by his siblings who, like him, excelled in their education – all thanks to their father who was a high school dropout but pressed his children to go as far as they could 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, maybe five of them are teaching in universities now. I think most of us have passed through university education and are teaching in universities— that I like very much,” Hailemariam said.

As graduate Assistant Hailemariam was at the Water Technology Institute for less than a year. In 1989, he received a two-year postgraduate scholarship from Tampere University of Technology in Finland, where he earned a Masters Degree in sanitation engineering. He completed his studies six months early. However, the timing coincided with Ethiopia’s political turmoil in 1991 as EPRDF, took control of the country by ousting the Dergue regime. Hailemariam returned to Ethiopia that same year.

But why would a postgraduate degree holder with many opportunities abroad 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 did not 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 for 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 said back in 2010.

Upon his return to Ethiopia, Hailemariam rejoined the Institute of Water Technology in Arbaminch and served there for several years in different positions, including as, assistant lecturer and lecturer in the Department of Sanitary Engineering (now Department of Environmental Engineering). He then became Registrar, Academic Vice-Dean, Acting Academic Dean and finally Dean of the institute.

His political participation

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 party, 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 used to bring home. I used to hear him while talking with his friends about the setup of a popular government through public choice.”

Hailemariam’s father was a fighter – 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 I, when the Emperor was in Brazil for a state visit. He had to drop out from grade 11 at the then Teferi Mekonnen School in Addis Ababa and flee to his home town to avoid persecution. This has inspired the young 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 have prepared him well to the high profile posts that were in store for him subsequently.

Straight from Arba Minch he was appointed Vice President of the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Regional State in 2000. Two years later he became president replacing Abate Kisho who was removed from power on corruption charges. He served in that capacity until 2005.

Both at the Water Technology Institute, which was upgraded to university status in June 2004, and in the region; many who know Hailemariam say good things about him. As a lecturer, Hailemariam is said to have showed a good sense of respect for his students. In a country where swimming pool is a luxury, Hailemariam built one at the institute. With Hailemariam coming to the helm of decision making, the south region, which once was known for its frequent ethnic clashes, started to enjoy formidable stability. In addition, Hawassa, the major city in the area, also witnessed a dramatic boom, all paving the way for his eminent rise to power in Ethiopia, the Horn of Africa’s influential Nation.

In 2006, it was time for Hailemariam to once again come to Addis Ababa. The late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi appointed Hailemariam as his advisor on social affairs and civic organizations and partnerships where he led the team that drafted the Charities and Societies Proclamation law (CSO law). He was also one EPRDF’s lead negotiators, working with opposition parties to draft the election code.

Hailemariam is also credited in pushing EPRDF re-organize its structure after the 2005 elections in the ‘1-to-5’ model (one member recruits five new people) that boosted the number of party members from 400,000 to five million by the 2010 elections. He was also a successful politician in mobilizing the private sector to raise resources to support EPRDF.

A truly rising star in the ruling party, who earned the respect and admiration of Meles, Hailemariam entered the country’s cabinet in 2008 as government whip with a ministerial portfolio at the Federal Parliament.

His big and surprising breakthrough came later in September, 2010. After spearheading the ruling party’s campaign for the fourth successive election victory in May 2010, Hailemariam was to be promoted by a party congress held in Adama, the seat of Oromia National Regional State. There, Hailemariam was elected Deputy Chair, next only to Meles. Weeks later, when the new Parliament commenced, Hailemariam once again was appointed not only as Deputy Prime Minister but also as Foreign Affairs Minister – a position Meles’ Tigrian inner circle tightly held since 1991. With this Hailemariam was only the second person, next to Tsehafie Tizaz Aklilu Habtewold to hold the position of Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs in the country.

The deputy premiership gave him the chance to learn the nitty-gritty of running the nation under close guardianship of Meles while his post as minister of foreign affairs well positioned him to be exposed to the world of diplomacy and foreign policy. This made Hailemariam the ideal heir to the throne.

The sudden death of Meles Zenawi, 57, has pushed Hailemariam, 47, to the limelight. To a country whose political history shows the unwavering dominance of the Amhara-Tigre-Orthodox highlanders, the rise of Hailemariam, a devoted Protestant Christian from Wolayita, a minority ethnic group in the south, to the top most powerful position of the executive branch of the federal government, is a real historical departure in the nation’s political landscape.

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], Hailemariam has now a fresh chance to tally another new history in the country. Perhaps this would be by deepening the transformation the country has found itself over the past two decades and also doing all it takes for Ethiopians at home and abroad to reach a national consensus in the affairs of their country. This would not be without furthering the roots of democracy and improving the nation’s poor record in handling human rights, press freedom and relations with opposition parties.

Hailemariam now has an opportunity to write his own legacy in the hearts and minds of 80 million proud Ethiopians. On Friday September 21. 2012 he seemed to have fully understood the gravity of the job he has assumed.

“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. It is indeed an exceptional honor,” said Hailemariam in his first 18 minute live televised address as Prime Minister.

Kirubel Tadesse

EBR Special Contributor, Kirubel Tadesse is a freelance journalist and Associated Press writer based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He can be reached at

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