Challenges Facing Hailemariam Desalegn (Interview)
* Below is Q&A I had with a foreign journalists on what might come of Hailemariam Dessalegn’s premiership.
JM. Hailemariam comes from a historically marginalized ethnic group, Wolaita, with almost no presence at the center of power and takes leadership of a state where all important pillars of power, the military, intelligence, foreign affairs and economy, are dominated by Tigreans. This means there is little chance for him to exercise real power. As his subordinates are more influencial than him, he will have great difficulty in getting his own policy implemented. Because any political or economic reform in the country requires some level of redistribution at a cost to the currently privileged groups, any such initiative by the new premier will be effectively resisted and obstructed. The only way he could possibly be able to counterbalance the negative influence of the entrenched Tigrean elites has to be by reaching out to the affiliate parties and trying to curve out and develop a support base. But such attempt will be perceived as a serious threat by the Tigreans who will take measures to swiftly neutralize him. Therefore, whether he stays three years or more, Hailemariam is unlikely to leave any foot print his own on the country’s politics.
Q. What are the consequences if he does not unify the party successfully?
JM: The EPRDF has never been a coalition of the willing, it is rather a fragile organization kept together with a clientelist system and the coercive capabilities of the TPLF and manipulative skills of Meles. The TPLF still maintains the coercive apparatus but in the absence of Meles’ Machiavellian skills, securing continued loyalty of other organizations would not be easy. However, if the fragile coalition is shaken, Hailemariam will have little role as the struggle will be a three way race among the Tigrean, Oromo and Amhara elites. Basically while he might tilt the balance of factional struggle one way or another by throwing the weight of his symbolic position, he will not be a game changer. Thus, while Meles, through his skills and power, was a unifying figure for the coalition, Hailemariam lacks both and consequently will have insignificant role in either keeping the party united or fracture it.
Q. What economic challenges does he face (specifically regarding inflation and maintenance of GTP goals)?
JM. He is inheriting myriad of economic problems. The first is skyrocketing living cost that has become unbearable, particularly for the large urban poor. The other is high youth unemployment as just a tiny fraction of those who graduated in the last couple of years have secured jobs. Controlling inflation that has been pushing up food price is another problem he has to deal with. These all have to be dealt with while maintaining the ambitious and costly mega projects planned under the GTP. Most of the external funding and foreign direct investment promised to the GTP were attracted based on the assumption that the country would remain stable and under Meles’ guidance, or even if he stepped aside, from behind the scene. Both China and the West relied on this assumption. Now that Meles’ death has thrown a cloud of uncertainty about the future, foreign investment, especially of the private sector, is going to slow down causing possible halt to the various mega projects planned under the GTP. Therefore, if Hailemariam is going to maintain financial flow, he has to find a way to restore confidence of both domestic and international investors. To do so, aside from securing political stability, he also needs to surround himself with respectable and recognized economic advisers by bringing in professionals technocrats with proven track record in the academia as well as the business sector.
Q. What are the consequences if he does not address economic troubles?
JM. He has to find a way to absorb the tens of thousands of new graduates into the economy. He also has to reduce the growing and highly visible income inequality, particularly in the capital. Failure to reduce unemployment, cost of living by stabilizing inflation (also solving the shortage ) and maintain investment flow to ensure promises of the GTP, could lead to political unrest and popular upraising.
Q. Should he be worried about religious fracturing in the country, especially in light of recent Muslim protests?
JM. No. There is no tension among the various religious groups in the country but rather between religious groups and the state. The ruling party has been attempting to control religious institutions in order to use them to its political advantage. It was such manipulation that led to the ongoing Muslim protest. Thus, unless the government takes its hands off religious affairs and release Muslim leaders and clerics from detention, the ongoing protest will continue and eventually embolden the people of other faiths to join in, making revolution a likely outcome. Yet, although this weekly protest has been going on for 10 long months, there has not be a single incident of inter-religious conflict. Therefore, regardless of how intense the confrontation between Muslim protesters and the government might get, I do not anticipate a horizontal conflict across religious fault-lines.
Q. As a relatively unknown character, what difficulty will he face proving himself a capable leader?
JM. His biggest challenge is to dispel the widely held perception that he will be a puppet for the Tigrean elites. One way of doing this is to avoid being overshadowed with powerful and recognizable figures. But to gain respect, he will have to prove it by shaking up the establishment through reshuffling of powerful men, particularly the military bras. To have any chance at exercising real power, overhauling the security establishment is a must.
Q. How can he balance pressures from West to open up democracy, increase tolerance for opposition and human rights, while maintaining stability at home and appeasing hardliners?
JM. The West currently is nervously watching the uncertainty surrounding post Meles Ethiopia. They wish this opportunity could be used to reform the system but they probably will not push for significant change due to fear instability. Therefore I do not think they will exert meaningful pressure on the regime to open up the political system and respect human rights. Moreover, in the Western, particularly US, foreign policy, national interest almost always overrides concern for human rights abroad. Since Ethiopia is seen as vital regional strategic partner of the West, its likely they will continue to turn blind eye on human rights violation and political repression under Hailemariam as much as they did during Meles’ rein.
Therefore, any political reform has to come either through initiative by the regime or must be induced from below via mass mobilization. For Hailemariam, introducing political reform by opening up to democracy is going to be a near impossible task, yet with huge reward if he can do it. Unless initiated by the Tigrean elites, any effort at opening up the system will be strongly resisted by the establishment so much that Hailemariam could risk being removed. But if he has the stamina to fight for such initiatives, he could receive an overwhelming support from other members of the coalition and the larger public that could possibly help him offset resistance from the privileged elites.
Jawar Mohammed is political analysts and graduate student at Columbia University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His articles can be accessed at www.gulelepost.com