Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn resigned on February 15. He is “employee of the month” for March not for what he did, but what he failed to do. In the five and a half years in which he presided over Ethiopia, he allowed the country to drift towards turmoil. Ethiopia today is at grave risk of internal conflict and is unable to play its essential role as a bastion of stability and peacemaking in the Horn of Africa.
Hailemariam came to power following the sudden death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in August 2012. He came from the background of an educator though he had served as a government administrator for a brief period of time. He is a follower of a Pentecostal religion. These qualifications were not the ideal background to rule a highly hierarchical society. Added to this was the fact that Hailemariam never was part of the liberation war of 1975-91 or the revolutionary politics that preceded it. This background put him as an outsider to the liberation war veterans he was supposed to lead.
In his five and a half years as Prime Minister, Hailemariam had great opportunities for moving Ethiopia forward. He needed to address social crises and major failings in the political system. But in his time as a “leader” he failed to show the leadership that the country needed.
As the country’s chief executive, Hailemariam could say he knew groups who considered themselves above the law, which (for example) had their own prisons. He failed to act upon this. He was a leader to publicly admitted that his government’s decisions–including his own– were never based on evidence and failed to act to correct them. He failed to understand that the main of task of leadership was to mediate and balance contending interests and make decisions. Rather, it seems that Hailemariam thought he could make every one of his colleagues and coalition partners happy by agreeing to whatever they proposed despite the opposing nature of their interests. So he ended up disappointing all. Rather than demonstrating leadership qualities he thought he could cling to power by playing his coalition partners against one another.
Hailemariam stepped into a position that had been created and dominated by Meles Zenawi, who had run Ethiopia from the center with his formidable political skills. Meles left a legacy of great achievements and huge failings—including the withering away of the institutions of the ruling party. Hailemariam defined his task as making Meles’s legacy continue. He failed to have one of his own. He kept the office of the PM for five and a half years without being a leader and left his party’s coalition members go their own way. This eventually allowed Ethiopia to drift, leaderless, into its current turmoil and confusion.
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