By Elizabeth M. Koikai
Ethiopia’s new leader Hailemariam Desalegne is expected to officially take office following the death of the country’s longtime Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. Mr. Desalegne has prepared himself for the post, after holding talks with US President Barack Obama.
The former water engineer took over as interim leader after the death of Meles Zenawi, who ruled Ethiopia with an iron-fist since toppling Dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991.
Mr. Desalegne a relatively young politician has big shoes to fill, following the untimely death of his mentor Meles Zenawi. The 47-year-old politician faces tough challenges both internally and across the Horn of Africa region.
According to the White House, President Obama had a telephone conversation with Mr. Desalegne late Thursday, urging him to use his leadership to enhance the Ethiopian government’s support for development, democracy, human rights and regional security.
Mr. Desalegne also met with South Sudan’s foreign minister and his Kenyan counterpart, who were in Addis Ababa on Thursday to pay their respects to the late Prime Minister, who died while undergoing treatment in Brussels, he was aged 57.
Some as an outsider consider Mr. Hailemariam Desalegne. Unlike the late Prime Minister who was from the Tigray ethnic group, which is a majority group in Ethiopia, Mr. Desalegne comes from the minority Wolayta people. He has a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and master’s degree from Finland’s Tampere University. He is also a Protestant, unlike the majority of Ethiopia’s Christians, who follow Orthodox traditions.
His critics also point out his relatively young age, lack of experience and the fact he was not part of the rebel movement that toppled Mengistu, unlike many in the ruling elite.
“He has not been part of the old guard, he has not been in the bushes fighting with the rebels,” said Berhanu Nega, an exiled opposition leader and former mayor of Addis Ababa.
Despite claims by the Ethiopian government that Mr. Desalegne will only remain in the post until elections, which are due in 2015, many consider him as solution to Ethiopia’s ethnic divide. Other downtrodden minority groups might back him up in the 2015 elections hence giving them a chance to be apart of the government, which has long been governed by a majority ethnic group.