A New Leader in OfficeNovember 9th, 2010
A new generation of EPRDF leaders arises. Former Southern Nations’ president Hailemariam Desalegn is the new Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, succeeding the nineteen-year reign of Seyoum Mesfin. An intellectual in office, Hailemariam says to be well-prepared for his job as the right hand of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and the keeper of Ethiopia’s international ties. In an exclusive interview with Capital, the first of its kind since he entered office, Hailemariam opens up about his personal life and at the same time handles some touchy political issues.
Capital: Why would a postgraduate degree holder want to come back to Ethiopia in 1991 when the EPRDF was taking power and there were so many uncertainties across the country?
Deputy PM Hailemariam: I had two reasons to come back to Ethiopia. I knew that there would be a better situation in the country than during the Derg regime. I have been following the media and was in contact with some of my friends, who all indicated that things would be better. I noticed that the EPRDF was handling the community fairly and democratically, so I didn’t worry too much about what would happen to me. I said to myself: I have to go back to my country and see what is happening – that was the first reason.
The second reason was my family. They were in Ethiopia. It would have been selfish to stay there when my family was here. My daughter was born when I was leaving; she turned two at that time. I was willing to make any sacrifice for her and my family.
Capital: What was next for the returnee, most academics prefer to stay away from politics, why didn’t you?
Hailemariam: After I came back I rejoined the Arba Minch Water Technology Institute and served there for thirteen years in different positions, including as registrar, vice dean, and dean of the institute.
My political participation also started at that time. I was as young as a seven grader when the Derg regime swept all of the young people and academics out of the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Party (EPRP). I was too young to join them but my father was a member of EPRP and I read some of the pamphlets he brought home. I used to hear him discuss with his friends about the setup of a popular government of the public’s choice.
I can say I was brainwashed by then, but I have always been interested to see justice prevail, which wasn’t the case during the Derg time. So when the EPRDF took control of the country, I wanted to work to see it realized. Yes you are right, academics were too scared to join politics after the Derg actions, but things changed for my generation.
Despite my education in science and technology, I have the aspiration of public service and to see justice prevailing. I was involved in founding the revolutionary party in the South.
After working in the Arba Minch University for thirteen years, I was appointed as vice president of the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ State and after a year I became the president.
After serving the region for six years, I came to the Prime Minister’s Office as the advisor on Social Affairs and Civic Organizations and Partnerships. After serving for two years in that position, I was assigned as Government Whip Minister at the federal parliament. I was appointed to my current position last month.
Capital: You are now Foreign Affairs Minister replacing Seyoum Mesfin, who held office for nineteen years. When one person stays in such a position for that long, people think much of the institution’s power and duties depend on that person and whenever a new person comes in, a bumpy transition follows. How has your transition been so far?
Hailemariam: Something that some people don’t understand is the way how the EPRDF operates. We are here only for the service; we are not here for power – we are not power mongers. We want to replace the older generation with a new one and we have thought about how to do it smoothly. EPRDF has thought about the transition and succession thoroughly for about three, four years.
So, in that way, His Excellency Ato Seyoum has given me a lengthy briefing about this institution and how it should work on the five-year plan we have at hand now. As a government official who has been at the parliament and executive member of the ruling party, most of the information I get is not new – we have all been discussing the policy matters together. Except for the detailed day-to-day operations of the Foreign Ministry, I am informed – so are all others – about the foreign policy directives of the EPRDF.
All of our major policy directions, be it about Somalia, Sudan, the West or the Asian countries, have been consistent and we have clear foreign, defense and security policies and the five year plan was produced before anybody assumed his or her positions. As a member of the executive committee, not only about the foreign ministry, I know the goals and policies of all other ministries, which emanated from the GTP. The most important task at the Foreign Ministry is to be informed about the operations here and our missions abroad on which I spent two weeks being briefed about by various experts. So I have been given enough information to start with. Whatever you know becomes knowledge when you exercise it, so this is a doing and learning process in which I hope I will discharge my responsibilities.
Capital: One of the key bilateral relationships your government has is with the United States. Ethiopia’s ties with the US have adopted two very different tones in a very short time. After the May elections, the US strongly criticized the democratic handlings, which you rejected. Now we are seeing a number of agreements being signed between the US and the government. What is happening between the two countries in the last few months and what is the status of the relationship?
Hailemariam: Whenever two countries have different ideals and criticize each other, it doesn’t mean they are enemies. Criticism comes from time to time, we also criticize but that doesn’t mean that the relationship is flawed – it only means that you are communicating. Anybody can forward ideas. If we buy it, we accept, if not, we will agree to disagree and move on. So in this regard the US has given statements to which we replied; the election has been conducted in a fair and free and democratic manner, the people being our witnesses.
We know the United States was supporting us in various sectors and that has continued – we have a very good relationship with the United States.
When people hear some reports they give, which are not to our satisfaction and also do not reflect the reality on the ground, we reply to those. But we move on after that; we will continue our cooperation. The US government and people have been supporting the Ethiopian people for several years, since the EPRDF took control, and I think it will continue in the future.
Capital: The government, few months ago, announced that it is assessing its embassies’ costs in relation to the economic ties with that country. A Brazil embassy was said to be opened soon, while the Swedish one will be closed down. In which areas can we expect change?
Hailemariam: There have not been major changes because we didn’t have embassies everywhere due to resource constraints. We have many consulates and one embassy manages many countries’ ties. So, except the embassy you mentioned we haven’t closed down any embassy. Even in these countries we have consulate services, the only thing is we don’t need full embassies because in our analysis we do not get enough benefit to pay for their existence. From the small resources we have, we need to focus on those areas that are very important to realize the GTP.
Capital: Can you tell us in full certainty that the assessment is purely economical, that there is no political indication to the decision to close the embassy in Sweden?
Hailemariam: Of course it is mainly economics, and of course we have had some grudges in our relationship with Sweden that is very clear – there is nothing to hide, but that is not the case now. But the assistance we get from Sweden is not what it has been, maybe it is because they opted for it, we don’t know. We will see it in the future, but for now it’s not as such important for our plan.
Capital: A final message is very much welcomed.
Hailemariam: The most important message to convey is that the reform in the Ministry has been completed and we are going to discharge our responsibilities to implement the Growth and Transformation Plan in the next five years. To realize the plan, the participation of our people and those in the diaspora is very important.
As you know, in many successful countries, their diaspora is very important in attracting loan, trade and investment deals and also their direct participation in investments.
We have started some schemes like offering power generation bonds to the diaspora which is proved to be successful, so we will continue to offer such arrangements.
I call upon all Ethiopians to collaborate more than ever to the successful implementation of the GTP. It’s not only our few diplomats we have abroad, all Ethiopians are our diplomats, as we all should work hard to pass on to our children a prosperous and successful country, that has changed its image.
Hailemariam Desalegn was born in a remote Hombareka village in the Wolayeta Zone of Southern Ethiopia. He excelled in elementary and high school and easily passed his grade twelve school exam after which he moved to the capital city to join Addis Ababa University.
As a university student Hailemariam succeeded again: a distinctive graduate in civil engineering, he was recruited to the then Arba Minch Water Technology Institute immediately after graduation. Before he spent a year there, in 1989, he received a two year postgraduate scholarship in Finland, which he completed six months early. However, the timing coincided with Ethiopia’s turmoil as the then rebels, now ruling EPRDF, took control of the country by unseating the Derg regime. Hailemariam returned that same year, in 1991. --Capital