Hailemariam Desalegn is Ethiopia’s second leader since the EPRDF came to power in 1991. At 47, he is considered part of a new breed not associated with the guerrilla war that ousted the pro-Soviet military dictatorship led by Mengistu Hailemariam.
In early 2010, there was no hint that he might soon be named foreign minister and deputy prime minister, nor that the untimely death of longtime prime minister Meles Zenawi would thrust him to the pinnacle of power. Sitting in his spacious office at EPRDF headquarters next door to parliament, Hailemariam expressed annoyance at western portrayals of Ethiopia as a one-party state. He noted that in a diverse nation made up of many ethnic and language groups, even the ruling front is made up of several parties.
“Our system is a multi-party system,” he said. “Clearly a multi-party system, because we believe Ethiopia is multinational, multi-ethnic, multilingual and multi-religious, so one party cannot represent all these differences. So multi-party system is mandatory in Ethiopia, and it’s clear one party cannot represent all these issues,” Hailemariam said.
He rejected opposition complaints about being shut out of the political process and defended the EPRDF’s long tenure, calling it the will of the Ethiopian people. “I think we shouldn’t say it’s not a multi-party system, it’s a multi-party but of course it’s a dominant party system, because the people have chosen the ruling party as its ruler, or leader,” Hailemariam said.
Since the interview, the EPRDF has won nearly complete control of parliament, taking all but one seat in the 2010 election. European observers determined that election did not meet international standards, and groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have sharply criticized the country’s human rights record.
Hailemariam said those criticisms often come because the EPRDF has chosen to follow a different path than that of Western democracies. “This is all because we don’t follow the liberal democratic principles which the Western countries are pushing (us) to follow. That’s why everyone is fighting us, and try to somehow criticize and devalue whatever Ethiopia is doing,” Hailemariam said.
He says the often-criticized policies of economic planning and party dominance are needed to energize a country that has suffered generations of misrule. “Our strategy is totally different from the western way of approach, because we have to get out of this rampant poverty as soon as possible, so if that is the case, gradual movement doesn’t work, so we have to revolutionize,” Hailemariam said.
The remarks, recorded in interviews two-and-a-half to three years ago, give insight into how Mr. Hailemariam is likely to approach Ethiopia’s challenges. He suggested that his government would follow the Meles Zenawi approach of using the country’s five-and-a-half million party members as what he called a “vanguard” to drive social mobilization.
“We know the country is moving in the right direction. And development is occurring in huge amounts, so we ‘ll continue doing this. Most important is we are doing this in a mass movement process, because we see the mass is important in democratization and development works, and we are doing it in movement fashion,” Hailemariam said.
Hailemariam is expected to remain in office at least until 2015, when Ethiopia’s next national election is scheduled. He will make his first trip as prime minister next week to New York to address the annual United Nations General Assembly debate.