Ethiopia's discreet Hailemariam likely to return to power

Addis Ababa - Ethiopia's quiet premier, Hailemariam Desalegn, whose powerful party is expected to return to office in elections on Sunday, is a onetime technocrat with a modern bent who was little known a few years ago.

The 49-year-old Hailemariam has overseen a smooth transition in the vast Horn of Africa nation, the continent's oldest independent state, since he took over in 2012 after the death of former Marxist rebel Meles Zenawi.

The death of Meles turned Hailemariam from a relatively little-known politician and technocrat to an influential leader.

He also silenced critics who had feared instability at the handover from Meles, who had ruled after toppling dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991.

Less charismatic than his mentor, the former water engineer represents a new generation of leaders set apart from the old guard from the northern Tigray region who were the core of the guerrilla war against Mengistu.

"Some signs suggest his control over the security forces is low," one analyst of the Ethiopian government said. "He understood that he is a man of consensus between different groups."

Became chair of ruling party

Unlike many in the ruling elite, he was not part of the rebel movement which toppled Mengistu.

Instead, Hailemariam, who studied civil engineering in Addis Ababa, was completing his master's degree at Finland's Tampere University when the dictator fell.

He became the chairman of the ruling Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) shortly after Meles' death, pledging at the time to continue his "legacy without any changes".

Ethiopia's economic growth - more than 10% each year for the last five years according to the World Bank - has continued.

But there are differences: since coming to power, Hailemariam has appointed three deputy prime ministers and established a more collegiate system of government, breaking with the autocratic rule of his predecessor.

'Modern manager'

"The style is different from that of Meles who made all the decisions - Hailemariam is a modern manager," said a Western diplomat. The leader held the one-year post of African Union chairperson in 2013.

Hailemariam - in Ethiopian tradition, known by his first name, meaning "the power of Saint Mary" - is also a Protestant, the first to lead Ethiopia, where the majority of Christians follow Orthodox traditions.

In a country long dominated by its major ethnic groups - most recently the Tigray, the ethnic group to which Meles belonged - Hailemariam notably comes from the minority Wolayta people in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region.

President of the region for five years, he was appointed to be deputy prime minister and foreign minister in 2010 after the ruling coalition party's fourth win, a landslide victory.

"Tigrayans could not put forward another Tigrayan, the other ethnic groups would not have accepted it, and Hailemariam was the most acceptable solution for the transition," said another diplomat.

At his appointment to Ethiopia's leadership, the International Crisis Group (ICG) think-tank suggested Hailemariam's appointment may have been "window dressing, designed to placate potential critics, while the Tigrayan elite keep real power".

Democracy and accountable rule

But they also suggested that Hailemariam's position outside the Tigray power base could in fact prove a strength.

"His ethnicity is considered an advantage, because it is a minority in a multi-ethnic region and, most importantly, not from the numerically dominant Oromo or Amhara," the ICG added.

Hailemariam has spoken enthusiastically about ensuring democracy and accountable rule for the country.

However, rights groups, who routinely accuse Ethiopia of clamping down on opposition supporters and journalists and using anti-terrorism laws to silence dissent and jail critics, say little has changed.

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