ADDIS ABABA— African heads of state will choose a new chairperson for the African Union next Sunday. Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn is expected to be elected. Hailemariam has only been in office since September, after long-time leader Meles Zenawi died in August.
Institute for Security Studies senior researcher Solomon Dersso says the Ethiopian leader has shown he is involved in African affairs.
"During that period the major African engagements that we have seen was basically his trip to Somalia, where he attended the inaugurational ceremony of the new president, and his recent trip to Sudan, South Sudan, and also the facilitation that he provided for the signing of the 27 September agreements between Sudan and South Sudan," he said.
Hailemariam, who is an engineer by training and was a dean of the Arba Minch University, joined one of the four parties that make up ruling coalition Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front in the mid-nineties.
He was the vice administrator and later also administrator of the southern regions before moving on to become special adviser to the late prime minister for social affairs. He became Ethiopia’s foreign minister and deputy prime minister in 2010.
Getachew Redda worked closely with Hailemariam at the Foreign Ministry, but says it is difficult to point out what legacy he left behind.
“I am not sure if two years is long enough for someone to leave a larger visible imprint. But one thing I know is Hailemariam’s presence here in the foreign ministry for the last two years has had very significant influence on how things are done," said Getachew Redda. "For one thing, he is not the kind of person who wants to create a cult around himself, he is much engaging with everybody. It is not just about people who are supposedly close to him."
There are some noticeable changes in Ethiopian politics since Prime Minister Hailemariam assumed office. A collective leadership has been put in place, including the appointment of three deputy prime ministers, instead of one.
A long-time friend of the prime minister and colleague at the university, Seleshi Bekele, says team building has always been part of the Hailemariam leadership style.
"The way I see it, also what they have done, having a few more deputy prime ministers, is really to bring about broad-based type of leadership. His leadership style is really transformational and at the same time also trusts on team building and team leadership," said Seleshi Bekele.
There have been few developments domestically that can be attributed to the vision and leadership of the new prime minister. Political scientist at the Addis Ababa University, Demeke Achiso, says Hailemariam just is not that powerful.
“I can not say that he is not exercising any power, of course he is enjoying power, prime ministerial power, but very much reduced as compared to Meles Zenawi. Before holding any kind of meeting, discussion, or diplomacy, he has to strongly work with the party and then he has to ventilate the voice of the party," said Demeke Achiso.
The African heads of state are expected to elect Hailemariam on January 27, the first day of the African Union summit. President Yayi Boni of Benin currently holds the position. The chair rotates between the five regions of the continent and is elected every year.