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The Unlikely Rise of ‘Haile’

Posted by Ethio Tribune on September 4, 2012

It was a year ago. Ethiopians residing in Kampala, Ugandan capital, received an invitation from their Embassy. They are told that Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Hailemariam Desalegn wants to discuss with them. Having seen Prime Minster Meles Zenawi, Seyoum Mesfin, former foreign minister, and other senior officials come and go without even trying to meet them; the call was unusual for many.

Hailemariam, who came to Kampala to sign a strategic partnership agreement that paves the way to exempt double taxation and visas, however, spared time in the middle of his high profile meetings. To the surprise of Embassy officials, hundreds of people turned out for the discussion at one of the finest hotels in Kampala; Serena. They also patiently waited for over half an hour until the meeting started.

When Hailemariam finally showed up, he won their heart by his trademark behavior. He stopped at each table and greeted all of them with humbleness. After he briefed them about the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and the Growth & Transformation Plan (GTP), he opened the session for questions. He gave candid responses for the questions forwarded by two of the participants.

From the rise in price of Teff and Coffee to the shortage of housemaids in Addis Abeba, from the issue of Ethiopian women going to Arab countries in search of a better life to concerns of Ethiopian refugees and Diasporas, he covered so many areas in his reply. To back his arguments up, he cited examples and facts, and even went far, using colloquial words.

After a discussion spanning for an hour, many were left surprised. Never having found the opportunity to shake hands and have a chat with a senior government official, many were pleased by his approach. What they did not know was that Hailemaraim is known for such behaviors long before he became deputy Prime Minister and foreign minister. 

His students and colleagues in the then Arbaminch Water Technology Institute, now upgraded to University, recall exactly the same characters.

Hailemariam joined Arbaminch Water Technology Institute right after he graduated from Addis Abeba University in civil engineering in 1988. The 23 years old young Hailemariam was employed as assistant graduate to teach civil engineering courses.

Except for his two years of absence for further study at Finland’s Tampere University of Technology, where he earned his Master’s Degree in environmental engineering in 1992, he taught for 10 years at the Institute. Besides lecturing, he served as registrar, academic vice dean and dean of the Institute.

During his tenure, his students remembered him as a very good and caring teacher, while his colleagues recalled him as an academician who has an in-depth knowledge of his field. The two sides agree that, as leader of the Institute, Hailemariam was an “attentive listener”, a “principled man”, “accommodative” and committed to “treat everyone equally”.

Ermias Alemu, Hailemariam’s former student, took the course titled, “engineering economics” delivered by the-then dean of the Institute. Students learn the feasibility of projects, their total expenditure and cost benefit analysis in the Course. Hailemaraim taught citing real projects especially on the water supply field. His method of teaching helped the students to feel the real sense of projects and reminds them the huge responsibility they were expected to bear.  

“He used to bring the outside world to the class,” Ermias told Fortune. “He used to demonstrate explanatory examples.”

Ermias also had the opportunity to closely observe Hailemariam’s contribution when he was advising his friends on their final-year projects. As a graduation project, students should include all the subjects they learned and Ermias remembered that Hailemariam’s input was immense.    

“He is positive,” Ermias told Fortune. “He properly provides knowledge for students.”

In addition to transferring his knowledge, Ermias is reminded of how Hailemaraim cared for students.

It was 12 years ago. Hailemariam was away from the Institute for days, for field work. Upon his arrival, he toured the entire compound. He was asking around how students spend their days in his absence and gathered new updates. He went to student cafes and dormitories without prior notice of his stopover.

“His visit was sudden,” Ermias recalls.

The care he showed for students was also expressed by his colleagues. Since his time as a registrar, he maintained a good working relationship with fellow lecturers. His office was open for anyone and  he always received his guests welcomingly. Whether it is for a student or a lecturer, he always stands from his chair and greets with smile. Those who entered to his office with their problem often return with a solution and better feeling.      

“He was sincere,” Yoseph Birru (PhD), former President of Arbaminch University who taught with Hailemariam for almost a decade, told Fortune.  “Our relation was not like a boss and subordinate.”    

Hailemariam believed in convincing his staff rather than forcing them to do their assignments. Once he wanted to open distance and continuing education department and assigned Yospeh. Looking at Yoseph’s reluctance to take over the position,  Hailemariam convinced him to do the setup for only two months and be transferred to the position he wants.

Yoseph opened extension (evening) programs for residents of Arbaminch, weekend and distance program for those who live around Wolyita Sodo. Months later, Yoseph told Hailemariam he finished his job but again the Dean convinced him to stay on his position and cultivate his fruits of labor. Later he was promoted to a vice dean position.   

Such working relationships helped Hailemariam to execute pioneer projects in Arbaminch Water Technology Institute. In a rare move within Ethiopian universities, even in the recently built ones, he built an Olympic size swimming pool inside the compound of the Institute. Hailemariam designed the swimming pool and served as resident engineer during the construction of the swimming pool.      

His legacy at Arbaminch, however, is beyond the visible swimming pool. Many agreed that he laid the foundation for the transformation of Arbaminch Water Technology Institute to a full-fledged university. To his credit, Hailemaraim has managed to open four additional departments during his tenure. For the first time in its history, the institute goes beyond water-related departments.

The institute only had hydraulics, irrigation and sanitation engineering departments but he stirred the inclusion of civil, electrical and mechanical engineering departments as well as a computer science department.

When Hailemariam left Arbaminch in August 2000, the first batch of students enrolled in the newly-opened departments reached second year. The construction of laboratories was also going on full-swing. Cognizant of these undeniable contributions, the staff of the Institute were not surprised of his promotion through the political ladder to be the vice president of the Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Region (SNNPR).

On his farewell ceremony, many expressed their wish for him to stay in the academic arena. Aware that he declined a doctoral scholarship he got from the German government, they were hoping that he will further his academic cares in the near future.

Older staff even recalled the day he received his award for distinction during his stay at Finland’s Tampere University and want to see more from him. Though different from their wish, Hailemariam obtained a bachelor’s degree in organizational leadership from the University of Azusa Pacific, in California, six years later.  

Thanking them for their wishes, Hailemaraim told the staff at the farewell ceremony that he will leave for a “better assignment” and want to “serve his country on the political front” too. At that time, he was a member of the House of the Federations, the non-legislative second chamber of the Ethiopian parliament that has a mandate to decide the budget formula of regional states and interpret the constitution. 

Hailemariam’s farewell was coincided with the welcoming ceremony of new staff. His former student, Ermias, was among the new breed of instructors at the institute. As usual, the  emerging politician took some a few minutes to encourage them. 

Sharing his first experience, he told them that he was young like them when he joined the Institute. No housing service used to be provided by the Institute at that time and he said that he was forced to stay in small house in Arbaminch town. Mentioning of things that were improved during their time, he advised them not to frustrate on small problems. His encouraging words meant a lot for the fresh graduates. 

His support did not stop there.  After he left Arbaminch, he attended graduation ceremonies for four consecutive years as a guest of honour. Even after he became deputy prime minister and foreign minister, he stops over at Arbaminch, which was upgraded to University level four years after his departure.

“I see Arbaminch Water Technology Institute as my first son,” Hailemariam, a father of three daughters, said during his farewell ceremony.  “It has a unique place in my heart.”

Like What he often did when in Arbaminch, he also paid tribute for his former university. During his three day official visit to Finland in March 2012, he visited Tampere University of Technology. 

“He remembered the building in campus and the sewer, from which he took samples for his Master’s thesis titled, ‘Municipal wastewater treatment in sequencing batch achieved sludge process package plants’,” posted the official website of the University.

Alike Finland, Hailemaraim travelled to many North American, European, African, and Asian countries since he joined for a foreign service in September 2010. Though postponed a number of times, he also had a plan to travel to Australia, according to sources from Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA).  

Hailemariam’s ascendency in the power ladder to be a deputy Prime Minister and foreign minister surprised many political pundits and members of the diplomatic community. Spending half of his political career in the southern regional administration, as vice president and president, and staying at low profile positions after moved to federal level, he had few interactions with them before.   

On his informal introduction to the diplomatic community in October 2010 at the Sheraton Addis, Hailemariam explained what he reveres most in international relations: consistency. Like his time in Arbaminch, he stood in a corner of the Lalibella Ballroom and personally greeted everyone.

“The one thing I cherish most in relations among nations is consistency,” he said. “It in no way prevents pragmatic adjustment to changing situations but is based on principles.”

On that cocktail reception, organised by MoFA, Hailemariam told diplomats that “he might sometimes disagree with them” and that might make them unhappy. Even after listening to his assertive speech, diplomats were reserved from judgement.

They believed that it is early to say Hailemariam is capable enough for the job or not.  Many political pundits reflected similar views.  

Some argued that Meles’ personal involvement on regional and international meetings overshadowed the foreign minister. From brokering a deal between Ethiopia’s neighbours, Sudan and South Sudan, to G-8 and G-20 Summits, Meles is credited for representing Africa and his effort to raise the country’s profile on the international stage. 

Getachew Reda, director general for Public Diplomacy & Communications at MoFA, argues that whatever the country achieved on foreign relation in the last two years “owes much to Hailemariam’s leadership” as it does to Prime Minster Meles. When Meles was involved in international issues, in his personal capacity, other diplomatic activities were taken care of by the foreign minister, he adds. Even the ground work and details for Meles’ negotiations were worked out by the foreign minister, he explains.

“It is not like the Prime Minster is doing everything by keeping his cards close to his chest,” Getachew told Fortune. “It was not a one man show.”

Getachew believes that Prime Minster Meles had confidence on Hailemaraim and thinks that was the reason why he is assigned to carry out foreign relation activities.

For Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) officials, Hailemariam’s appointment has a significance that measures beyond being responsible for some task. It was a symbol of the succession plan they officially launched in September 2010. At their eighth convention of the ruling EPRDF held in Adama, 99km East of Addis Ababa, they put forward new and younger faces from each of the member parties that formed the coalition.

Hailemaraim was chosen to replace the long-serving deputy chairman of EPRDF, Addisu Legesse. For the first time in their convention’s history, the Revolutionary Democrats have seen a non-combatant sitting beside their chairman, Prime Minster Meles Zenawi. Meles highlighted this fact.

“I am the only one, among those who led the armed struggle, to sit here,” Prime Minster Meles told delegates in September 2010. “And I will be gone, come five years.”

Indeed, he has gone, and forever, while Hailemariam replaced him as Acting Prime Minster until he gets officially sworn-in-in the Parliament. Some political analysts argue that the succession of Hailemariam is a mere symbolic gesture. Others refute that the ongoing succession plan helped the ruling party to remain intact even after the loss of its leader.

“One can imagine that the assignment of Hailemariam as a foreign minister was to enable him to easily takeover from Meles in the various regional and continental issues that Meles has been pursuing,” Solomon Ayele (PhD), senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), reflected on his personal social media accounts. 

“Accordingly, while his position as deputy PM ensures continuity in the home front, his position as foreign minister similarly guarantees continuity in regional and continental affairs.”

An African diplomat based in Addis Abeba agrees with Ayele.

“We have worked with him on regional issues as deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs; we know his capabilities. He has the ability to do what used to be done by Meles,” Mull Sebujja Katende, Ugandan Ambassador to Ethiopia, told Fortune.

Ethiopians residing in Kampala remembers the day they met Hailemaraim as  it was their first encounter with a senior government official. Now, as the free online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, did swiftly, they update their memory as meeting the new chief of the country.

(fortune addis)

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