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Mo Ibrahim in conversation with Hailemariam Desalegn, Former Prime Minister of Ethiopia

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation.

During the 2018 Ibrahim Forum in Kigali, Rwanda, Mo Ibrahim sat down for three engaging discussions between sessions, the first of which was with Hailemariam Desalegn, former Prime Minister of Ethiopia.

The conversation began with the recent resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn after six years in office, an uncommon event in Africa. Hailemariam Desalegn’s explanation for this is to be found in the history of the country: while Ethiopia has a long-standing civilisation, its democratic experience is only 20 years old.

After the military regime, efforts by the ruling party focused on restructuring the country. In the most recent 15 years the country has achieved a robust and fast economic growth, an inspiration for many African countries. The challenge now is for such growth to be sustained and shared equitably in a huge, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious country, where an inclusive government is a necessity.

“We have a problem of addressing multi-ethnic society, a problem of attitude (...) there is a need for deep reform. So I said, I have to set aside myself in order to achieve these deep reforms.” Hailemariam Desalegn

According to Hailemariam Desalegn, reinforcing democracy is an existential issue for Ethiopia, even more so as the country is in a volatile region. In the path out of poverty there has to be greater reform to accommodate the growing calls for democracy. Ethiopia achieved seven of the eight MDGs, however the aspirations of young people have been left unaddressed, and there is still a long way to go to include the youth in the system. Deep reform is required and the rationale for Hailemariam Desalegn’s decision to step aside was to create the political conditions for this reform to work faster in a genuine and robust way.

“We haven’t properly included our youth into the system. And my government admittedly can say we do not understand the vision and the quest of our young people.” Hailemariam Desalegn

Mo Ibrahim underlined the importance of such story to be told as an example of relinquishing power to enable change and reform, and to benefit the country. According to Hailemariam Desalegn, political personalities in Africa stick to power, while he wanted to show that it is possible to force change without being in power.

“The main problem in African politics is that people stick to power. And I wanted to show that it is possible that you can leave while having power as a citizen in my country.” Hailemariam Desalegn

The state of relations between Ethiopia and its neighbouring country, Eritrea, was also discussed, as the two countries have been on a war footing since clashes occurred in 1998 over a border dispute. Hailemariam Desalegn mentioned Ethiopia’s openness to dialogue and highlighted his will for leaders of the two countries to meet and address the border dispute and other issues of common concern. While Ethiopia reportedly made offers to talk at a mediator, expert and political level, a dialogue between the two countries never took place in decades. The same spirit of openness has been stated by the new Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, and according to Hailemariam Desalegn there is hope that these offers will be accepted by the counterpart.[1]

In terms of the quarrel with Egypt over the Renaissance Dam, the former Prime Minister sought to reassure that solving this matter has the potential to develop friendships and cement relations with Egypt and Sudan. Around 60% of Egypt’s Nile water originates in Ethiopia from the Blue Nile, but Ethiopia is not allowed to use a single bottle of water of the Nile, according to Hailemariam Desalegn. The Renaissance Dam should not harm downstream countries (Sudan and Egypt) since an international panel of experts was established to assess its impact and resolve the issues on the basis of scientific and technical issues. Politicising the issue, and saying that the colonial treaty (between UK, Sudan and Egypt) should be accepted, is not possible as Ethiopia was not colonised and therefore never signed the treaty.

"It all comes down to find out how to handle this issue without harming Egyptian and Ethiopian farmers and water users (...) It is a shared resource. We need to work together – Ethiopians, Sudanese and Egyptians" Hailemariam Desalegn

Mo Ibrahim then raised the situation in South Sudan, in particular the human cost of the conflict, the resources wasted and the lack of a credible leadership. Besides Ethiopia’s engagement as chair of The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), Hailemariam Desalegn suggested personally to President Salva Kiir that he should resign as he allowed a failure of leadership. The only remaining option is to find a new leadership with the support of all actors including the African Union.

Lastly, Hailemariam Desalegn answered a question from the public about how to measure the reforms that will take place in Ethiopia. As part of his resignation, he held up the following three items for reform:

  • Democratic institutions: Ethiopians are demanding a wider democratic space (electoral institutions, political parties, regulatory systems) and this must be addressed properly. There should be zero tolerance for corruption, although corruption levels are high.
  • Democratic culture: Democracy is not just about elections, it is also about making people fully engaged with economic development and social transformation.
  • Quick structural economic transformation: Ethiopia needs accelerated, fast and sustained growth to create a vibrant society, that is the foundation for democracy. A growth below 7% is not sustainable, as countries with a 3% or 4% growth rate cannot bring about rapid economic change. Addressing the infrastructure deficit is key to the economy, as well as filling the skills gap for human resource development. It is not possible to have democracy with a subsistence economy since economic transformation creates demand, which in turn is the basis for a sustainable and stable democracy.

[1] After the new Ethiopian Prime Minister officially stated Ethiopia’s acceptance of the boundary decision by the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission, the leaders of the two countries met in Asmara on 8th July 2018, for the first time after 20 years. In this historic meeting, Eritrea and Ethiopia agreed to reopen embassies and borders, signalling the normalisation of relations and an end to two decades of conflict.