ADDIS ABABA, Aug 24 – Political preparations in Ethiopia for the handover of power to expected new leader Hailemariam Desalegn gathered pace Friday, following the death of the longtime ruler Meles Zenawi this week.
US President Barack Obama telephoned Hailemariam late Thursday, urging him to “use his leadership to enhance the Ethiopian government’s support for development, democracy, human rights and regional security,” the White House said.
Hailemariam has also met with South Sudan’s foreign minister and his Kenyan counterpart, who were in Addis Ababa on Thursday to pay their respects to Meles, who died on Monday aged 57 after a long illness.
Official mourning continues for Meles, with crowds gathering for a third day in the grounds of the National Palace, where photos of the late leader are on display.
Scores of police and army officers alongside ordinary citizens, many weeping loudly, have gathered to pay their respects ever since his body was flown home following his death in a Brussels hospital.
But the political process continues behind doors. Government spokesman Bereket Simon has said Hailemariam is expected to be formally sworn in in a emergency parliament session at “any time.”
In a rare peaceful handover of power in Ethiopian history, former water engineer Hailemariam took over as interim leader on the death of Meles, who had ruled with an iron-fist since toppling dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991.
A close ally of Meles as deputy prime minister and foreign minister since 2010, Hailemariam was elected deputy chair of the ruling coalition Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) after the party’s fourth win, a landslide victory in 2010.
But Hailemariam, a relatively little known politician overshadowed by his mentor Meles, faces tough challenges at home and across the volatile Horn of Africa.
In a country long dominated by the major ethnic groups — most recently the Tigray people, like Meles — Hailemariam notably comes from the minority Wolayta people, from the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region.
He served as president for the region — the most populous of Ethiopia’s nine ethnic regions — for five years.
But within the coalition, some of the most influential figures hail from the northern Tigray region, members of Meles’s ex-rebel turned political party, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
Hailemariam, while a protege of Meles, is therefore seen as an outsider by some.
“Many see him as a figurehead, part of a gesture by Meles and the ethnic Tigrayans to give more prominence to other ethnic groups,” said Jason Mosley of Britain’s Chatham House think-tank.
However, Bereket has said Hailemariam will remain in the post until elections in 2015, although he must first be formally chosen as head of the ruling EPRDF party, likely later this year.
“The secession issue has been settled for good,” he said.
But analysts have suggested that several others are still jostling for power behind doors in the often secretive leadership, even if in the open they may not take part in the running for the top job.