Larger than Life Public Servants

It may be within the same party, but that there has been a peaceful transition of power has fascinated many in the local and international communities. And it should. Hailemariam Desalegn has left office as peacefully as he has entered it. He came to power because his predecessor, Meles Zenawi, had passed away and he was next in the line of succession. How he left it though is remarkable in that he wanted to.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) stressed this point during his speech on Tuesday, at the Jubilee Palace. A good deal of the diplomatic community was present at the ceremony, perhaps invited to stand witness to a reformed Ethiopia were there are no hard feelings between two subsequent leaders. Hosted in honour of Hailemariam, the former Prime Minister became the centre of attention, despite Abiy, who has been drawing considerable adoration from the public at the moment, being in tow.

Hailemariam gave the longer speech. He referred to Abiy as “my Prime Minister”, and asked the public to support him. Speaking of his wife, Roman Tesfaye, he was lost for words and seemed like he was about to shed tears. Abiy for his part was grateful for the services that Hailemariam continues to provide as a mentor on the ins and outs of a premiership.

Perhaps, the highest form of accolade he bestowed on him was in calling him one of the “few” leaders that are exemplary in their up-right exercise of power. Afterwards, Hailemariam was awarded a gold medal and received the nation’s highest diploma of honour – both courtesy of Abiy.

Seeing such comradeship between subsequent leaders in an African country is indeed rare. But the level of attention given to it is only an indication of the steep heel that has to be climbed before democracy can be said to have reigned in Ethiopia. As has been pointed out before, power was transferred between individuals that are from the same party and share a similar ideology.

But that this administration has decided to stress the transfer of power is crucial. It is an indication of the need to see elected officials as servants of the public and not wielders of enough power to stand above the law. There needs to be a systematic erosion of this feeling that a politician exists on a different plain than everyone else, and needs to be pampered as monarchs used to.

Abiy has been assigned a slew of assignments by the public and political pundits. I have one more. It is for him to break apart the invisible barrier that exists between officials and civilians. For the former to be seen as nothing more than representatives that are temporarily in place to carry out tasks they have been elected to.

The ceremony with Hailemariam – and the attention that has been called to it – is a good start in that it presented the former Prime Minister as a civilian. He seemed hopeful, even eager, to return to civilian life as an equal to all the citizenry. In the African context, it takes great courage to be part of a society that one once governed. I am sceptical about the achievements of Hailemariam in office, but I hope this is a lesson Abiy takes to heart.

Abiy should not stop there. Officials must also be made to speak their mind. There must be televised debates and less prepared speeches. Spontaneous moments give the electorate great insight into the intentions of leaders, and that openness is highly recommended.

Abiy should sit down for discussions more as he did with the business community earlier this month, instead of his public addresses to regions of the country. Far more was learned of the Prime Minister’s policy inclinations in that discussion than all of his public addresses from prepared speeches put together.

Here, driving a better relationship with the media can be a great start in helping show the human side of officials.

At the Jubilee Palace dinner, journalists were not allowed to bring inside the compound mobile phones. But the guests and members of the orchestral band were, making it unlikely that the bans are in place for security purposes.

This is a small thing, but it points to an accepted disenfranchisement of members of the media. It is probably too small a detail to register on Abiy’s radar, who has far bigger fish to fry. But appointing or nominating the right officials who in turn are shrewd enough to notice the small shortcomings will smoothen the relationship between those few that govern and the fewer that transmit their message to the many that are governed.

By Christian Tesfaye
Christian Tesfaye ( is Fortune’s Op-Ed Editor whose interests run amok in the directions of both print and audiovisual storytelling.

Published on Apr 28,2018 [ Vol 18 ,No 939]



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