Reading the lips of Hailemariam Desalegn

Originally posted on Oct.1, 2012

Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn’s presence in New York for the United Nations General Assembly will rather be remembered for the 40 minutes odd interview with the Voice of America (VOA) than the significance of his speech at the podium.

While there was nothing new in the interview that is groundbreaking or of utmost importance, the mere fact of the interview being held makes it newsworthy. Otherwise, most of the answers were similar to his late predecessor save for the arrogance the later was known for.

The PM’s maiden interview since he took office raised issues ranging from Sudan to China. From concerns of water to stories of hats. He explained at length how Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) is democratic and how those who think EPRDF is “biased towards  certain ethnic groups…is a false and unwarranted speculation.”

He sounded comfortable expounding on foreign affairs than that of political prisoners as he doesn’t seem to have sufficient information in that regard; or may be he served as minister of foreign affaires for two years before he assumed the current position; could be understood either ways.

hailemariam-desalegnHis answers concerning freedom of speech is devoid of any details whatsoever except for the archaic metaphors of the “two hats” that he had to repeat dozens of times.

Talking about issues of the media and free speech most of his words were borrowed from Ethiopian information Tsar Bereket Simon, in some cases they sounded a recital of his predecessor’s signature phrases like “the red line.”

Ironies abound

To show how there is freedom of the press in the country at one point Hailemariam says: “You know you have been there. You have been operating there,” the You being the interviewer Peter Heinlein. If Hailemariam only knew that Mr Heinlein was detained this last May for covering Ethiopian Muslims protest at the Grand Anwar Mosque in Addis Ababa. He had to spend a night at the notorious Maeklawi prison before the American Embassy in the capital intervened to secure his release. After that Peter never reported from Ethiopia. He quietly left the country to continue his work as head of the Horn of Africa Service of VOA. So much for the operation Mr Prime Minister!

The other irony is that the interview may never reach the intended audience as VOA is blocked in Ethiopia.

Though the PM mentioned he will work with VOA Amharic Service in Addis, he didn’t hide his disdain for the “people in Amharic service” whom he accused of “trying to destabilize this country in terms of instigating certain issues.”

We may not expect a lot from the new PM whose accession to office was shrouded in lots of politicking. The fact that it took him more than two months to take over the position by all earthly logic he was entitled to, tells a lot about the internal wrangling within his party. Shaking off the ghosts of his predecessor is definitely going to take a while. Until then we will be humming “Will the real Hailemariam Desalegn please stand up?”


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