For a Former Minister, who had modest experience in overseeing the diplomatic relations of the nation, understanding the importance of assuming the chairmanship of the African Union (AU) is indeed easy. It would be especially so if the era involves concrete works of institutional transformation, such as the African Union (AU) has undergone in the past decade.
That is exactly what happened to Hailemariam Desalegn, prime minister of Ethiopia, last week, as he replaced the outgoing chairman of the Union, Boni Yaya (PhD), president of Benin. Nominated to serve the Union for the next one year, Hailemariam has become the new face of Africa. Certainly, the nomination is all but one of the highest level of representation that he will be holding, after the unexpected death of his predecessor, Meles Zenawi; a rather popular African figure who had multiple roles at different multinational platforms.
Serving as chairman of the AU, of course, has more to do with ceremonies than operation. After all, the day to day operations of the Union is overseen by the newly elected chairman of the African Union Commission (AUC), and former Home Affairs Minister of South Africa, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. Yet, the task is not easy.
It requires steering the wheel of the very organisation that remains popular in manufacturing declarations, but implements only few of them. It involves leading the multiple initiatives of the fragile union, eventually heading through to unity, and serving the image of each well. It also involves consolidating the interests of the 53 member states in a way that reflects a union, while, at the same time, valuing their interests, accordingly.
No doubt that it is a task that involves lots of travel, proactivity and thoughtfulness. Judging by way of his reputation back home, including his ability to broker interests, Hailemariam seems to be a suitable candidate for the job. He also has gained experience about the pertinent challenges of Africa, and its people.
If there is anything that can be drawn from his acceptance speech, made on January 27, 2013, during the 29th ordinary meeting of the African heads of state, it is the comprehensive understanding that he has towards the economic, political and social challenges of Africa. From Mali to Somalia, he seems to have a grasp of the context of the hotspots. And so does he about the operational frameworks that Africans, through the AU, are approaching the very problems.
For a nation that has served as the centre of African politics for over 50 years, it might not be striking to have such a policy chief. The leverage that this knowledge would give in multinational platforms, however, would show the potential impact that it could have towards policy making. The impact would even be higher for a continent that often faces policy deficit.
Hailemariam's speech, which seems to have a number of links with the policy priorities of the administration that he leads, has noted sustaining economic growth and political opening-up as the major priorities of Africa in the coming years. It recognises the gains in the past decade and rightly appreciates the challenges ahead.
As if to coincide with the outputs of all the major contemporary development researches, Hailemariam's speech, made at the flashy hall, located in the middle of Addis Abeba, constructed by Chinese financing, sets institutions as the hallmarks of economic and political development in Africa. It relates African future with institutional development.
Certainly, it is a rare declaration from an EPRDFite, and rightly so, from an Ethiopian official.
Major strands of contemporary Ethiopian history, including most of the 1990s, in which the EPRDFites were struggling to reconstruct the war torn economy of their nation and bring it to a reasonable level of consolidation, shows utter ignorance towards institutions. Bulldozing older institutions and creating new ones had been the experience in much of the last eight decades.
Of course, the EPRDFites have come to better understand the benefit of institutions in the later years of power. Even then, institutional instability remains the norm, with hard earned experiences getting lost between vibrations. Worse is the legitimacy of the institutions and their autonomous conduct from political partisanship in favour of the ruling party.
Taking the right lessons from such a disturbed institutional history would indeed take a lot. Hailemariam seems to have done just that.
History, including recent researches, seems to stand by his side. Accounts of development, both in Africa and other regions of the world, show that institutional differences underpin the differences in economic development between regions. It all has been true that regions with better institutional standings perform well, in both economic and political terms.
Africa's lag in both fronts could not be explained without accounting the institutional basis of the development process. Absence of capable, flexible, autonomous and legitimate institutions that could strike a good balance out of Africa's disposable factors of production stands at the core of the widespread continental poverty. The case is no different from the cyclic political problem that the continent witnesses.
Resulting from such a deficit was the huge need for investments in institutions. Unfortunately, it has consumed a large part of the decades after the independence of most of the nations, not to mention the huge capital it took. It is only in the past decade that the continent started to witness relative institutional stability and its direct benefits.
Such stability changes the narration about the continent, and indeed the reality on the ground. By redirecting the debate towards institutions, then, Hailemariam seems to capitalise on both history and reality. Certainly, it is a wise move in the right direction.
As the saying goes, however, living global ought to start locally. It would be futile to think that Africa would listen to Hailemariam's argument, even when it is true, unless he gets it right at home or is seen trying to get it right. After all, leadership by example is the Africa of today widely believes in, for it has been one thing it fails to get enough of.
The demand for legitimate, flexible autonomous and capable economic and political institutions is there. What seems to be lagging is the supply.
Two of the major economic institutions, the market and the state, live in a cyclic state of failure. They face a significant deficit of legitimacy. Hence, continuing economic crisis, such as inflation, commodity shortage, unemployment and dismal productivity.
Legitimacy deficit also faces the service providing units of the state, including tax collecting authorities, ministries controlling state resources and even regulators such as the National Bank of Ethiopia (NBE). It is all similar, if not worse, with major political institutions, such as the Parliament and the National Electoral Board (NEB).
Breaking the institutional conundrum is where the government ought to direct its focus, if the goal is to sustain economic growth and democratic evolution. There is no better place to put the national bet on than on institutions.
It is such a bet that Hailemariam laid out in his speech, while accepting the chairmanship of the AU. What is left, then, is living for the bet and letting others live for it. That would be Hailemariam's challenge, and opportunity, ahead.