How to succeed a great leader

I am no diplomat or celebrity but on Friday morning, I emerged from the VIP section of Ethiopia’s Bole international airport and walked through the jaws of the Boeing 737-700 right into its large belly and sunk into my designated seat by the window ready for the journey back to Kigali.

I am no diplomat or celebrity but on Friday morning, I emerged from the VIP section of Ethiopia’s Bole international airport and walked through the jaws of the Boeing 737-700 right into its large belly and sunk into my designated seat by the window ready for the journey back to Kigali.

It was the end of my ten-day sojourn in Addis. It’s not often that a journalist is bestowed VIP-treatment at an airport, but officials of the Ethiopian foreign affairs ministry who were minding us, insisted that ‘as long as you’re our guest, this is an entitlement.”

Certainly a great feeling it was, but, fortunately, short-lived for no journalist should get used to such comforts as they would risk getting lost in a world of the ‘privileged’ who they’re supposed to report on to the wider public.

But I am now fully back to my reality of being a journalist…until the next time I am honoured to be a guest of the Ethiopian government. So on to the subject of my commentary this Sunday; how do you succeed a great leader?

I am discussing this question in the context of Ethiopia and its current Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn who has been in office since 2012, following the death of Meles Zenawi who had been the country’s leader since 1995.

Three years after his death, Ethiopians are yet to forgive nature for having yanked the life out of Zenawi before he could achieve his long-term vision for their country; the signs are there for every outsider to see.

Normally, the portraits of a country’s current leader are often pinned in most of the important places such as offices and public spaces but as if to continuously honour his predecessor, Prime Minister Hailemariam has left Zenawi’s portraits to stay in place even after his demise.

It’s the first thing I noticed on arrival in Addis last Wednesday while in the VIP lounge where I and a colleague from RBA had been told to wait as officials took our passports to be stamped with Visas…Ethiopia has no embassy in Kigali, not yet.

There, I saw portraits of Zenawi still pinned on the walls of the lounge, on TV; clips of him explaining his vision for Ethiopia to his people are often replayed.

Some 800km out of Addis, about 40km from the country’s border with Northern Sudan at the site where the 6000mw Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is being constructed; here too, pictures of the fallen leader could be seen everywhere.

At the country’s communication ministry, Zenawi’s portraits could also be seen pinned at the end of every corridor on each floor of the multi-storied building.

It’s possible that if one somehow didn’t know the fact that the man is no more, they could think he is still the country’s head of state; clearly, Zenawi might have passed on but his vision and legacy still lives on among Ethiopians and their current leader. 

It’s like they’re determined to not believe he’s gone and the continuous sight of his portraits and video clips on national TV could be aimed at encouraging Ethiopians to keep marching towards the vision of their former leader-a vision of a poverty-free Ethiopia.

Humility is a rare virtue in politics but it’s a great thing to have and Prime Minister Hailemariam is the perfect testimony of that fact.

To succeed a great leader, one has to accept first and fast enough, that perhaps, they may never be as great as their predecessors and with that realisation, the new leader could even put the greatness of their predecessor to their own advantage, turning it into a tool to unite the people for nation building.

It certainly helps when the successor is from the same party as the former leader and shares the vision of their predecessor.

This is precisely what Ethiopia’s current leadership is doing. Rather than try to make Ethiopians forget Zenawi, they are using his legacy as a tool for national unity and motivation to develop and transform the country.

But it’s perhaps the easiest strategy for any leader considering that most of the country’s major ongoing projects such as the city’s light railway, the condominium scheme for urban low income earners and the 6000mw dam were commissioned by Zenawi.

I put the question of the role of Zenawi’s legacy in the country’s current development agenda to Ethiopia’s President Mulatu Teshome and the country’s communication Minister Getachew Reda, in two separate interviews.

Both suggested that Zenawi is not only an inspiration but also a fuel that keeps them running towards the country’s vision for sustainable growth to reduce poverty and achieve a transformed Ethiopia.

“He left us with a foundation upon which we are building,” President Teshome told me.

Rwanda is lucky because God has blessed the country’s visionary leader and liberator with good health and strength to continue leading the nation to prosperity; that’s why there’s a mass movement to convince him to stay on after his current term expires, hopefully, he agrees.

It’s also possible that future administrations may never march the greatness of Rwanda’s current leader but they don’t have to try; what they need to do is build stronger walls on the foundation currently being laid for the country’s development.


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