ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn appointed two additional deputies and new foreign and trade ministers on Thursday, the first cabinet reshuffle since he took over from long-serving leader Meles Zenawi.
Hailemariam, 47, became prime minister in September, a month after the death of Meles, the towering political figure who had ruled Ethiopia for the last 21 years and steered domestic economic growth into double figures while cracking down hard on dissent.
Meles’s passing had sparked concerns that control of the diverse country of over 80 million could disintegrate and diplomats said the subsequent delay to the appointment of his successor suggested a power struggle was being played out.
Hailemariam, who was Meles’s last deputy prime minister and foreign minister, announced on Thursday he had appointed Communications and Information Technology Minister Debretsion Gebremichael and newly-appointed Civil Service Minister Muktar Kedir as deputy prime ministers, joining existing deputy Demeke Mekonnen.
It is the first time the Horn of Africa country has had three deputy leaders.
“The death of Meles demanded a re-shuffle. The expansion of responsibilities will enable ministries to function relatively better with clear divisions of labour and accountability,” Justice Minister Berhan Hailu told Reuters.
“The workload was too much for the late prime minister. This move enables Hailemariam to focus on development projects, defence and the coordination of cabinet members.”
Other ministers appointed on Thursday were drawn from the ranks of state ministers and senior officials. Former state minister of trade Kebede Chane takes over as trade minister, while his counterpart at the health ministry, Keseteberhan Admassu, becomes the head of his ministry.
Meanwhile Muktar Kedir takes over as civil service minister following the dismissal of his predecessor.
His appointment as deputy prime minister, however, was dismissed as a mere political ploy by some opposition officials.
Girma Seifu, the country’s lone opposition member of parliament, said his selection was meant to appease the Oromo ethnic group which, though Ethiopia’s largest in number, has never taken centre-stage politically.
“Not having a significant position at the highest level has been an issue, and it’s a big seller for the EPRDF (ruling party),” he told Reuters.
“This cabinet reshuffle is an attempt to address this internal conflict.”
Another high-profile ministerial change made on Thursday was the appointment of Tewodros Adhanom as foreign minister.
Educated in Britain, Tewodros has been health minister since 2005 and won international recognition for his work in combating disease and developing the country’s healthcare system which has brough a significant reduction in Ethiopia’s child mortality rate.
He replaces his acting predecessor Berhane Gebrekirstos, a veteran diplomat who served as envoy to both Washington and Brussels.
Hailemariam retained Sufian Ahmed as the finance minister, and also made no changes at the top in the ministries of defence, justice, education, agriculture and federal affairs.