It is a topic more likely to be whispered about than discussed openly, but could Ethiopian strongman Meles Zenawi, now closing in on his 17th year as Prime Minister (after four earlier as President), be thinking of calling it a day?
It is for many familiar with Ethiopian politics an almost unimaginable prospect, while skeptics will point out that Meles has repeatedly promised to step down.
But early this month, senior officials of the ruling EPRDF party (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front) hinted at a succession plan to replace its 56-year-old leader at the end of his current term in 2015.
While no one in the party that he has tightly-controlled since 1985 has so far ventured to make any public comments on the sensitive topic, a senior government official and member of the ruling party told this reporter on condition of anonymity that Meles will “surely” hand over power by 2015.
The ranking official said they were not sure as to who could replace the strongman, but there has been widespread party speculation about two hopefuls: Deputy Prime Minister, also Foreign Affairs minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, and Health minister Tewodros Adhanom.
Hailemariam, a humble family man and former university lecturer, looks to be more well-placed given his proximity to the Premier, and also because he has not had direct contact with military and intelligence circles as he was not part of the armed struggle against the Mengistu Haile Mariam regime.
Picking his deputy would mean Meles would have considerable influence if he were to relinquish power in 2015. A protestant, Hailemariam joined politics in the late 1990s and became the regional governor of southern Ethiopia in 2000 on an EPRDF ticket.
He has been a trusted Meles ally, and was in 2010 elevated to deputy Premier and Foreign Affairs minister. Hailemariam is also the deputy chairman of the EDRDF and has recently been chairing Cabinet meetings, in addition to supervising all ministries.