One of Africa’s most powerful and divisive leaders, Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, has died of an undisclosed illness, raising fears of a regional power vacuum.
David Cameron was among the world leaders who paid tribute to Meles, a towering political figure who shaped modern Ethiopia in his own image. The country is now one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies and among the United States’ closest allies on the continent. But human rights groups condemned Meles as an authoritarian strongman whose 21-year rule was marred by rigged elections and the persecution, imprisonment and torture of critics.
Meles, 57, died in a hospital in Brussels on Monday after contracting an infection, authorities said. The prime minister had not been seen in public for about two months, and speculation about his health increased after he failed to attend a meeting of African Union heads of state in the capital, Addis Ababa, last month.
Thousands of mourning Ethiopians descended on the centre of the Addis Ababa as his body was flown back from Brussels.
His demise raises the prospect of political turmoil in Africa’s second most populous country. Kenya’s prime minister, Raila Odinga, said: “One fears for the stability of Ethiopia upon his death, because you know that the Ethiopian state is fairly fragile and there is a lot of ethnic violence â€¦ I don’t know that [Ethiopian politicians] are sufficiently prepared for a succession: this is my fear â€“ that there may be a falling out within the ruling movement.”
Hailemariam Desalegn, 47, appointed deputy prime minister and foreign affairs minister in 2010, will be sworn in as prime minister after an emergency meeting of parliament, said Bereket Simon, the communications minister. On Tuesday, state TV showed pictures of Meles against a soundtrack of classical music. Thousands of mourners thronged outside the airport in Addis Ababa as they awaited Meles’s coffin, some holding portraits of the late prime minister and placards that said “We will continue what you have begun.” Groups of women dropped to the ground ululating and sobbing.
One mourner, Rosa Betemariam, who had been living and working as a dental nurse in the US, said: “I am devastated. I am visiting Ethiopia after not having been home for 20 years. I am overcome by joy and sadness. I am so sad at his passing but also amazed at what Meles has done for this country. I cannot recognise this city. His vision as a leader has transformed Ethiopia.”
Sitting in a khat bar, where people chew the narcotic leaf, Abraham Getachew, an engineering student, said: “As a human being, I am upset at the news of his death. But I am not sad that we have lost him as a leader. We do not feel that we have benefited from his leadership. Seventy per cent of students cannot find employment. We want to play a part in the development of Ethiopia but we have not been afforded this opportunity.”
There were numerous tributes from within Africa and beyond. The African Union, which is headquartered in Addis Ababa, said: “The death of Prime Minister Meles has robbed Africa of one of its greatest sons.” Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said: “Meles Zenawi was an economic transformer, he was a strong intellectual leader for the continent.”
Cameron described Meles as “an inspirational spokesman for Africa” on global issues. “His personal contribution to Ethiopia’s development, in particular by lifting millions of Ethiopians out of poverty, has set an example for the region,” the British prime minister said.
The US viewed Meles as a strong security partner in the war on militant Islamism and has given hundreds of millions of dollars in aid over the years. US military drones that patrol east Africa, especially over Somalia, are stationed in Ethiopia. At the end of 2006, Somalia’s UN-backed government asked Ethiopia to send troops into Somalia to try to put down an Islamist insurgency. Ethiopian troops moved in and captured Mogadishu, but the Somali population rebelled against what it saw as an occupation and Ethiopian forces withdrew in 2009.
Ethiopia again sent troops to Somalia in early 2012 as part of an increased international effort to pressure the al-Qaida affiliated group al-Shabaab.
On Tuesday al-Shabaab welcomed Meles’s death. “We are very glad about Meles’s death. Ethiopia is sure to collapse,” spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage told Reuters.
Human rights groups have long denounced Meles’s government for its use of arbitrary detention, torture and surveillance of opposition members. Under a 2009 anti-terror law more than 100 opposition figures have been arrested; the government insists it is tackling rebel groups that have links with al-Qaida and Eritrea. More than 10 journalists have also been charged under the law, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Claire Beston, Amnesty International’s Horn of Africa researcher, said: “The 21 years of Meles Zenawi’s rule were characterised by ever-increasing repression and widespread human rights violations. “His government stamped out dissenting voices, dismantled the independent media, obstructed human rights organisations and strangled political opposition.”
She added: “Ethiopia’s jails are packed to the seams with suspected political opponents – from urban intellectuals to rural farmers. Torture and ill-treatment are commonplace. State resources, assistance and opportunities have been broadly used to control the population. Tens of thousands of Ethiopians were forced to flee the country during his rule.”
Critics saw Meles as paying only lip service to democracy. Opposition members accused him of rigging the 2005 election and, when demonstrations broke out, security forces killed at least 200 people and jailed thousands. Almost the entire leadership of an opposition group that won an unprecedented number of seats in parliament was jailed for life for treason.
In 2010, Meles won a further five years in office while receiving a reported 99% of the vote in an election that the US and other international observers said did not meet international standards.
Meles’ legacy will be debated. Under him, Ethiopia recorded improvements in education with the construction of new schools and universities. Women gained more rights. In the mid-2000s Ethiopia experienced strong growth, tripling in size in 15 years, which won Meles plaudits. The International Monetary Fund in 2008 said Ethiopia’s economy had grown faster than any non-oil exporting country in sub-Saharan Africa.
But many Ethiopians complain that his close business ties with China did not translate into more jobs. Ethiopia remains heavily dependent on agriculture, which accounts for 85% of employment. Per capita income is only about ,000 – about a day.
Henok Beyene, an artist, said: “Meles was an autocrat. Ethiopians have no experience of democracy, we have only ever experienced leadership from autocrats. Zenawi’s genius was in how he controlled the minds of his people. He led everyone to believe there was no alternative to his leadership by creating a climate of fear and intimidation.”
Meles is survived by his wife, Azeb Mesfin, an MP, with whom he had three children. State TV said funeral arrangements would be announced soon.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010