Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi
By Paul Ohia
Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, died in a Belgian hospital on Monday after contracting an illness that was not disclosed by the country’s authorities.
He will be succeeded by the country’s Deputy Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, who was also the foreign minister.
Zenawi has been out of the country for several weeks, triggering rumours concerning the severity of his condition, especially when he failed to show up at an African Union (AU) summit held in July in Addis Ababa.
Zenawi, 57, was Ethiopia's long-time ruler and a major United States counter-terrorism ally who is credited with economic gains but was blamed for human rights abuses.
Desalegn, who was appointed Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs in 2010, became acting Prime Minister and will be sworn in as Prime Minister after an emergency meeting of parliament, the Associated Press (AP) quoted Bereket Simon, the communications minister as saying.
The parliament is controlled by Zenawi’s ruling party and governing coalition, ensuring Desalegn will be approved. No new elections will be scheduled, Simon said.
A European Union (EU) spokesman said Zenawi died in Brussels. Officials had expected him to return to Ethiopia but a sudden complication reversed what had been a good recovery, Simon said.
Zenawi had not been seen in public for about two months. In mid-July, after he did not attend a meeting of heads of state of the AU in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital, speculation increased that his health problems were serious.
Ethiopian officials gave no details and said the prime minister was in “very good” health and would return to office, but international officials said quietly it was unlikely he would recover.
State TV yesterday showed pictures of Zenawi as classical music played in the background. Simon called the death shocking and devastating and the country's council of ministers declared a national day of mourning.
Yesterday afternoon in Belgium, an AP television news crew reported that they saw a car containing a casket being driven from Saint Luc Hospital in Brussels.
After stopping to pick up personnel at the Ethiopian Embassy, the car drove to a private airfield where an Ethiopian plane waited on the tarmac. Zenawi’s body arrived in Ethiopia yesterday.
When he was alive, opponents had accused him of killing and jailing opposition members and rigging elections. Ethiopia's Somalia community in particular has suffered under Zenawi, who won his last election in 2010 with a reported 99 per cent of the vote.
On hearing the news yesterday, President Goodluck Jonathan expressed shock and sadness at the passing away of the late prime minister.
In a statement signed by his Special Adviser, Media and Publicity, Dr. Reuben Abati, the president, on behalf of the government and people of Nigeria, extended his deepest sympathy and condolence to the people of Ethiopia, especially members of the late Zenawi’s family.
Jonathan described Zenawi’s death as a major loss for Africa. “He was a great African statesman, who was also a friend of Nigeria, a nation-builder and a great servant of the Ethiopian people,” he said.
He said that “Prime Minister Zenawi will be remembered for his vision and integrity,” adding, “He held strong convictions about establishing a just and prosperous society for his people, a cause to which he devoted his considerable energies, and which deservedly earned him respect and honour among a grateful Ethiopian nation.”
Jonathan acknowledged the late Zenawi’s vision for a united and strong Africa, a cause he pursued with remarkable honesty and passion.
Jose Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, also offered his condolences and praised his development work, calling him “a respected African leader.” But he also expressed concern about the state of democracy in the country.
“I sincerely hope that Ethiopia will enhance its path of democratisation, upholding of human rights and prosperity for its people, and of further regional stabilisation and integration,” Barroso said in a statement.
Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga appealed to Ethiopians to “remain calm, maintain law and order and ensure the constitution is adhered to at this moment of transition.”
Born on May 8, 1955, Zenawi became president in 1991 after helping to oust Mengistu Haile Mariam’s communist military junta, which was responsible for hundreds of thousands of Ethiopian deaths.
Zenawi became prime minister in 1995, a position that is both the head of the Federal Government and armed forces.