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Africa leaders mourn death of Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi

Meles seen arriving in Addis Ababa after seizing the capital in 1991 (© 2009 AFP)

African leaders on Tuesday mourned the death of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi after the strongman’s more than two decades in power.

Meles, a former rebel fighter who came to power in 1991 after toppling the bloody dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam, had not been seen in public for two months, and had been reported to have been sick in a hospital in Brussels.

“Prime Minister Meles Zenawi passed away yesterday evening at around midnight,” said government spokesman Bereket Simon.

“He has been struggling to be healthy in the last year… one of the best things about him was that he never considered that he was ill and he was up to the job every time, every day, every evening.”

Meles, who was 57, had last been seen in public at the G20 summit in Mexico in June. Bereket would say only that he had died “abroad”.

“He had been recuperating well, but suddenly something happened and he had to be rushed to the ICU (intensive care unit) and they couldn’t keep him alive,” he said.

Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, 47, will take over interim power.

“According to the Ethiopian constitution the deputy prime minister will have to go to parliament and take the oath, and the government is organising the parliament to be summoned as soon as possible,” Bereket said.

Hailemariam, 47, has been deputy prime minister and foreign minister since 2010, and was previously special advisor on social affairs to Meles.

Unlike many core members of the ruling party, he does not hail from the far north of the country but from the Southern Nation, Nationalities and People’s Region, the most populous of Ethiopia’s nine ethnic regions.

Ethiopia has declared a state of national mourning, but has not fixed a date for a funeral, said Bereket, adding that “everything is stable” in Ethiopia following the news.

Diplomats and analysts in Addis Ababa say it has not been clear how the government has been run since Meles was reported to have fallen sick in June.

The position of president is largely honorific and Meles, a former rebel fighter who came to power in 1991 after toppling the bloody dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam, held the real political power.

Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga told the BBC that Meles had been “a great leader” but said he also “fears for the stability of Ethiopia upon his death.”

“The Ethiopian state is very fragile,” he said. “I don’t know if they have sufficiently prepared for his succession… but one would hope they could contain the various factions within the government so that the transition is smooth.”

On paper, Meles’s government has fostered a policy of ethnic federalism, devolving significant powers to regional, ethnically based authorities, but central control remains firmly in the hands of the ruling party.

But his death also leaves a major power gap in the Horn of Africa, with Ethiopia playing a key role in the fortunes of many of its neighbours.

Ethiopian troops invaded Somalia for a second time last year — after a US-backed invasion in 2006 — and Ethiopia is supporting the fight against Somalia’s Al-Qaeda-linked Shebab insurgents.

Meles’s death could also potentially see changes in the relationship with arch-foe Eritrea, which split from Ethiopian rule in 1993 before the two spiralled into a bitter 1998-2000 border war in which tens of thousands died.

A peace deal led to a tense standoff, with Meles refusing to pull troops from the border town of Badme, even after an international court ruled the town belonged to Eritrea. The town has been the source of festering discontent between the two nations ever since.

Meles also played a key role in brokering peace efforts between newly independent South Sudan and its former civil war foe Sudan.

“He was one person who could say in black and white what the position of both countries was — and was respected by both,” South Sudan’s Information Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin said, praising his “strategic role”.

Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki called Meles a “pragmatic and visionary” leader who helped stabilise his country and placed it on the path of economic growth, adding that his death is a “devastating loss”.

“On behalf of the government and the people of Kenya, I convey our deepest sympathies,” Kibaki said in a statement, adding Meles’ leadership and negotiation skills would “forever be missed across the region and Africa.”

Meles played a key part in brokering peace efforts between newly independent South Sudan and its former civil war foe Sudan, a role praised by South Sudan’s Information Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin.

“He was one person who could say in black and white what the position of both countries was — and was respected by both,” Benjamin said.

“To South Sudan it is a sad story. He was great, not only in our strategic relations between South Sudan and Ethiopia, but also as chairperson of the African Union, tasked with finding peace between Sudan and the newly independent South,” he said.

Uganda was “shocked and saddened” by the death of Meles, said Asuman Kiyingi, state minister for regional cooperation, adding it was a “big loss for the whole of Africa”.

“He has been so instrumental in finding solutions to African problems,” Kiyingi told AFP, noting Meles’ support for African Union forces battling Al-Qaeda-linked Shebab insurgents in Somalia.

Ethiopian troops invaded Somalia for a second time last year — after a US-backed invasion in 2006 — and Ethiopia is supporting an AU force’s fight against the Shebab.

Kiyingi said that Uganda expected any new administration to continue its current partnership with the AU force — where Ugandan forces play a key role — to help stabilise Somalia.

South African President Jacob Zuma praised Meles as “a strong leader, not only for his country but on the African continent” and the Horn of Africa in particular.

“It is an absolute tragedy for Africa and the people of Ethiopia to mourn such an exceptional leader who contributed as an active role-player in various continental and global initiatives, especially in playing host to the African Union,” Zuma said in a statement.

Signature : NAIROBI (AFP)

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