NAIROBI — News of the death of long-time Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi shocked many people throughout Africa. Known for turning his country into one of the continent's fastest growing economies as well as for his dubious record on human rights, Meles was in power for 21 years. His death triggered broad speculation about the future for Ethiopia and its neighbors.
At age 57, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi died Monday evening after a prolonged illness, according to government officials. Details about how he died, and where, are still unknown. The secrecy surrounding his demise seems to reflect the equally secretive government over which he ruled.
Medhane Tadesse, an academic specialist on security issues in Africa, with the Center for Policy Research and Dialogue in Addis Ababa, says that after two decades of ruling Ethiopia, Meles was a fixture in the political arena.
“He was not only simply a leader, he was almost a supreme leader of the whole political establishment," he says. "So it’s a big loss in terms of the political system.”
Medhane says that despite his shortcomings, Meles was a true believer in economic development for his country.
“I really appreciated his laser-type of focus on the economic development of the country," added Medhane. "He was very critical and he was very devoted on that, but also at the expense of political liberalization, openness and decentralization. So his economic legacy will be applauded. In that case, it’s a big loss.”
Although she agrees that Meles made economic development a priority, Human Rights Watch's deputy director for Africa, Leslie Lefkow, says his legacy will ultimately be tarnished by human-rights abuses.
“In the past five to seven years, or last decade or so, Ethiopia has increasingly gone in the wrong direction when it comes to human rights," she says. "We’ve seen a rash of very permissive legislation passed by the Ethiopian government that has restricted freedom of expression and freedom of speech in fundamental ways. We’ve seen the persecution of independent media and Ethiopian rights activists, which [the Ethiopian goverment] has jailed many of these individuals and forced others into exile.”
An Ethiopian government official who asked to remain anonymous argued that there is an independent press in the country, and it does function. He said that it is “nowhere near as bad as Human Rights Watch claims.”
The official also said that Ethiopia is on the front lines of the effort to control terrorism, with issues stemming from within the country and with its neighbors Eritrea and Somalia. As a result, the government in Addis Ababa has passed tough legislation modeled on laws in Europe and the United States.
Because of Ethiopian intervention in Somalia, Abdihakim Aynte, a director at the Somali Forum for Progress, says Meles’ death is going to change the course of that country as well.
“I think a lot of people will feel relief, because they believe [Mr.] Meles has been a center of the Somali issue, and on any aspect of Somali politics, he’s played a role in terms of influencing Somali politicians,” says Aynte.
Human Rights Watch's Lefkow says stability will now be a major concern for Ethiopia and the entire Horn of Africa.
“And unfortunately, the political structure in Ethiopia has been very opaque, so we know that power has been centralized in a small number of ruling-party insiders," says Lefkow. "And there are concerns that there may be a power struggle or jockeying among some of these individuals, that some of the armed opposition groups and other regional powers such as Eritrea could try to take advantage of a power vacuum.”
State media say Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn will serve as Ethiopia's acting prime minister.