The United States says the death of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is a loss for the peace process in Sudan and South Sudan. But it could bring about an improvement in human rights inside Ethiopia.
Prime Minister Meles Zenawi played an active role in helping end the long-running civil war in Sudan. The U.S. Special Envoy for Sudan and South Sudan, Princeton Lyman, says his passing is a great loss.
"He was always a source of great counsel, wisdom," said Lyman. "But he also played a very dramatic role in helping bring about stability in Sudan and South Sudan, most particularly in providing peacekeepers to the troubled area of Abyeh."
Meles also backed African Union peacekeeping efforts in neighboring Somalia. The United States has lost an important ally, says the National Democratic Institute's Africa expert Christopher Fomunyoh.
"You have Somalia which is a failed state in the East, Sudan, which for many years was in the state of civil war, so Ethiopia became the anchor in that part of the African continent. I think the US is going to look for ways to maintain this relationship with Meles’ replacement," Fomunyoh noted.
Successive U.S. presidents, however, expressed concern about the prime minister's repression of political dissent.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland says Washington hopes Ethiopia's new leaders will improve human rights.
"We have not been shy about expressing concern where it is necessary, particularly with regard to journalists' freedom, human rights, etcetera," said Nuland. "So you will note that there is a reference to that in the public statements that we're making today, and we would always look for further improvements that can strengthen the system and support for people across Ethiopia."
Human rights abuses leave Prime Minister Meles with a mixed record, says Christopher Fomunyoh.
"The infrastructure is much improved compared to what it was during the civil war," said Fomunyoh. "He has done a lot to stabilize the country and the sub-region of the Horn of Africa. But he’s also left a very questionable legacy in regard to human rights, respect for the media, freedom of the press, respect for the opposition and creating political space in Ethiopia."
Fomunyoh says Meles never found the balance between the growth of commerce and the expansion of civil liberties.
"In Africa, our leaders ought to be able to realize that economic development as well as political development are mutually reinforcing," Fomunyoh added. "They are not mutually exclusive."
In a written statement, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she admired Meles' commitment to expanding education and health services. She said the United States is confident Ethiopia will navigate this political transition according to its constitution.