The sky darkened and the rain pelted down as the last strains of the national anthem faded and Ethiopians bade a final farewell to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, their leader of 21 years, who died on August 20.
After a fortnight of public mourning, African heads of state and delegations from across the world gathered in Addis Ababa to pay tribute to a man described by many at the funeral as a visionary, a statesman and an African giant.
Meles swept to power in 1991 at the head of a coalition of guerrilla forces that toppled the 17-year military dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam. After serving as the transitional President of Ethiopia for four years, Meles took over as an effective and charismatic Prime Minister — albeit with a tendency to intimidate his opponents and the press.
Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn will serve Acting Prime Minister until the general elections in 2015. In his first public speech in his new role, Mr. Hailemariam described Meles as “a great and heroic leader” who struggled for “the rightful place of Africa in the world”, and pledged to continue to implement Meles’s policies. He also announced the establishment of an archival centre dedicated to Meles’s life and works.
The funeral was a tribute to Meles’s reputation as a cerebral technocrat who transformed Ethiopia from a country ravaged by civil war and famine into one of the world’s fasting growing economies, and as a statesman who participated in seminal moments of contemporary African history.
“The problem of Africa has not been a lack of resources, it has been a lack of vision,” said Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, “Meles has shown you the vision…the vision of electricity, factories, and modern agriculture.”
The former South African President, Thabo Mbeki, praised Meles as a builder of institutions who contributed to the creation of the African Union and the adoption and implementation of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development [NEPAD], a technical body of the African Union aimed at eradicating poverty through sustainable development.
Salva Kiir Mayardit, President of the newly independent nation of South Sudan, acknowledged Meles’s “unwavering support and dedication to outstanding CPA [Comprehensive Peace Agreement] issues” and said that Ethiopian support had “opened the way” to South Sudanese independence. Meles was widely credited as bringing the warring governments of Sudan and South Sudan to the negotiating table.
The United States of America’s Ambassador to the United Nations praised the Ethiopian government for its “dignified and constitutional response” to Meles’ demise and restated her country’s support of Ethiopia, a key U.S. ally in military operations in the horn of Africa. “The United States recommits to strengthening and deepening our partnership,” she said, adding that the United States would continue to support a strengthening of democracy, civil society and a free press in Ethiopia.