ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Ethiopian leader Meles Zenawi, who during 21 years of repressive rule transformed his nation into a regional powerhouse, has died of an unspecified illness, depriving the United States of a key ally in the battle against al Qaida-affiliated rebels in Somalia.
News of Meles’ death in Brussels late Monday broke here early Tuesday after weeks of rumors surrounding the 57-year-old prime minister’s prolonged absence, including persistent conspiracy theories that he had already died. His ruling party moved quickly to quash speculation of an internal power struggle over who would succeed him, and the capital remained calm, if subdued. Government spokesman Bereket Simon said Meles’ deputy prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, would serve as the country’s leader until 2015 elections.
Meles’ Tigray rebel movement took power in 1991 from what had been a Soviet-backed regime. Over the next two decades, Meles aligned his country with the United States and became a major influence in the volatile Horn of Africa and the wider African continent as well. The African Union is headquartered in Addis Ababa, and the capital under Meles became a hub for conferences and events made possible by a Chinese-fueled, state-led construction boom.
His death is likely to have an immediate impact on conflicts in Somalia and between Sudan and South Sudan, both ongoing crises that are near the top of U.S. policy priorities in Africa.
Ethiopian troops late last year invaded Somalia, and Kenya, which also invaded Somalia last year, is negotiating with Ethiopia on how Somalia will be governed if and when al Shabab, al Qaida’s Somali affiliate, is driven from Kismayo, its last stronghold in the country’s south..
But it is Sudan and South Sudan where Meles’ personal engagement might be irreplaceable. Meles is the only regional leader to maintain strong relations with both Sudanese President Omar Bashir and South Sudanese President Salva Kiir. Meles often personally mediated meetings between the two foes.
"If Meles is not engaged, there will be less Ethiopian involvement in the problems of Sudan and South Sudan,” said David Shinn, a former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, describing Meles’ role in the region as “outsized.”
Condolences poured in from throughout the world. Former U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan praised Meles and offered “hope that his successor will continue to be a driving force on a wide range of issues.” President Barack Obama praised Meles for his "service for peace and security in Africa, his contributions to the African Union, and his voice for Africa on the world stage."
Former President Jimmy Carter praised Meles for a commitment to improving living conditions in Ethiopia, citing a long list of accomplishments, from increasing crop production to battling a range of diseases that included river blindness and malaria, to training 30,000 health extension workers, mostly women, to deliver health services to rural communities throughout Ethiopia.
Despite those accomplishments, Meles headed a government known for its harsh suppression of dissent, and his death was greeted with some ambivalence in Addis Ababa.
At a second-floor cafe, Ethiopians sat quietly glued to a video montage of the late leader, from bearded revolutionary to balding statesman, played over and over again on an eery state television loop. Zerihun, a 17-year-old who gave just his first name, summed up the mood. "Some people are happy, some are sad," he said. "I’m down about it. His replacement will not do as good a job."
Another customer, Mekonen Getahun, offered a similar assessment. “I don’t think the party has a better person," he said. "Who will come next?"
Meles’ apparent successor, Hailemariam, may find it difficult to gain enough internal support to hold the position permanently. Unlike Meles and most of the regime’s northern elite, Hailemariam is from southern Ethiopia. He is also the first Protestant to lead Ethiopia, where the ancient Ethiopian Orthodox Church remains a powerful force.
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