Missing Ethiopian Prime Minister Pronounced Dead

Ethiopians today are facing an uncertain future after the death of their leader, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. He was last seen in public in June, and he reportedly died in a Belgian hospital. Guest host Viviana Hurtado discusses the implications of Meles Zenawi's death for the region with NPR Africa correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton.

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VIVIANA HURTADO, HOST:

I'm Viviana Hurtado and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, interest rates for mortgages are hitting record lows, but does that mean you should refinance? We ask one of our money coaches in just a few minutes.

But, first, we turn to Ethiopia. The nation is mourning the death of its leader. He reportedly died in a Belgian hospital. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was 57 years old. Journalists, shopkeepers and world leaders all have been speculating over the prime minister's poor health since he was last seen in public in June at the G20 Summit in Mexico.

To learn more, we're joined by NPR's Africa correspondent, Ofeibea Quist-Arcton. She joins us from Dakar. Ofeibea, welcome to the program.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Greetings.

HURTADO: Has the news of the death of Prime Minister Meles come as a shock?

QUIST-ARCTON: Probably not. Of course, a shock because anyone dying is a shock, even if they were ill, but the fact that it finally became clear that he has been unwell for some time, especially last month after an African Union summit was held in his own capital city, Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, usually, he is very, very high profile at these summits and everybody noticed his absence.

So I think, probably, Ethiopians have been preparing themselves for this possible news, but the fact that it has been officially announced that he's died has, no doubt, come as a shock, not just to Ethiopians, but to the whole of the continent.

HURTADO: And this has a lot to do, too, Ofeibea, with the fact that, for two months, there was just rampant speculation. Nobody really knew about his whereabouts, where he was, if he was sick.

QUIST-ARCTON: That - yes. And we were told that he had some sort of stomach complaint and was in the hospital in Brussels, the Belgian capital. But I think that it's even more than that, the apprehension, the fear and the concern is what is going to happen in Ethiopia post-Meles Zenawi. He has been in power, as you said, for the past 20 years. He was the leader of the revolution that drove out the Derg, the communist, very, very hard line regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam.

He is such a presence, not only in the Ethiopian political hierarchy, but also in Africa. He's known to have championed climate change. He is, of course, known for his security concerns in the Horn of Africa, being a neighbor to Somalia. So all these things are now weighing on the minds of Ethiopians and East Africans and the people of the Horn of Africa, in general, as well as further afield, including, I'm sure, at the White House.

HURTADO: I want to play a bit of tape from the prime minister talking to al Jazeera back in 2010. Here it is.

MELES ZENAWI: We have offered to the United States, for example, to jointly investigate cases of human rights violations that they routinely report on the basis of allegations.

HURTADO: Ofeibea, New York-based Human Rights Watch, a watchdog group, has already released a statement saying that Ethiopia's new leadership should commit to fundamental human rights reforms now. So how important, in your view, is this for Ethiopians?

QUIST-ARCTON: Of course, Viviana, these were some of the negatives. Meles Zenawi has been highly praised by the U.S. and many other nations, including African nations, for dragging his country out of drought and poverty and having really impressive development and economic growth figures. But the real, sort of, stinging point about his long, long time in power was the fact that he brooked no dissent. Literally, opposition leaders were imprisoned at will, journalists, even singers and others. And that has been the - if you like - the sort of wound that Meles Zenawi has had to try and heal.

But many people, especially his critics and many detractors in and outside of the country say, no. You know, people say that this man was brilliant for Ethiopia, but in fact, he did it because he was like a dictator in many ways. Yes, there has been development in growth, but when you don't allow true democracy to flourish in a country that is so praised by the West and is really a darling of the Western donors, you're doing Ethiopians and Ethiopia a disservice.

And I think that is going to be one of his lasting legacies, the fact that he did not allow opposition to his rule.

HURTADO: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Viviana Hurtado. I'm talking to NPR's Africa correspondent, Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, about Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who has died at the age of 57.

And so, Ofeibea, who's going to take charge now?

QUIST-ARCTON: In the interim, the constitution says the vice prime minister - because it's a not a presidential system in Ethiopia, the president is more of a ceremonial role - will take over in the interim. But, you know, Viviana, Meles Zenawi has been such a huge presence in Ethiopia. I mean, there just is no other leader that many young Ethiopians have known, so this is where the uncertainty about the road ahead - how this is going to affect development, how this is going to affect security in the region.

We said Somalia - for example, Ethiopia has twice in the past, in less than a decade, sent troops into Somalia with Meles Zenawi saying that he is going to stop, at all costs, the spread of radical Jihadist Islam crossing the borders into Ethiopia or wherever else - Ethiopian troops in the disputed region of Abyei between Sudan and South Sudan.

So Ethiopia has played a pivotal role in ensuring some sort of security and not the outbreak of a regional war in East Africa and the Horn. So I think lots of people will be very nervous. What is going to happen after Meles Zenawi?

HURTADO: Ofeibea, you know the region, likely, better than most people. Do you sense instability, not just regionally, but specifically, as far as al-Qaida linked extremists are concerned?

QUIST-ARCTON: Indeed. And I think that's a great concern in the region and, as I've said, Prime Minister Meles played a really key role in ensuring that there was some sort of security and stability in the region. Of course, he must have trained many people in Ethiopia, but the fact that everyone else was so low profile, I think, is why there will be concern. Who is going to take over? Are things going to continue as they were?

And, of course, internally, within Ethiopia, how is this going to affect those who are political prisoners and others? Is there going to be more openness, more transparency and more democracy? All these are questions that we'll have to see how they'll be answered and how things will progress.

HURTADO: And we know that you're going to keep an eye out and continue to update us on this developing story. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is NPR's Africa correspondent. She joins us from her base in Dakar, Senegal. Ofeibea, thank you so much for joining us.

QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure, Viviana. Thank you.

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