Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi Dies At 57

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi died in a Belgian hospital this week at the age of 57 after a long illness. He came to power in 1991 after leading a rebel army from Ethiopia's north and toppling the Marxist leader. He was viewed as a firm U.S. ally in the war on terrorism, but also was accused of human rights abuses in Ethiopia.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

When Ethiopia's prime minister died this week, the country lost a long-time leader. The United States lost a long-time ally in its fight against East African extremists, and human rights campaigners lost an opponent. Meles Zenawi was a major player in the region, and we're going to talk about his legacy with NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton. She's on the line from her base of Dakar.

Hi, Ofeibea.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Greetings.

INSKEEP: There must be many Ethiopians who can remember no other leader, given that this man was in charge since the early 1990s.

QUIST-ARCTON: Indeed. The young Ethiopians only know Meles Zenawi as their prime minister. Of course, older Ethiopians know the former emperor, Haile Selassie, and then the bad man of Ethiopia, Mengistu Haile Mariam, who was a communist, hard-line leader that Meles Zenawi and his comrades toppled in 1991. But, yes, he's been in charge for 20 years, and he has his huge supporters and he has his detractors. Those who say that Meles Zenawi has been good for Ethiopia, good for the Ethiopian economy, and those who say he's been a hard-line, almost dictator who brooked no dissent, who allowed no opposition and who cracked down on anyone who wanted to speak against him.

INSKEEP: Well, did he then take on some of the characteristics of the regime that he overthrew so many years ago?

QUIST-ARCTON: You know, most people who met Meles Zenawi - and I did as a journalist - found him to be quiet, intellectual - a man who gave up studies as a medical student to join the revolution and the rebellion to topple the regime. But many people inside and many Ethiopians living outside the country will say, yes, there were good things about him. He started off good but he took on these characteristics of somebody who did not want to hear anything opposed to his vision and his view of how his country and the whole of Africa region should be.

INSKEEP: Now, he was a U.S. ally, and people who follow the news will know that Ethiopian troops have been sent into Somalia and other places, they've fought against extremists, they have fought effectively on the same side as the United States. Is Ethiopia likely to remain close to the United States, even without his leadership?

QUIST-ARCTON: Certainly, in the short term. I don't think that is going to change. Ethiopia needs Washington because it needs to keep that region, that really turbulent and violent region of Africa calm. And we're told by the authorities there that the transition will happen seamlessly, that the deputy prime minister becomes prime minister. Certainly in the background you're going to have those who fought alongside Meles Zenawi, those who have been close to him over the years, pulling the strings. So I don't think the White House need worry that things are going to change drastically even though Meles Zenawi has died.

INSKEEP: Let me ask one other thing, Ofeibea. Twenty-some years ago when Zenawi was rising to power, Ethiopia was almost synonymous with the problems of Africa - at least in American minds. Americans associated the country with famine, with Civil War. How much better are things today after more than two decades of his leadership, if they are better?

QUIST-ARCTON: Steve, on paper, Ethiopia is doing really quite well economically. In the past 15 years, growth of, you know, huge percentage. It exports a whole new industry of cut flowers, cotton. It manufactures shoes. But it is still amongst the poorest countries in the world. But for those who say that he was a champion of his own country and the continent, people will tell you that Meles Zenawi was a leader who tried to drag his country out of poverty. President Obama has said it, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has said it, but they've also said you have now got to focus on democracy and human rights. Those were the two areas where Ethiopia failed.

INSKEEP: NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, talking about the late leader of Ethiopia. She's in her base in Dakar.

Ofeibea, thank very much.

QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure, Steve.

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INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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