Remembering Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia's Champion

Meles Zenawi came to power in Ethiopia at the head of a rebel army that toppled dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. For 20 years, he worked to alleviate poverty for Ethiopians, but was accused by his critics of human rights abuses and crushing dissent. Meles died this week at 57.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Ethiopia's longtime prime minister died this week. Meles Zenawi was 57. He came to power in 1991 when a rebel army toppled that nation's Marxist dictator and the Ethiopian leader became a trusted U.S. ally in the war against terrorism. As NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports, he leaves behind a mixed legacy.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Ethiopia is a secretive country, but what had become an open secret about Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's poor health and hospitalization turned to shock for many with news of his death late Monday.

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QUIST-ARCTON: His body was flown back home to the capital at Addis Ababa this week from Brussels where Meles Zenawi died. His casket was draped in the green, gold and red of the national flag and many Ethiopians were distraught.

SABA: My name is Saba. Oh, we lost a great man, a pride of black people, not only for Ethiopia or for Africa. He's a great man. I know this government, we see a lot of change in our country...

QUIST-ARCTON: Overcome with grief, she told the BBC it won't be easy to replace Meles as Ethiopia's leader.

SABA: Meles is so kind. We need him for our children. Not for us only because he's a great leader. We need our children to grow economically, educationally.

QUIST-ARCTON: Meles Zenawi is considered a hero by his supporters for lifting Ethiopia out of poverty and famine, and over the past 15 years, tripling the size of a booming economy. While he was praised for bringing development, his critics argue this came at a huge cost - the lack of respect for human rights and political pluralism. Meles crossed swords with rights campaigners, who blame him for crushing dissent, including opposition from journalists, bloggers and even musicians. So will they miss him?

TESSALEM WOLIS: For us, I don't think so.

QUIST-ARCTON: A diplomatic answer to a BBC colleague's question from Ethiopian journalist,Tessalem Wolis.

WOLIS: 'Cause for a private press, Meles is not that much of an easy person because no private press journalist privately interviewed him. Of course, we obtained his press conferences, but he didn't give exclusive interviews for us.

QUIST-ARCTON: Rights activists, including New York-based Human Rights Watch say they hope the passing of Meles will pave the way for a new era of transparency and tolerance in Ethiopia. After 21 years in power, his death leaves a gaping political chasm and that's not only at home, but on the regional stage in a rough horn of African neighborhood that includes Somalia next door.

Meles twice sent Ethiopian troops recently across the border to try to subdue al-Qaida-linked al-Shabaab Islamists there. Abdullahi Boru is a regional analyst with the International Crisis Group.

ABDULLAHI BORU: With Somalia, Meles made it his personal crusade in defeating terrorism, especially al-Shabaab because he's the kingpin of counterterrorism program that is funded by the international community, particularly the Western community. Meles has been the vanguard against global war and terror in the Horn. How all this will be balanced post-Meles will be very interesting.

QUIST-ARCTON: An issue of great concern to the White House. Meles Zenawi has been a staunch U.S. ally, allowing Washington to use Ethiopian territory to launch drone attacks on militant targets in Somalia. The regional analyst Abdullahi Boru says assessing politics now in Ethiopia is tough.

BORU: It is very, very difficult because it's a very secretive state that Meles has presided over, whereas outside Ethiopia he's seen as, you know, this visionary, intellectual, quick-on-his-feet, high voltage diplomacy kind of guy and the press lobby and everybody venerating him outside the border. But within the Ethiopian border, except for a very small clique of people, you know, the country hasn't benefitted.

QUIST-ARCTON: As have others. Abdullahi Boru mentions especially good governments, democracy, human rights and freedom of expression. He says all these channels have been closed under Prime Minister Meles so it's not easy to predict how the future will play out. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Dakar.

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