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In Ethiopia, a nation comes to bury Meles – and to praise him

Ahead of the funeral Sunday of Ethiopian strongman Meles Zenawi, many Ethiopians are proudly assessing his abilities and the changes instigated. Less spoken of – at least publicly – is the intimidation of his opponents and nervousness about the future.   

By William DavisonCorrespondent / September 1, 2012

People hold a picture of late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, during a candlelight memorial for him at Meskel Square in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Friday, Aug. 31. Tens of thousands turned out for the second of three days of planned commemorative ceremonies.

Rebecca Blackwell/AP


Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Over the past week, in near silence, two endless columns of Ethiopians draped in black have shuffled through the grounds of the national palace before pausing beneath a coffin covered by the flag and breaking into wails and sobs.

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The masses in Africa's second-most populous nation are coming to mourn and pay respect to former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, the nation's formidable leader of 21 years who died of illness on Aug. 20.

Admiration for the man and his achievements is overwhelming. A former rebel who stepped up to govern after helping defeat a military junta, Meles had an influence on contemporary Ethiopia that is hard to overstate.

But of more importance to Kemal Hussein than his leader's fearsome intellect, political cunning, antipoverty mission, or diplomatic charm, was his personal integrity.

"This is a perfect man: hard-working, no luxury, no corruption," he says in a government social club in the capital, Addis Ababa. "Because of this when we lost him we were angry."

Mr. Kemal, a family man who works in the construction industry, is keen to emphasize he believes his views are held by most of the country's 94 million people. Meles's disciples' mood toward officials is different now without the titan, he says. "If there is any mistake from the government we will not be silent like under Meles." His friends nod in agreement.

A somber mood

Throughout the capital, the mood is somber as Sunday's funeral looms. Normally deafening bars respectfully keep stereos switched off. State television offers blanket coverage of the mourning. There are few outliers. An articulate young journalist – as appreciative of Meles's rules as millions of his compatriots – reports on Facebook of the intimidation he suffered when he sat on a poster of the premier outside the palace after paying his respects to Meles.

"I was mad that my respect for the late PM could be simplified by the manner I treated a poster," he writes.

One individual was hauled to a police station for disrespectfully listening to music on headphones, another user alleges below.

Across the new ring road on the edge of the ramshackle, ever-changing capital, among cheap apartment blocks, it is hard to detect anything but admiration and sorrow for leader who mostly made his countrymen proud.

For 25-year-old Mesfin Alemayehu, the era of Meles "brought democracy and he helped spread it" after the totalitarianism of Mengistu Hailermariam's Derg regime. What does he mean by democracy? "Democracy means being able to move and work freely," Mr. Alemayehu, a bricklayer, says earnestly in Amharic, surrounded by meek, attentive friends.

In an afternoon of stalking the mini-city of flats freshly hoisted by the government and now cluttered with barbers, bars, grocery stores and hordes of people, just one person expresses some doubt. "The EPRDF [Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front] is one party. They dominate everything," a Russian-educated trader says in perfect English about the Meles-led ruling coalition. "There is no freedom for journalists. A lot of them are in prison." Those would include dissident Ethiopian writer Eskinder Nega, who was recently sentenced to 18 years in prison for terrorism offenses.


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