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.   

Rebecca Blackwell/AP
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.

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.

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.

The trader then requests to remain anonymous.

The system's excesses are also on public display. The mobilization skills of the 6 million-strong party, previously used to permeate state and society, bolster crushing election victories, and encourage donations for Meles's political masterstroke, the damming of the Nile, are in overdrive. Colleagues cannot travel to Addis Ababa for a meeting next week, one individual informs: all public transport is tied up busing people in for the funeral. Teams of government workers were parading through central Addis Aug. 31, chanting slogans and brandishing placards about the necessity to keep Meles's dream alive.

The dynamics are similar to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam fundraising campaign: Both Meles and the Nile hydropower project – which signaled Ethiopia's intention to use a huge asset historically monopolized by Egypt – would be staggeringly popular without any leverage being applied by the EPRDF's leaders and cadres; yet they still turn the screw in order to strengthen their grip on power.

Critics sneer at some of the party's alleged tactics: "they're all receiving per diems"; "homeless beggars on television are praising Meles"; "they're wheeling the sick out of hospital to join the crowds." 

A leaked letter purportedly from university administrators demanding that staff attend a mourning ceremony makes its way round the Web. "Got it. The North Korean comparisons are justified," pontificated a media advocate from New York, suggesting that the mourning was not sincere.

But Kemal indicates otherwise.

"I cried. Nobody pushed me, nobody paid me. I cried," he volunteers about his response to Meles's death.

At the front of a well-choreographed multiethnic group parading and ululating near the palace, a young lady of humble appearance holds a sign. "It is must to achieve his vision," it read.

What was Meles's vision? Dams, schools, roads, railways, clinics, mega-farms, factories all being churned out using funds scooped up from allies across the globe. A revolutionary development effort to turn a multiethnic nation of predominantly peasant farmers into an economic powerhouse by 2025. Meles's system faces no opposition from the normal trappings of a liberal democracy: an active judiciary, political pluralism, inquisitive journalists, independent advocacy groups, or public consultation. He ordered it. They did it.

Away from the public pomp, nervous Ethiopians and Addis's chattering classes opine that the future is uncertain. Very little is known about the inner workings of an opaque ruling party. Only time will tell whether its stability and thus the country's is wrecked by factional squabbling. Only the years and decades to come will define his legacy.

What is certain is that a nation on Meles's long march is bereft of its leader many hard miles from its destination.

"Meles was like the sun among the stars in the galaxy. He was so bright and so shining compared to the timid other stars," says former Ethiopian ambassador to South Africa and Uganda Tesfaye Habisso. "The sun has set now, it's all darkness – for the people, for the ruling party. It will take some time before daylight overcomes."

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