After Zenawi: Mourning Ethiopians wonder what comes next

A country mourns while the world grapples with leader’s legacy

Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir walks past a portrait of late Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, a gift from another delegation, when he arrived to pay his respects to Zenawi's body lying in state at the national palace in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Saturday. (Rebecca Blackwell/AP Photo)


Ethiopians remembered late prime minister Meles Zenawi on Sunday morning at a state funeral in Addis Ababa. contributor Julia Belluz was in the country earlier this week and filed this report on a country in mourning:

In a psychiatric ward in Addis Ababa, the hold Ethiopia’s recently deceased leader had on his people became clear. On my way through the crumbling, labyrinthine building, a patient drew me back into her room, and gestured at a large photo of Meles Zenawi, this country’s first and only prime minister, hanging over her bed. Visibly distressed and with a furrowed brow, she told me in Amharic that Zenawi had died.

That I already knew. I landed in Ethiopia last week, four days after the government announced His Excellency was dead after 21 years in power and weeks of speculation about his health and disappearance from public view. It was impossible to miss the cult of personality and Zenawi’s grip on the popular imagination.

During breakfast on my first day in the capital, I spotted a tribute to the former medical-school dropout. It was Zenawi’s face on an Ethiopia-shaped pizza. One of the waiters saw me examining the curious display. “That is our prime minister who has died,” he said. “Please take ze picture. Take ze picture.” So I did, and he explained that the hotel chef was inspired to paint the former prime minister in cocoa powder and butter on dough.

This love was displayed in the streets, where Zenawi’s image appeared in the signage over fruit markets and banks, on hats, in the windows of cars and buses, even in the cards children were selling for change. The bars and clubs were silent and no one danced in Ethiopia because a state of national mourning had been declared. TVs all over Addis Ababa played tributes to Zenawi on loop, and in the morning papers—which are largely controlled by the state—page after page was filled with photos and stories about the leader, as well as speculation about the question on everybody’s mind: what comes next?

Later on, I went to see Zenawi’s body lying in state at his official residence.

“Addis is very sad right now,” the taxi driver told me as we snaked through the crumbling and congested roads to the top of a hill where never-ending iron and brick gates protected the national palace. When I asked him about the issues that concerned the Ethiopian people, he said they were thinking about one thing: Zenawi. When I asked why people love Zenawi, he gestured with his hands to show that the poor have been elevated from “down here.” “Jobs, he bring us work,” he said, flicking at the past decade of economic growth in Ethiopia. Women love him too, the driver added, since Zenawi advocated for equal rights.

Other Ethiopians also expressed their adoration for Meles: because he was brilliant and had a strong vision for the country, because he liberated them from a military dictatorship, brought back Ethiopian pride, and increased investment in education and health care. (His health minister is lauded around the world for enacting progressive, evidence-based policies.) Zenawi was also a key mediator between Sudan and South Sudan, and an ally of the U.S. in its war on terrorism in the Horn of Africa.

But human rights observers argue that the advancements Zenawi made in Ethiopia came with a heavy price tag: jailed journalists, political prisoners,  contested elections results, and a concentration of power that only expanded during his tenure. A reporter I met from Kampala said she wouldn’t file anything about the death of Meles because she feared she may never be allowed back into the country. Ethiopian journalists told me there’s little hope for a free press and voicing dissenting opinions, so the people don’t have enough information to even begin to critique Zenawi’s administration.

As well, some raised questions about the actual progress made under His Excellency’s leadership. As one Ethiopian father of two explained, while the late prime minister is known for growing the economy, “I personally just don’t see it. I have a job but things cost more money.” In fact, Ethiopia is still a place where people die of hunger, and the per capita income is about $3 per day. Labour is cheap, and that’s apparent everywhere in Addis, with its over-staffed hotels and restaurants. On a drive through the capital one day, a local pointed out, “See all the young people on the road? That’s because people die early here.” The median age is 18.

Back outside the presidential palace, the taxicab guided my colleague and I as we joined the throngs of Africans who  dedicated their day to mourning Zenawi. Most were wearing their Sunday best, many were in black, and women’s heads were covered for modesty. From outside the compound, with the high iron and brick gates, long roads to entry, and the dozens of military and policemen, it felt like we were about to enter an African Versailles.

The crowd was split up by gender, and we were slowly herded closer to a security check-point. After a vigorous pat down by a female officer, we were shepherded into a spare and cold marble hall, with high ceilings and drawn curtains. At the front of the room, tributes played on TV. I couldn’t understand what the words and music meant, but we all sat solemn faced, waiting to pay respect.

Suddenly, we were instructed to stand up and get moving, closer to the prime minister. We were herded along a verdant flower- and tree-lined path that led to the coffin. As we approached the top of the winding road, one wailing woman was restrained and shuffled away for what seemed like unruly grieving. The line narrowed to a single file, and we were suddenly in front of the closed coffin, draped in a red, green, and gold flag, at the top of red-carpeted stairs.

That’s right: No embalmed body, and questions about the circumstances of Zenawi’s death remain unanswered. Around the coffin, there were photos of Zenawi and bouquets of flowers. Women wearing black jerked their limbs and cried out, an Ethiopian mourning ritual. It was difficult to take it all in; we tried to pause but were asked to move along. We were not the only ones who wanted to see Zenawi. There must have been 10,000 Ethiopians flowing through the presidential compound.

Back outside the palace gates, I noticed that the prime minister’s residence faces a shantytown, the kind of contrast that’s available all over the city. The taxi driver easily spotted my colleague and I, the only white faces in the crowd.

Amid the black fumes from passing cars, the air heavy with pollution, we stopped to admire T-shirts for sale. They all carried images of His Excellency. The driver bought one, and when we stopped at a roadside market, he got out of the car to immediately change into his new T-shirt. While the world grapples with the legacy of this polarizing figure, this Ethiopian wanted to show his people that he is filled with sorrow.


Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.