ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Thousands of mourning Ethiopians walked the streets of Ethiopia’s capital into the early morning hours Wednesday to welcome home the body of deceased Prime Minster Meles Zenawi.
Hundreds stood in the rain at the capital’s international airport as the late leader’s body arrived around 10 p.m. Tuesday from Belgium, where he was hospitalized with an illness that Ethiopian leaders still have not revealed.
Ethiopia’s parliament is holding an emergency session on Thursday to swear in the country’s new prime minister. Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn became acting prime minister after Meles’ death. Hailemariam is also the country’s foreign affairs minister, a position he has held since 2010.
Hailemariam is a relatively young figure on Ethiopia’s political scene and it’s not clear if old guard leaders and majority political parties will allow Hailemariam to hold onto the prime minister’s seat in the long run.
Meles died just before midnight Monday at age 57. He had ruled Ethiopia since 1991.
After Meles’ coffin was removed from an Ethiopian Airlines plane late Tuesday, top army generals, religious leaders, diplomats and the senior government ministers stood at attention as a military marching band played.
“This is our home ... but Meles is not here,” a distraught Azeb Mesfin — Meles’ wife — said to the crowd.
“He is young,” said Almaz Mulugea, an Addis Ababa resident. “He never rested even once. He has been restless all his life. It is very sad he died before any rest.”
Though the outpouring of support for Meles was vivid, human rights groups have long criticized the late leader for oppressive rule toward some of the country’s ethnic groups and to the political opposition. Opponents of Meles accuse him of killing and jailing opposition members and of rigging elections. Ethiopia’s Somalia community in particular has suffered under Meles, who won his last election in 2010 with a reported 99 percent of the vote.
“Meles Zenawi’s administration has caused unimaginable suffering to the Ogaden people, far beyond any of his predecessors,” said the outlawed Ogaden National Liberation Front. “The front may consider this as an opportunity for the succeeding Ethiopian regime to initiate a new era of peace, stability, freedom and justice for the people of Ogaden and not to pursue the failed policies of the past.”
The country’s communications minister on Tuesday downplayed the possibility of changes in the country’s domestic and foreign policies. But the lone opposition member of parliament, Girma Seifu, says the country’s new leader could bring change.
“Hailemariam is not Meles,” Girma said. “It is natural for every individual to run things differently and the new leader, be it Hailemariam or another person, will employ his own mindset in running the country. I hope he changes things for the better and the ruling party establishment should allow it. If they don’t allow that they must be really sick.”
Ethiopian state TV announced early Tuesday that Meles had died. Residents mostly went about their day as normal, but as night fell residents flocked to the city’s main square and marched in unison alongside the body’s trip from the airport to the palace.