African leaders gather to honour ‘hero’ Meles

"The prime minister was a beacon of hope in Africa and he should be remembered as a hero for all the outstanding work that he has achieved in his lifetime," said Malawi's Deputy Prime Minister Khumbo Kachali.

Djibouti's President Ismail Omar Guelleh, Somali leader Sharif Sheikh Ahmed and South Sudan's Salva Kiir joined ministers and diplomats in visiting the National Palace in the capital Addis Ababa on Saturday to pay tribute to the powerful leader's flag-draped coffin and to sign a book of condolence.

Hundreds of Ethiopians, many of whom were in tears, also gathered at the palace.

"Africa has just lost one of his most illustrious sons," said Ivory Coast's minister for integration Ally Coulibaly. "Meles Zenawi is the advocate for Africa's renaissance." 

Meles, a regional heavyweight who ruled Ethiopia for 21 years after toppling dictator Mengistu Hailemariam, died on August 20 in a Brussels hospital at the age of 57.


He will be given the first state funeral staged for a leader of the Horn of Africa nation in more than 80 years.

Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki, Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Uganda's Yoweri Museveni are also expected to attend the funeral, along with senior officials from China, the European Union and the United States.

The funeral will begin in Addis Ababa's vast Meskel Square, before heading to the National Palace.

The body of Meles, who was a Christian, will be laid to rest in the Holy Trinity Church behind the palace.

While Ethiopia has hosted a series of state funerals in recent decades – including that of popular musician Tilahun Gessesse in 2009 – the last leader to be so honoured was Empress Zawditu in 1930.

Meles is credited with helping widespread economic development in Ethiopia, which has flirted with almost double-digit growth for the last few years.

As well as maintaining stability in his own country though iron-fisted rule, he played a key role in trying to forge peace in the troubled Horn of Africa region. But he was criticised for his human rights record and repressive rule.

After the funeral, Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn – a relatively unknown politician who hails from the south, unlike many of the country's political elite from the north – will formally take over power, according to officials.

Hailemariam will be sworn in after Meles' funeral, although no date has been fixed. He is expected to remain prime minister until the next national election in 2015.

Government spokesperson Bereket Simon said parliament chose to delay the official swearing in ceremony of Hailemariam in order to give the nation time to grieve Meles' death. – Sapa-AFP

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