ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AP) — Residents in Ethiopia’s capital awoke to the sound of a 21-gun salute Tuesday to mark the first year anniversary of the death of long-time ruler Meles Zenawi.
The ritual underscores the approach Meles’ successors have employed during the last year: a continued lionization of the late prime minister, whose portrait still appears in every public office across the country.
Candlelit vigils and the launch of over two dozen parks were organized across the country for the late leader. In the capital a cornerstone for the Meles Zenawi Memorial Museum was laid in a televised ceremony.
During the ceremony, attended by regional leaders such as the presidents of Somalia and Sudan, Meles was praised as “Africa’s voice.” His successor Prime Minister Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn praised Meles as a “champion of the poor.”
“Meles did a remarkable endeavor in the green economic development. He also led a successful party and government to establish a widely defined democratic system that has recognized and observed rights of individuals and groups at the same time,” Hailemariam said in a speech.
Meles became president in 1991 after helping to oust Mengistu Haile Mariam’s Communist military junta, which was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians. Meles became prime minister in 1995, a position he held until his sudden death last year.
The United States long viewed Meles as a strong security partner and gave Ethiopia hundreds of millions of dollars in aid over the years. U.S. military drones that patrol East Africa — especially over Somalia — are stationed in Ethiopia.
David Shinn, the U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia from 1996 to 1999, says he hasn’t detected any changes in the U.S.-Ethiopian relationship since Meles’ death.
“From the U.S. side, the policy seems to be one of maintaining cordial but not excessively warm relations. This situation varies somewhat from topic to topic. There continues to be especially close collaboration on issues such as counterterrorism and regional conflicts in Sudan, South Sudan and Somalia. At the same time, there are significant concerns about the future of democratization and human rights practices,” said Shinn, now a professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.
Ethiopia is increasingly looking to China as a model. Chinese companies are behind the country’s drive to expand infrastructures such as road and telecom networks. In recent months Chinese companies have signed two billion-dollar deals with state companies to expand the country’s telecom and power lines.
Thought credited for advancing Ethiopia’s economy, Meles was accused of killing and jailing opposition members and rigging elections. Rights groups say the oppression carried out under Meles has continued in the East African nation. Meles was responsible for the closure of 72 independent newspapers, according to the press freedom watchdog the Committee to Protect Journalists.
“At the time of Meles’ death, there were eight journalists in prison in Ethiopia. Today, there are nine,” said Mohamed Keita, advocacy coordinator for CPJ’s Africa Program.
Former ambassador Shinn says that the U.S. lacks suffient influence to effectively press Ethiopia for reforms in areas of freedom of speech and protection of the free press.
“Many countries, including United Nations Security Council members China and Russia, have no interest whatsoever in encouraging reform. This gives Ethiopia considerable leverage,” said Shinn. “I think the United States has the interest in encouraging reforms. I don’t think that it alone has the required leverage that will result in reforms over either the short-term or long-term.”