Ethiopia has had a long line of leaders dying in secret, hidden behind closed doors, but not a long history of funerals.
In 1913, one of Ethiopia’s most renowned emperors, Menelik II, died. His death remained a secret until 1916 when officials finally announced that he had succumbed to a stroke years earlier. Haile Selassie, Ethiopia’s last emperor, officially died of natural causes in 1975, but is widely believed to have been murdered by the brutal regime of Mengistu Hailemariam, suffocated and buried under a toilet.
Last month, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi died of an unknown illness after a mysterious, two month-long disappearance from public view, and will be buried on Sunday in the first state funeral for a leader in over 80 years. The cloud of secrecy and gossip that has surrounded the deaths of several Ethiopian leaders stems from a desire to ensure a stable succession, according to analysts.
“If the death is announced there is the fear that it can provoke a lot of trouble because different people can ask for the throne,” said Estelle Sohier from the University of Geneva, author of a book on Menelik. “To hide a death of a leader is a way to spare time, to save time, to settle the succession,” added Sohier.
Though Meles’ death was announced hours after he died in a Brussels hospital, the secrecy surrounding his illness led some to question whether the government was getting its house in order to ensure a smooth transition.
Days after Meles died, the government confirmed that deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn will take over power until national elections in 2015. Author Michela Wrong said this pattern of secrecy is common following the sudden deaths of leaders throughout Africa, not only in Ethiopia.
“The ruling elite is motivated by the desire to maintain the status quo, from which it benefits. It wants stability,” she said. Sohier draws parallels between the death of Menelik whose successor was disputed among the royal family, and the death of Meles, whose clear successor was not known until the government confirmed Hailemariam’s takeover.
Ethiopia’s constitution states the deputy will take over in the absence of the prime minister, but does not specify what happens in the case of the leader’s death. Meles will be given a state funeral on Sunday, the first offered to a reigning head of state since the death of Empress Zawditu in 1930.
“This is the first time for 82 years that Ethiopians have had an opportunity to show what they think about their ruler,” said Patrick Gilkes, an Ethiopia-based historian and author of “The Dying Lion,” which examines feudalism in Ethiopia.
The gesture solidifies his memory in national history, pointing also to the fact that Ethiopians have not had a chance to mourn the loss of a leader in nearly a century following a series of rocky regime changes, observers say. No public mourning was staged after Haile Selassie’s death while Mengistu, who was deposed by Meles in 1991, is still alive in exile in Zimbabwe.
Immediately after Haile Selassie died, many people in Addis were “very sad” said Ethiopian journalist Tsegaye Tadesse, 78, who was in Addis Ababa at the time, but Mengistu’s regime did not permit a public funeral. “There was an outpouring of grief, yes, but it was limited,” he said.
Haile Selassie’s remains were exhumed in 1992 and a public funeral was held though the government did not hold a state funeral for the late emperor, who was buried in Addis Ababa’s Trinity Cathedral, where Meles too will be buried.
The decision to bury the former Marxist leader in the same cathedral as Haile Selassie, deceased patriarchs of Ethiopia’s Orthodox Church and war martyrs, suggests that authorities want Meles remembered as a national hero.
“Eulogising late leaders, while glossing over their very obvious faults, is something you see across the world,” Wrong added. “The leaders who were being vilified up until a moment ago suddenly take on a new, golden aura.” Meles, while credited with widespread economic growth was also chided by critics for his human rights record.
But Tsegaye said Meles deserves a place in history among Ethiopia’s finest for the development he brought to Ethiopia. “We have got top leaders like Menelik II, Haile Selassie, but Meles, he is in my opinion even better than the others,” he said.