(The Root) — Ethiopia's prime minister, Meles Zenawi, who ruled the country for 21 years, died Tuesday at age 57 after months of declining health. In a piece announcing his death, the New York Times described Zenawi as a ruler who "lifted his country from the ruins of civil war and transformed it into one of Africa's fastest-growing economies" but also "steadily concentrated power, boxing out rivals and creating a fearful atmosphere where criticism was not tolerated and journalists and opposition politicians were jailed."
But what do people closer to the story make of the news, and the inevitable change of power that will follow it?
At the ninth annual Sullivan Summit, a conference held this week in Equatorial Guinea with the goal of creating conversations about and solutions for Africa's future, attendees marked the event with two moments of silence during the day's program. Afterward, The Root spoke to conference delegate and Liberian Ambassador to Nigeria (with accreditation to Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Equatorial Guinea and Ecowas) Al-Hassan Conteh, Ph.D., about his take on the news. Here's what he had to say:
[Zenawi] was someone who took the development of his country very seriously. He had participated in African development and was very active in the African Union. And he was relatively young, trying to do things for his country. So it is a very sad event. We had some indication of this when he didn't participate in the last African Summit. He's the second African head of state to pass away in a short time, so this is a very sad moment.
We look forward to stability in Ethiopia. As far as the stability of the region, I know that there are boundary disputes between Ethiopia and Eritrea. That problem is still unresolved, and I don't know to what extent it will exacerbate that. The AU Peace and Security Council is very engaged in that matter. Usually when these sudden deaths occur, there are security concerns. But we expect that the Security Council will continue to work with all of the neighboring countries and make sure no tension escalates. Usually when there's a sudden change, people try to be opportunist. So we just have to watch and see what happens.
Yohannes Assefa, an Ethiopian American who lives in Ethiopia and manages a legal consulting firm, weighed in on Zenawi's death after speaking on a Sullivan Summit panel on the emergence of the Diaspora as a partner in African growth. Asked for the implications of the news for the country's business climate, he said it creates great uncertainty:
Whenever someone dies, there's a point of sadness, but beyond that, I really don't know how things will be affected. He's the only prime minister the country has had over the last 20 years, and there is a lack of information in terms of … well, we heard today that the deputy prime minister will be the next prime minister. The deputy prime minister is an able guy, but he's new to his position as deputy prime minister, so a lot of people are waiting to see the developments on the ground.
So for businesses, there is a sort of wait-and-see attitude. There's a lot of concern that wealthy businesspeople are taking their money out. I'm not sure if it's true. But the world is rife with all sorts of speculation right now … we just don’t know. It's quite a transition. We'll have to wait and see.
Meron Wudneh, Miss Ethiopia USA, lives in Maryland but has close ties to her home country. She heard the news of Zenawi's death while in Equatorial Guinea, and when she spoke to people in Ethiopia, they were still reeling from the news, she told The Root:
I found out about his passing here at the summit, and I was really saddened. There were rumors about his health, but we didn't know for sure. It's a loss not only for Ethiopia but for the whole continent or Africa. His family has my condolences and prayers. We can only pray that we get someone equal to or better than him. I went back to Ethiopia three years ago, and the improvement is so dramatic. He's responsible for all of the new construction projects. When I called my friends there, they're still in shock.