August 21, 2012 (KHARTOUM/JUBA) – Sudan and South Sudan offered their condolences to neighbouring Ethiopia on Tuesday following the death of its Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, describing him as a friend and hailing his role in brokering peace efforts between them.
- FILE PHOTO - Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi (h) speaks to the media during a joint news conference with Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir (Reuters)
Zenawi’s death was announced by Ethiopia’s state TV earlier on the same day, ending months of rumours about the ill health of the ruler of the East African country for more than two decades.
He died in a Brussels hospital at the age of 57 after succumbing to an unknown illness. His body was flown to the capital Addis Ababa where thousands of supporters gathered outside the city’s main airport terminals to pay their respects. State media said that details of his funeral would be announced soon.
Meanwhile, the Ethiopian government has announced that Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, who also acts as foreign minister, will be temporarily sworn in as Prime Minister until the parliament and Zenawi’s ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front choose a successor.
Ex-military-foes and rival neighbours, Sudan and South Sudan, reacted with shared sadness to the death of Zenawi, with both describing him as a friend and acknowledging the active role he played in recent years to support peace efforts between the two nations.
“It’s a very, very sad day for the people of the Republic of South Sudan and the people of the East African region as a whole. This has been a tremendous nationalist leader, a president who had always let peace come to his neighbours.” South Sudan’s information minister and government spokesman, Barnaba Marial Benjamin said on Tuesday.
Benjamin said that Juba considered Zenawi as “a strategic ally”. “Indeed we greatly mourn him and we extend our extensive condolences to the people of Ethiopia.”
Similarly in Khartoum, President Omer Al-Bashir said in a statement that he was offering his condolences to the Ethiopian people over the death of a “brave, wise and prowess African leader who led his people on a path of prosperity”
Al-Bashir said that Zenawi was distinguished by his positive positions towards Sudan and his support of peace in the country, citing the fact that he was the first African leader to contribute troops to the UN-AU Peacekeeping Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) and later to the UNISFA in the Abyei region.
In recent years Zenawi was actively involved in efforts by the AU High-Level Implementation Panel (AUHIP) led by former South African President Thabo Mbeki to facilitate peace talks between Sudan and South Sudan, which have been held in Addis Ababa since the South seceded in July last year.
It remains to be seen whether his death will cast a shadow on the next round of talks which are due to take place in Addis Ababa in late August. A member of the Sudanese negotiating delegation told Sudan Tribune on Tuesday that it is too early to say whether the next round would be delayed. The member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, pointed out that, unlike the AUHIP, Ethiopia is not a direct mediator of the talks with South Sudan.
The late Ethiopian leader also attempted to broker peace talks between the Sudanese government and the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement North (SPLM-N) which is fighting in the South Kordofan and Blue Nile states which lie on the border with South Sudan.
Sudan’s ministry of foreign affairs also issued a statement on Tuesday, saying it received news of Zenawi’s death with “great sadness”. The ministry concluded that it trusts the Ethiopian leadership to manage a peaceful transition of power as stipulated in the country’s constitution and to continue the role that Zenawi played in the regional and international arena.
The official news agency, SUNA, also said that Sudan’s foreign minister, Ali Karti, had phoned his counterpart Hailemariam Desalegn and conveyed the condolences of the Sudanese people to Ethiopia over the death of Zenawi. SUNA said that the Ethiopian minister assured Karti that the situation in the country is stable.
Zenawi was also praised by the leader of the Sudanese opposition, the National Umma Party (NUP), Al-Sadiq al-Mahdi, who said in a press release that he was extending his condolences to the Ethiopian people and lauded the late leader’s success in transforming Ethiopia into a regional power.
Al-Mahdi opined that Zenawi had achieved some degree of recognizing diversity and freedoms in his country, adding that while that degree might not be up to international standards, he had avoided flagrant violations of human rights.
Zenawi seized power 21 years ago from the military regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam and has since reformed Ethiopia’s economy to see one of the fastest growth rates in Africa although the country still remains one of the poorest countries on earth.
Under his tenure, Ethiopia fought an all-out war with rival Eritrea in 1998-2000 and sent troops into Somalia twice to fight against Islamist militants.
Zenawi’s temporary replacement, the 47-year-old Hailemariam, was appointed as a deputy Prime Minister in 2010.