With Ethiopian flags unfurled and satellite televisions set to the African nation’s state-run news channel, hundreds of stunned Ethiopian Americans crammed into restaurants in the Shaw section of the District, known as Little Ethiopia, on Tuesday to watch news reports about what they had suspected for weeks: the country’s longtime ruler, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, had died at 57.
But for many in the crowds, which included parking attendants and cabbies, professors and college students, the African nation’s long-awaited official announcement was not enough.
“Where did he die? From what exactly? We deserve to know,” said a red-eyed Petreous Melek, a 46-year-old real estate agent who wept as he sat in an Ethiopian restaurant sipping strong coffee and watching the patriotic reports on Ethiopian Television.
Flashing on the screen were grainy black-and-white images from the 1970s of a young Meles in frayed military clothing and an Afro, cradling an AK-47 as a guerilla fighter who vowed to seize power from Mengistu Haile Mariam’s Soviet-backed military junta. Next came footage from 2008 of the balding prime minister, cleanshaven and dressed in a suit as he congratulated Ethiopian Olympic medalists upon their return home.
The diaspora in the Washington region burgeoned to 200,000 — the largest outside Ethiopia — in the decades after Mengistu’s military seized power in 1974. Many who fled were educated elites who were fearful of Mengistu’s communist policies and hoped that Meles would bring democracy and wide-ranging economic reforms to the impoverished Horn of Africa nation.
On Tuesday, many Ethiopian Americans shared conflicting emotions about Meles’s legacy — pride that their native country had become one of the fastest-growing economies in Africa under the leader, but anger and disappointment at the Meles government’s repressive policies and jailing of opposition leaders.
And many of the questions that lingered after Zenawi’s death reflected anxiety about Ethiopia’s future and the fate of relatives and friends there.
“There’s just a lot of worries, questions about what’s next,” said a crying Messeret Araya, 40, as she watched the television at Habesha Market and Carry-Out on Ninth and U streets NW.
“He was our leader and we were proud of him because the country was at zero when he took over,” Araya said. “Will we turn into a Somalia now?”
The Ethiopian government has offered little information about what has become known in the Ethiopian American community in Washington as the “Meles Mystery” — Meles Zenawai’s disappearance from public life in June. In mid-July, officials said only that Meles’s “health condition is very good and stable” and that he was “taking some rest.”
In the end, Ethiopian officials said only that Meles had died in a hospital “abroad.” A European Commission spokesman disclosed that Meles was being treated in the Belgian capital for an unspecified illness when he succumbed to a secondary infection just before midnight Monday.
Ethiopian government spokesman Bereket Simon offered little more, saying that Meles had been ailing for a year and died after being rushed to intensive care. Hailemariam Desalegn, the minister of foreign affairs and deputy prime minister, will become the new premier, the government said. Unlike many in Meles’s party who are from the north, he is from the South and an ethnic group known as the Wolayta, which has not traditionally dominated national politics.
Opposition leaders in exile in the United States said the intrigue surrounding Meles’s death showed just how autocratic his government had become.
The dearth of information “shows just how fragile our political institutions are,” said Birtukan Mideksa, a female judge and former opposition leader who was jailed by Meles twice for three years. “But when I heard the news, I also felt sad because I wanted him to leave a better legacy. Unfortunately he didn’t use the opportunities he had to lead the country into more inclusive and democratic and political systems.”
In Washington, Addis Dimts Radio, an Ethiopian radio program is planning to hold a series of meetings so opposition parties here can list their “demands for change,” said political radio host Abebe Belew.
“This is the time in Washington to sit down and figure out the important things that we want: a free media, an open opposition,” said Belew, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison on terrorism charges by Meles’s government in July because his show has included guests from the political opposition in Ethiopia.