, ADDIS ABABA, Aug 31 – Ethiopia will bury its longtime powerful prime minister Meles Zenawi on Sunday in the first state funeral staged for a leader of the Horn of Africa nation in more than 80 years.
Several African leaders are expected to attend the funeral to pay tribute to Meles, a heavyweight in regional politics since he took power in 1991 after toppling dictator Mengistu Hailemariam.
They will include neighbouring Djibouti’s President Ismail Omar Guelleh, Kenya’s Mwai Kibaki and South Sudan’s Salva Kiir, as well as Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni.
China, the European Union and the United States are also expected to send senior officials.
The funeral will begin in Addis Ababa’s vast Meskel Square, before heading to the National Palace, where Meles’ flag-draped coffin has been on display since it was flown home after his death in a Brussels hospital on August 20.
While Ethiopia has hosted a series of state funerals in recent decades — including that of popular musician Tilahun Gessesse in 2009 — the last leader to be so honoured was Empress Zawditu in 1930.
The country’s last emperor, Haile Selassie, was murdered in 1975 by coup leaders, who later buried him under a toilet in the National Palace.
The body of the deposed emperor — regarded as god by Rastafarians — was later exhumed and a funeral held for him in 2000, although officials did not declare it a state funeral.
His body is buried inside Holy Trinity Church in Addis Ababa, where Meles too will be laid to rest, located behind the National Palace.
“That’s the national place where our great leaders (are buried),” said foreign ministry spokesman Dina Mufti.
Meles, a former Marxist rebel, was not publicly religious and ran a secular state, though he was raised an Orthodox Christian, the country’s majority religion.
Mufti noted that while Ethiopia had a “secular government”, Meles “came from a Christian family, so that is the burial place for him.”
The patriarch of Ethiopia’s Orthodox Church, Abune Paulos, who died this month, was buried at Trinity Church last week, four days after Meles’ death.
After the funeral Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn — a relatively unknown politician who hails from the south, unlike many of the country’s political elite from the north — will formally take over power, according to officials.
Hailemariam will be sworn in after Meles’ funeral, although no date has been fixed. He is expected to remain prime minister until the next national election in 2015.
Government spokesman Bereket Simon said parliament chose to delay the official swearing in ceremony of Hailemariam in order to give the nation time to grieve Meles’ death.
“First things first, we have to deal with the funeral,” he said.
Thousands of mourners, including diplomats, media, local celebrities and government officials, have visited Meles’ coffin in the last week and signed a book of condolences.