, ADDIS ABABA, Sept 2 – Ethiopia will bury its long-serving and 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 heads of state and foreign dignitaries arrived in the Ethiopian capital Saturday to pay their respects and sign a book of condolences at the National Palace, where Meles’ flag-draped coffin is on display.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Boni Yayi, president of Benin, were among those who visited Meles’ remains ahead of Sunday’s ceremony.
Yayi said the death of Meles was “a great loss” not just for Ethiopia but for the African continent because of his vision and his support of Pan-Africanism.
Also arriving for the funeral were Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and his southern counterpart Salva Kiir.
The leaders shook hands with Meles’s family members and some laid wreaths at the base of the coffin.
Hundreds of Ethiopians, many of them in tears, joined the gathering at the palace on Saturday.
Meles’ funeral is set to begin mid-morning Sunday in Addis Ababa’s sprawling Meskel Square and will proceed to Holy Trinity Cathedral, where he will be buried.
Several African leaders are expected to speak at the funeral, as well as Ethiopia’s deputy Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, who will take over government until national elections in 2015.
Senior officials from China, the European Union and the United States are also expected to attend.
Meles died in a Brussels hospital on August 20 after an extended illness. He had not been seen in public for two months, spurring rumours about his health. The leader of the Horn of Africa nation took power in 1991 after toppling dictator Mengistu Hailemariam.
He had remained at helm of Ethiopia — a relatively stable country in the volatile Horn of Africa region — ever since. But while he was credited with bringing about widespread economic growth, rights groups criticised him for what they said was a crackdown on opposition groups and journalists.
His successor Desalegn will be sworn in after Meles is buried, although no date has been fixed. He is a relatively unknown politician who hails from the south, unlike many of the country’s political elite who are from the north.
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.
Ethiopia’s last emperor Haile Selassie, who was murdered in 1975 by coup leaders, is also buried at Holy Trinity Cathedral.