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Ethiopians are in mourning after the sudden death of their longtime leader, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. Authorities gave few details this morning, announcing only that he had died Sunday while abroad. Though Meles was just 57 years old, NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports that he was believed to have been in poor health, and was last seen in public at the G-8 Summit in May.
OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Ethiopia used to make global headlines because of famine and poverty. More recently, though, the strategic Horn of Africa nation has made news thanks to an economy that has tripled in size the past 15 years. Cotton and cut flowers are among Ethiopia's exports, while massive infrastructure and development projects are being built.
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QUIST-ARCTON: Supporters attribute this impressive legacy to the leadership of Meles Zenawi, the prime minister whose death was announced on national television this morning. He joined a guerrilla war which, in 1991, drove out the military dictatorship. Meles has dominated Ethiopian public life ever since. That, say his detractors, is the problem; that he maintained a stranglehold on power for 20 years, brooked no dissent and had scant regard for human rights.
In a BBC interview in 2007, Ethiopia's prime minister brushed away the criticism and focused instead on what Meles said were the priorities: keeping his country stable and secure in a turbulent region, including Somalia.
MELES ZENAWI: Al-Qaida has established some sort of a presence in the Horn of Africa. I believe jihadists from every corner in the world have been involved.
QUIST-ARCTON: Intense, intellectual and articulate, Meles became a favorite with the West; the new face of African leadership, it was said, and an ally in the U.S. war on terrorism.
ZENAWI: There is a large element of instability in the Horn of Africa. And the fact that there is extreme poverty in the Horn of Africa has made it possible for Al-Qaida operatives to have a presence. And a few scores could create havoc and we have more than enough for the creation of havoc in the Horn of Africa.
QUIST-ARCTON: Ethiopia borders Somalia and Prime Minister Meles said he sought to contain the threat of radical Islamism and violence spilling over the border into his country, that's home to a Muslim minority. At least twice since 2005, the Ethiopian leader dispatched troops to Somalia with varying success, in a bid to defeat Al-Qaida affiliated jihadists, with the tacit approval of the White House.
While African and world leaders paid tribute to Meles Zenawi, Somalia's al-Shabab Islamists are predicting the imminent collapse of Ethiopia following his death.
Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Dakar. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.