One of Africa’s most powerful and divisive leaders, Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, has died of an undisclosed illness, it has been announced. He was 57.
During his 21-year rule, Meles turned Ethiopia into one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies and proved to be a key US ally in the war on terror. But he was also regarded as an authoritarian strongman whose critics suffered persecution, imprisonment and torture.
Meles had not been seen in public for about two months. He failed to attend a meeting of African Union heads of state in the capital, Addis Ababa, last month, raising speculation about his health.He died “abroad” at around 11.40pm on Monday after contracting an infection, state television said on Tuesday.
His demise creates a potential power vacuum in Addis Ababa. Expressing concern, Kenya’s prime minister, Raila Odinga, told the BBC World Service: “We need a seamless, peaceful, transition of power. The region, the horn of Africa, needs stability.”
Hailemariam Desalegn, appointed deputy prime minister and foreign affairs minister in 2010, will be sworn in as prime minister after an emergency meeting of parliament, said Bereket Simon, the communications minister.
“To be sick is human and he has been struggling to be healthy in the last year,” Simon told reporters in Addis Ababa. Meles’s family were by his side when he died, he said. “He has been diligently delivering on his promises; illness has never been a hindrance.”
Simon added: “I assure you everything is stable and everything will continue as charted by the prime minister.”
On Tuesday, state TV showed pictures of Meles against a soundtrack of classical music. Simon called the death shocking and devastating.
Born on 8 May 1955, Meles grew up in the northern town of Adwa, where his father had 13 siblings from various women. He moved to the capital on a scholarship after completing an eight-year elementary education in just five years.
A hardline Marxist-Leninist and a towering intellect, Meles became president in 1991 after helping to oust Mengistu Haile Mariam’s Communist military junta, which was responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths. He became prime minister in 1995, head of the federal government and armed forces.
Meles introduced a controversial form of ethnic nationalism and, from 1998-2000, went to war with neighbouring Eritrea, a conflict that resulted in tens of thousands of deaths. The countries remain sworn enemies. Eritrea will be watching developments closely.
The US has long viewed Meles as a strong security partner and has given hundreds of millions of dollars in aid over the years. US military drones that patrol east Africa, especially over Somalia, are stationed in Ethiopia.
Ethiopia has long been criticised by human rights groups for the government’s hardline crackdowns on dissent. During the G8 summit in Chicago last May, Meles was interrupted soon after he started to speak: “You are a dictator! You have committed crimes against humanity!” a member of the audience shouted.
The bald, bespectacled politician, visibly shocked at first, tried to continue talking before staring down, stony-faced.
Leslie Lefkow, deputy director of Human Rights Watch in Africa, said Meles brought Ethiopia out of a hugely difficult period following Mengistu’s rule and made important economic progress, but the ruling party has been too focused on building its own authority in recent years instead of building government institutions.
“On the human rights side his legacy will be much more questionable,” Lefkow told the Associated Press. “The country remains under a very tightly controlled one-party rule and this will be the challenge for the new leadership, to take advantage of the opportunity that his death presents in terms of bringing Ethiopia into a more human rights-friendly, reform-minded style of leadership.”
Meles’s government has been criticised for its use of arbitrary detention, torture and surveillance of opposition members inside Ethiopia. The ONLF, an opposition group that consists mostly of ethnic Somalis, has openly clashed with the government, including in 2007 when Ethiopia sent troops to Somalia to fight al-Shabaab militants.
During Meles’s election win in 2005, when it appeared the opposition was likely to make gains, Meles tightened security across the country, and on the night of the election he declared a state of emergency, outlawing any public gathering as his ruling party claimed a majority win. Opposition members accused Meles of rigging the election, and demonstrations broke out. Security forces moved in, killing hundreds of people and jailing thousands. Almost the entire leadership of an opposition group that won an unprecedented number of seats in parliament was jailed for life for treason.
In 2009, an anti-terror law was enacted, under which more than 100 opposition figures have since been arrested. The government insists it is tackling rebel groups that have links with al-Qaida and Eritrea.
More than 10 journalists have also been charged under the law, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. The group says Ethiopia is close to replacing Eritrea as the African country with the highest number of journalists behind bars. Two Swedish journalists were jailed for 11 years on charges of entering the country illegally and aiding a rebel group.
Navi Pillay, the UN high commissioner of human rights, has criticised the verdicts, saying journalists, human rights defenders and critics were facing a “climate of intimidation”.
Meles responded with trademark defiance, labelling the duo as “messenger boys of terror groups”.
In 2010, Meles won a further five years in office while receiving a reported 99% of the vote in an election that the US and other international observers said did not meet international standards.
Meles was the leader of a political coalition known as the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front. He was also the longtime chairman of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and has always identified strongly with his party.
When asked what he thought would be his legacy, Meles once said: “I cannot separate my achievements from what can be considered as the achievements of the ruling party. Whatever achievement there might have been, it does not exist independent of that party.”
Under Meles, Ethiopia recorded improvements in education with the construction of new schools and universities. Women gained more rights. And in the mid-2000s Ethiopia experienced strong economic growth, tripling in size in 15 years, which won Meles plaudits. The International Monetary Fund in 2008 said Ethiopia’s economy had grown faster than any non-oil exporting country in sub-Saharan Africa.
The prime minister forged close business ties with India and Turkey as well as China, which footed the $200m bill for the sprawling, new headquarters of the African Union in Addis Ababa.
Despite those gains, Ethiopia remains heavily dependent on agriculture, which accounts for 85% of employment. Per capita income is only about $1,000 – about $3 a day.
Meles is survived by his wife, Azeb Mesfin, an MP, with whom he had three children. State TV said funeral arrangements would be announced soon.