Death of polarising PM leaves Ethiopia in limbo

Much-feted leader of 21 years who transformed nation killed by brain tumour, reports say

Months of speculation over the health of Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi ended today with official confirmation that he was dead.

The news was greeted quietly by his supporters, triumphantly by those who have called him a dictator and with concern by those who argue that he was the most capable and influential African leader of his generation.

The official explanation of the passing of the 57 year old leader was a “sudden infection” but reliable sources report that Mr Meles had been in Belgium undergoing lengthy treatment on a brain tumour.

Whatever the truth of his illness a leader whose energetic presence on the international scene saw him christened the “voice of Africa” has been silenced. His legacy will now be furiously argued over.

Under his stewardship for the last 21 years Ethiopia has moved from a largely feudal agricultural economy in ruins after a civil war into an industrialising nation and star performer with annual growth rates in recent years of over 10 per cent. The image of the Horn of Africa nation as a perennial famine victim has been supplanted more recently by its role as a donor darling and destination for foreign investors keen to cash in on the continent's phenomenal growth.

A pugnacious highlander from Ethiopia's Tigrayan minority, Legesse Zenawi ditched his medical studies to join the armed struggle against the Derg dictatorship. By the time of the ouster of Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991, the would-be doctor was known by his nom de guerre

“Meles” and was the leader of one of the main rebel factions, the TPLF. He would go on to assume power with a revolutionary agenda of rapid modernisation.

An Anglophile who graduated from a British-style private school in Addis Ababa, he later picked up a degree from the UK's Open University. A voracious reader who was able to quote large chunks of Shakespeare, he will be remembered by diplomats and foreign leaders as one of the sharpest minds in the conference hall. “In terms of his sheer intellect and as an individual he will be very difficult to replace,” said former US Ambassador to Ethiopia David Shinn.

The immediate task of doing so will fall to his deputy and foreign minister Haile Mariam Desalegn who has been acting premier since Mr Meles went on “sick leave” last month. Mr Desalegn is a southerner whom many observers believe to be a stop-gap while the northern and Tigrayan clique who surrounded the dead prime minister decide what to do next.

Over the last seven years Mr Meles' reputation as one of the “renaissance leaders” feted by Tony Blair and Bill Clinton has been tarnished by increasing repression on the home front. Ethiopia's opposition parties seized on comparatively open elections in 2005 and appeared to take a strong lead in voting in the capital Addis Ababa. When the results showed a clear win for the ruling EPRDF party the government cracked down heavily on popular protests resulting in the deaths of more than 200 people. As many as 30,000 people were arrested and almost all opposition leaders were then jailed. In the years that followed the press was muzzled, non-governmental organisations and unions were gutted and millions of ordinary Ethiopians were left with little choice but to join the EPRDF if they wanted food aid or favours from the powerful central government.

Mr Meles refused to apologise for the tough approach saying recently that “for the first time in Ethiopia's history” the government's writ runs to every village in the country.

As well as the journalists who have been jailed or driven into exile there has been mounting concern over a string of mega-dams meant to generate electricity for commercial farms which have been handed up to 3m hectares of land. Human rights groups appealed to the government in Ethiopia to use the transition to open up more democratic space.

“The country’s new leadership should reassure Ethiopians by building on Meles’s positive legacy while reversing his government’s most pernicious policies,” said Leslie Lefkow from the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

However, few analysts expect any immediate instability after Mr Meles' long-trailed departure. “Ethiopian society hasn't been open for the last 2000 years and it can go on like that without a complete eruption,” said Mr Shinn. The departure of the United States' most staunch ally and regional policeman will worry Horn of Africa watchers as Ethiopian troops are deployed in Sudan and neighbouring Somalia. It could also lead to an increase in tension with Eritrea with whom Ethiopia has fought a low-intensity war.

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