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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
election 2015The 10 best quotes of the campaign
A caravan being used as a polling station in Ford near Salisbury, during the 2010 election
election 2015The Independent's guide to get you through polling day
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month
voicesWhat I learnt from my years in government, by the former Home Secretary David Blunkett
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'