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Africa

Ethiopia's authoritarian ruler dead at 57

Ethiopia's prime minister Meles Zenawi had ruled Ethiopia since 1991 and his authoritarian style of leadership had invited frequent criticism from rights groups.

Meles Zenawi was born Legesse Zenawi on May 8, 1955, the son of a small holder farmer in Adua in the north of Ethiopia. He took the nom de guerre Meles as a tribute to Meles Tekle, a young activist killed by the government. He acquired academic qualifications with honors and would later display the knowledge he had acquired by delivering short lectures to visiting guests.

As a student of medicine, Meles (he was referred to by his first name as is customary in Ethiopia) was deeply interested in politics. He joined a Marxist cell becoming part of the movement that ousted Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974.

From rebel to prime minister

After Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam had seized power, Meles left university to join the guerrillas who were fighting to oust him. But ten years were to elapse before rebels from the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) would make substantial territorial gains. Finally, in May 1991, they were able to capture Addis Ababa, with active backing from the United States.

Mengistu Haile Mariam in Addis Ababa in May 1977

Mengistu fled to Zimbabwe in 1991. An Ethiopian court found him guilty of genocide in absentia

When the respected German newspaper Frankfurter Rundschau asked Meles if his country was now ready for democracy he replied haughtily "Don't the Europeans know that we had attained civilization while they were still hunter-gatherers?"

He did promise after the years of the "Red Terror" not to embark on a witch-hunt. Nonetheless his EPRDF cracked down hard on suspected Mengistu collaborators, journalists and opponents. Only twenty years later would former associates reveal in their memoirs the unscrupulousness with which this consummate tactician eliminated his opponents. Meles was elected prime minister at the beginning of the 1990s while Ethiopia was being hit by yet another famine. Human rights organisations criticized this ardent Marxist and continued to do so unrelentingly until his death.

Torchbearer for an African renaissance?

Two events ruined Meles' image as the harbinger of African renewal. They were the costly border war with Ethiopia's neighbor Eritrea between 1998 and 2000 and the rigged elections in 2005, in which 200 people died in anti-government protests.

"I fought for the right of the Ethiopian people to make genuine choices and today I am very proud," Meles said on polling day. Shortly thereafter, his security forces shot dead a number of student demonstrators.

When asked during a visit to Bonn, Germany, about the war with Eritrea, Meles said he didn't want to "wage any stupid wars anymore." Yet despite such assertions, saber rattling in the direction of Eritrea persisted. After the 2005 elections and the mass

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi with Azeb Mesfin, Picture: Samson Haileyesus, File/AP/dapd

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi with Azeb Mesfin at an AU summit in Addis Ababa in 2011

arrests of members of the opposition, human rights organizations continued to accuse him of despotism, corruption and of driving his opponents into exile.           

Mostly recently, in June 2012, 24 journalists, opposition figures and activists were convicted under the country's draconian anti-terror laws. A blogger was sent to prison for 18 years. Meles' government was also accused of misappropriating development aid for electioneering purposes.

Strategy in the wake of 9/11

When the United States intervened in Somalia in 2006, Meles was able to position himself as Washington's ally. His troops were able to beat back the Islamist militia in Somalia until their withdrawal in 2009. Meles was most adept at marketing Ethiopia, with its strategic location on the Horn of Africa, as a partner for the West in the struggle against terrorism. In return he received billions of dollars in military aid and Western diplomats refrained from being overcritical of his regime.  Meles was returned to power again in 2010 and his last period in office was dominated by a severe drought and hyperinflation. The government was able to avoid civil unrest of the sort that had erupted in north Africa, but repressive measures were tightened still further.

The two sides to Meles' character

The Ethiopian prime minister, whose hobbies included reading, swimming and tennis, and who impressed visitors with his excellent English, last appeared in public at the G20 summit in Mexico. This was a stark reminder of the two sides to Meles' character. At home he was a despot who ruthlessly nipped all opposition in the bud, abroad he was able to act the charismatic spokesman for Africa on topics such as climate change and its implications for the continent.

To his credit it must be said that he made efforts to improve health care and education in the country. Under his rule, Ethiopia was able to ascend the development indexes, even though unchecked population growth has reversed much of the progress that was made. Ethiopia has been enjoying an economic boom, although those who profit from it the most are members of Meles' party.

State of health

Rumours about Meles' ill-health had been circulating for some time. He took several trips abroad for medical treatment. When he failed to appear at an African Union (AU) summit in Addis Ababa earlier this year, it was taken as a sign of his imminent demise, despite denials from his spokesman.

Meles Zenawi died on Tuesday, 21 August, 2012. He is survived by his wife Azeb Mesfin, who is a member of the EPRDF Central Committee and runs several large state enterprises, and three children.              

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