Meles Zenawi, the Ethiopian prime minister praised for overseeing one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies and criticized by human rights advocates, has died from an infection after being sick for weeks. He was 57.
Meles had been recuperating at a hospital overseas from an undisclosed ailment when he died late yesterday, government spokesman Bereket Simon said in a phone interview today from the capital, Addis Ababa. Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn is now serving as acting prime minister, Bereket said.
“He was recovering from an illness and then suddenly got an infection while abroad,” Bereket said without giving further details.
Meles, was head of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, or EPRDF, and led Africa’s second-most populous country for more than two decades after building a coalition of rebel groups to overthrow Mengistu Haile Mariam’s Marxist military junta in 1991.
His economic policies, which mixed a large state role with private investment, helped the country achieve economic growth rates of as much as 12.6 percent. The economy expanded an average of 11 percent annually from 2004 through 2011, according to International Monetary Fund data.
“Meles showed that, with the right policies in place, even a poor African country could experience sustained economic growth,” Joseph E. Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate in economics, wrote in “Globalization and Its Discontents,” his 2002 book. “No one doubted his honesty and there were few accusations of corruption within his government.”
Infrastructure was one of the biggest beneficiaries of increased government spending, foreign investment and remittances sent home by Ethiopians living abroad, including the flagship 80 billion-birr ($4.5 billion), 6,000-megawatt hydropower dam intended to help the country boost electricity exports to countries in the region including Kenya and Sudan.
Meles took a leave of absence from his official duties to recover from an unspecified illness after he failed to attend the African Union summit last month, the government said.
Ethiopia ranked 174th out of 187 countries in the United Nations Development Program’s 2011 Human Development Index, which measures life expectancy, education and living standards. Four of every 10 people lived on a $1.25 a day or less as of 2011, World Bank data show. In 2011, the country was Africa’s biggest recipient of foreign aid, totaling $3.53 billion, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Under Meles, Ethiopia’s government was a U.S. ally in the fight against insurgencies in the Horn of Africa, especially in Somalia, where the military helped remove an Islamist group from power in 2006. The U.S. government provided $6.23 billion in assistance, including food aid and military training funds between 2000 and 2011, according to the U.S. State Department.
The UN and advocacy groups including Human Rights Watch, based in New York, have criticized Meles’s government for cracking down on civil liberties and introducing anti-terrorism laws in 2009 that have been used to jail opposition politicians, reporters and aid workers.
On July 13, 2012, an Ethiopian court jailed writer Eskinder Nega for 18 years and sentenced opposition activist Andualem Arage to life in prison for plotting against the government. In 2011, two Swedish journalists were sentenced to 11 years each by an Ethiopian court for supporting terrorism after being captured with a banned rebel group.
Elections in Ethiopia have been marred by violence and reports of intimidation of opposition supporters, according to the U.S. State Department. In 2005, Ethiopian security forces shot dead almost 200 people protesting the results of a disputed parliamentary vote. In 2010, Meles’s ruling party and its allies won all but two of the 547 seats in parliament in a vote that the European Union said was “heavily” balanced in favor of EPRDF.
While Meles championed deeper African cooperation, hosting the African Union headquarters in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, and raising the continent’s profile on the world stage in different forums including through his appointment to Commission on Africa by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, he also faced foreign policy challenges from neighboring countries.
The country fought a war with Eritrea over a disputed border region between 1998 and 2000 that killed 70,000 people and the issue unresolved.
Meles was born as Legesse Zenawi on May 8, 1955, in Adwa in northern Ethiopia, to an Ethiopian father and Eritrean mother. Adwa was the site of a major Ethiopian victory against invading Italian forces in 1896. He quit medical school at age 19 to take up arms with the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front against Mengistu in 1975. He changed his name to Meles in honor of a revolutionary executed by the government that year.
He received a master’s of business administration from the Open University in Milton Keynes, U.K., in 1995 and a master’s in economics from Erasmus University in Rotterdam in 2004.
He and his wife, Azeb Mesfin, had three children.