Ethiopian PM Meles Zenawi dies after illness


Meles Zenawi was interviewed by the BBC in 2008

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Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has died aged 57 in a hospital abroad, the government says.

It did not give details but an EU spokesman later told journalists Mr Meles had died in Brussels, Belgium.

Mr Meles had not been seen in public for weeks and speculation about his health mounted when he missed a summit in Addis Ababa last month.

His deputy, Hailemariam Desalegn, becomes prime minister until elections due in 2015, state media reported.

Mr Meles took power as the leader of rebels that ousted communist leader Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991.

He is credited with spearheading economic development in Ethiopia - but, critics charge, at the price of respect for human rights.


Meles Zenawi's death will have repercussions far beyond his country.

He was undeniably central to everything in Ethiopia - the good and the bad, the economic growth and development, as well as the repressive climate denounced by opposition politicians and journalists.

But he also played a key role in the region.

Since Mr Meles took power in 1991, Ethiopia has seen Eritrea secede, then fought a war with the new country. It also twice sent troops into Somalia to fight militants linked to al-Qaeda.

Ethiopia also has peacekeepers in Abyei, the border region claimed by both Sudan and South Sudan.

Political leaders in all these countries will be carrying out rapid calculations about what Mr Meles' death means for them.

The West has also lost a key ally in the Horn of Africa.

Now the attention will switch to whether Mr Meles built a strong enough system to outlast him.

He was austere and hardworking, with a discipline forged from years spent in the guerrilla movement - and almost never smiled, says Elizabeth Blunt, the BBC's former correspondent in Addis Ababa.

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said Mr Meles was an "intellectual leader for the continent", and UK Prime Minister David Cameron called him "an inspirational spokesman for Africa" who had lifted millions out of poverty.

But a spokesman for al-Shabab Islamist militants in Somalia - where Mr Meles twice sent troops to fight - told Reuters news agency they were "very glad" of his death, saying Ethiopia was "sure to collapse".

Ethiopia's Council of Ministers announced "with great sadness the untimely death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi" in a statement, state TV reported.

The statement said Mr Meles had been receiving medical treatment abroad for the past two months and that his health was improving. But he developed a "sudden infection" on Sunday and despite emergency treatment, died at 23:40 on Monday.

European Commission spokesman Olivier Bailly later told a regular news briefing that Mr Meles "passed away during the night here in Brussels".

Start Quote

It's a very, very sad day for the people of the Republic of South Sudan and the people of the East African region as a whole”

End Quote Barnaba Benjamin South Sudanese Information Minister

Over some eight weeks that Mr Meles had been absent from the public eye, concerns about his health had grown, and in July he was said to have been admitted to hospital.

Reports suggested he was in hospital in the Belgian capital suffering a stomach complaint but these were never confirmed by the Ethiopian authorities.

Three weeks ago, government spokesman Bereket Simon dismissed reports Mr Meles was critically ill, and declined to give any details about Mr Meles's whereabouts.

A period of mourning had been declared until the funeral, for which no date has been announced.

State television said his body would be flown to Addis Ababa later on Tuesday.

Instability concerns

Mr Hailemariam, who is also Ethiopia's foreign minister, will become acting prime minister, government spokesman Bereket Simon told reporters.

He said an election was not necessary as the "constructional procedure" allowed for Mr Hailemariam to "kick off as a full-fledged prime minister".

In an earlier news conference, Mr Bereket said Mr Meles had struggled with illness for a year, but he had continued to work regardless.

Concerns have been expressed - including by Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga - that Mr Meles's death could lead to a power vacuum and dangerous instability in Ethiopia.

But Mr Bereket insisted the country was stable and that "everything will continue as charted" by the late prime minister.

This theme was echoed by state television, which stated that "even if Ethiopia has been badly affected for missing its great leader, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi initiated fundamental policies and strategies which will be further strengthened".

Ethiopia's economy has grown rapidly in recent years, despite the secession of Eritrea and the subsequent war between the two countries.

Meles Zenawi

  • Emerged from Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), which carried out armed struggle against Communist military regime in 1970s and 1980s
  • Became president in a transitional government in 1991 and then prime minister in 1995
  • Married another TPLF veteran, Azeb Mesfin, and had three children
  • Under his leadership, a closed and secretive country gradually opened to the outside world
  • But reputation tarnished in 2000s amid increasing repression in Ethiopia

Under Mr Meles, Ethiopia became a staunch US ally, receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in aid over the years, and hosting the US military drones that patrol East Africa.

He won accolades from the West for sending troops to battle Islamist militants in Somalia, says the BBC's James Copnall.

But concern had been growing about the lack of democracy and human rights in Ethiopia, our correspondent in the region says.

At least 200 people died in the violence that followed the 2005 elections, and many journalists and politicians have been locked up.

One rights critic, Commander Assefa Seifu, called Mr Meles "a devil incarnate".

"He was always talking about democracy, civil rights, adherence to [the] constitution and the like. But it was only a lip service," he told the BBC.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 229.

    It is a great loss for us, Ethiopians. We know where we were and our leader has showed us to where we are heading and how to get there. His visions are now ours (Ethiopians). As a leader our PM has done what he believed is best. I regret he has died prematurely.Now, it is up to us to ensure the realisation of our common dreams, or to toss it and make it a nightmare. Less talk, more commitment ...

  • rate this

    Comment number 227.

    Zenawi might be gone but the apparatus that crimminalizes free speech and opposition still exists. It's never been about Zenawi himself as much as his political party that jealously grips the soul of an entire nation. I am sure everything will remain the same. This is an issue for the Ethiopian people themselves to grapple with. When will their "Arab Spring" happen?

  • rate this

    Comment number 171.

    We all Ethiopians living here in addis knows what we lost today despite some of those who lived abroad and wish to hear hate and see public riot as their daily morning news feed. Even tho we lost our great leader and mentor, we have already learned how to respect and live together as a strong nation.Zenawi has created so many strong individuals who can lead and maintain stability. THANKS & RIP

  • rate this

    Comment number 169.

    Brilliant, for his success regarding the economic development, very poor regarding human rights and democracy. May he rest in peace!

  • rate this

    Comment number 163.

    Finally he even is mortal. I am not happy b/c he is dead! I am happy he step down from power!! We are not even confident to use the social medias. His government is against anyone who try to express freedom of press!! Now he is dead but Ethiopia will live forever!!
    One dictator is gone, we do not want to see another dictator to take the power!! we had enough!!!!


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