ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s long-time ruler and a major U.S. counter-terrorism ally who is credited with economic gains but blamed for human rights abuses, died of an undisclosed illness after not being seen in his East African country for weeks, Ethiopian authorities said Tuesday. He was 57.
Meles died in a Belgian hospital Monday just before midnight after contracting an infection, authorities said.
Hailemariam Desalegn, who was appointed deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs in 2010, became acting prime minister and will be sworn in as prime minister after an emergency meeting of parliament, said Bereket Simon, the communications minister. Parliament is controlled by Meles’ ruling party and governing coalition, ensuring Hailemariam will be approved. No new elections will be scheduled, Bereket said.
The death is not likely to have an impact on the strong U.S. diplomatic and military relations with Ethiopia, given the hand-picked nature of the transition of power.
A European Union spokesman said that Meles died in Brussels. Officials had expected Meles to return to Ethiopia but a sudden complication reversed what had been a good recovery, Bereket said.
Meles hadn’t been seen in public for about two months. In mid-July, after Meles did not attend a meeting of heads of state of the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, speculation increased that his health problems were serious. Ethiopian officials gave no details and said the prime minister was in “very good” health and would return to office, but international officials said quietly it was unlikely he would recover.
State TV on Tuesday showed pictures of Meles as classical music played in the background. Simon called the death shocking and devastating and the country’s council of ministers declared a national day of mourning.
On Tuesday afternoon in Belgium, an Associated Press Television News crew saw a car containing a casket being driven from Saint Luc Hospital in Brussels. After stopping to pick up personnel at the Ethiopian Embassy, the car drove to a private airfield where an Ethiopian plane waited on the tarmac. Meles’ body was expected in Ethiopia later Tuesday.
Opponents of Meles accuse him of killing and jailing opposition members and of rigging elections. Ethiopia’s Somalia community in particular has suffered under Meles, who won his last election in 2010 with a reported 99 percent of the vote.
Reaffirming the U.S. commitment to Ethiopia, President Barack Obama said Meles deserved recognition for his contributions to his country’s development, including “his unyielding commitment to Ethiopia’s poor.” But Obama also encouraged Ethiopia to enhance its support for democracy and human rights.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Meles “will be remembered for his exceptional leadership and advocacy on African issues within and outside the continent, as well as for overseeing his country’s economic growth and development,” U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said.
Former U.S. president and Nobel peace laureate Jimmy Carter called Meles “a committed supporter” for two decades of the Carter Center’s work to improve the lives of Ethiopians that led to increased crop production, the training of 30,000 health workers, and programs to help prevent the spread of horrific diseases such as Guinea worm, river blindness and malaria.
Jose Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, offered his condolences and praised Meles’ development work, calling him “a respected African leader.” But he also expressed concern about the state of democracy in the country.
“I sincerely hope that Ethiopia will enhance its path of democratization, upholding of human rights and prosperity for its people, and of further regional stabilization and integration,” Barroso said in a statement.
Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga appealed to Ethiopians to “remain calm, maintain law and order and ensure the constitution is adhered to at this moment of transition.”
Born on May 8, 1955, Meles became president in 1991 after helping to oust Mengistu Haile Mariam’s Communist military junta, which was responsible for hundreds of thousands of Ethiopian deaths. Meles became prime minister in 1995, a position that is both the head of the federal government and armed forces.
The U.S. has long viewed Meles as a strong security partner and has given hundreds of millions of dollars in aid over the years. U.S. military drones that patrol East Africa — especially over Somalia — are stationed in Ethiopia. The U.S. goal for Somalia — a stable government free of radical Islamists — is in line with Ethiopia’s hopes.
Though a U.S. ally, Ethiopia has long been criticized by human rights groups for the government’s strict control, and Meles’ legacy is likely to be mixed: positive on the economic development side and negative on the human rights side, said Leslie Lefkow, the deputy director for Human Rights Watch in Africa.
Meles brought Ethiopia out of a difficult period following Mengistu’s rule and made important economic progress, she said, but the ruling party has been too focused on building its own authority in recent years instead of building up government institutions.
“I think on the human rights side his legacy will be much more questionable. The country remains under a very tightly controlled one-party rule and this will be the challenge for the new leadership, to take advantage of the opportunity that his death presents in terms of bringing Ethiopia into a more human rights-friendly, reform-minded style of leadership,” Lefkow said.
During Meles’ election win in 2005, when it appeared the opposition was likely to make gains, Meles tightened security across the country, and on the night of the election declared a state of emergency. Opposition members accused Meles of rigging the election, and demonstrations broke out. Security forces moved in, killing hundreds of people and jailing thousands.
In 2010 Meles won another five years in office while receiving a reported 99 percent of the vote in an election that the U.S. and other international observers said did not meet international standards.
Meles was the leader of a political coalition known as the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front. He was also the longtime chairman of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and has always identified strongly with his party.
“I cannot separate my achievements from what can be considered as the achievements of the ruling party. Whatever achievement there might have been, it does not exist independent of that party,” Meles once said when asked what he thought would be his legacy.
Under Meles, Ethiopia saw strong gains in the education sector with the construction of new schools and universities. Women gained more rights. And in the mid-2000s Ethiopia saw strong economic growth, which won Meles international praise. The International Monetary Fund in 2008 said Ethiopia’s economy had grown faster than any non-oil exporting country in sub-Saharan Africa.
Despite those gains, Ethiopia remains heavily dependent on agriculture, which accounts for 85 percent of the country’s employment. Per capita income is only about $1,000, or roughly $3 a day.
Human rights groups have long denounced Meles’ government for its use of arbitrary detention, torture, and surveillance of opposition members. The ONLF, an opposition group that mostly consists of ethnic Somalis, has openly clashed with the government, including in 2007 when Ethiopia sent troops to Somalia to fight al-Shabab militants.
The ONLF said Tuesday that Meles’ death is an opportunity for a new government to “initiate a new era of peace, stability, freedom and justice for the people of Ogaden and not to pursue the failed policies of the past.”
At the end of 2006, Somalia’s U.N.-backed government asked Ethiopia to send troops into Somalia to try to put down an Islamist insurgency. Ethiopian troops moved into the country and captured Mogadishu, but the Somali population rebelled against what it saw as an occupation and Ethiopian forces withdrew in 2009.
Ethiopia again sent troops to Somalia in early 2012 as part of an increased international effort to pressure al-Shabab.
Earlier in Meles’ tenure, from 1998-2000, Ethiopia fought a border war with Eritrea, a conflict that resulted in tens of thousands of deaths.
Meles grew up in the northern town of Adwa, where his father had 13 siblings from multiple women. He moved to the capital, Addis Ababa, on a scholarship after completing an eight-year elementary education in just five.
Meles was the third African leader to die in office this year, following deaths in Malawi and Ghana. He is survived by his wife, Azeb Mesfin, a member of parliament, with whom he had three children.
State TV said funeral arrangements would be announced soon.