By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN | Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s repressive prime minister, who lifted his country from the ruins of civil war and transformed it into one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies and one of the United States government’s closest African allies, died on Monday, state television reported. He was 57.
The Ethiopian authorities said he had died just before midnight in a hospital “abroad” — a European Commission spokesman told reporters that it was in Brussels — after getting a secondary infection. His failing health had been a matter of secrecy for months.
A former rebel leader who had dropped out of medical school in the 1970s to fight Ethiopia’s former Communist government, Mr. Meles was lauded for his shrewdness and intelligence. He was known to be a voracious reader, able to digest mountains of statistics rapidly and quote Shakespeare at length. He worked closely with Washington to combat Muslim extremism in the Horn of Africa, though there were growing complaints, even among his backers, about his penchant for violence in quashing dissent.
In the 1990s, Mr. Meles was widely hailed as a pivotal member of the “new generation” of African leaders who had overthrown dictators and would usher in democracy. But while he was praised for his development efforts, he was accused of concentrating power after becoming prime minister in 1995, boxing out rivals and creating a fearful atmosphere in which criticism was not tolerated and journalists and opposition politicians were jailed.
Hailemariam Desalegn, the minister of foreign affairs and deputy prime minister, will become the new premier, the government announced on Tuesday. It was considered unlikely that he would command the same authority as Mr. Meles, and some were sure to see him as little more than a figurehead for a government that remains controlled by Mr. Meles’s Tigrayan ethnic minority group from northern Ethiopia.
Many analysts said they did not expect drastic policy shifts and predicted that Ethiopia would remain a close American ally.
Mr. Meles vanished from public view in June, and Western officials had said he had liver cancer. But in mid-July the government’s chief spokesman, Bereket Simon, scoffed at the notion that Mr. Meles was seriously ill, saying that “his health condition is very good and stable” and that he was just “taking some rest.”
Meles Zenawi was born on May 8, 1955, and grew up in the northern town of Adwa. He moved to the capital, Addis Ababa, on a scholarship. He is survived by his wife, Azeb Mesfin, a member of Parliament, with whom he had three children.
Ethiopia is widely considered one of Africa’s most repressive governments, though it continues to receive more than $800 million in American aid each year. American officials have said that the Ethiopian military and security services are among the Central Intelligence Agency’s favorite partners in fighting Muslim extremism in Africa.
Last year, the Ethiopian government sentenced two Swedish journalists to 11 years in prison after they were caught inside the country traveling with a rebel group. This year, it jailed a prominent Ethiopian journalist on vague terrorism charges.
In the past few months, the Ethiopian government has been accused of killing and displacing members of traditional groups who live in the Omo River valley in southern Ethiopia so that the government can build a large hydroelectric dam and lease land to foreign sugar companies.
Mr. Meles was seen as the mastermind behind many of his government’s plans. While human rights groups vilified him, some development experts celebrated him, saying Ethiopia had vastly better famine-prevention programs than it did when Mr. Meles’s insurgent group seized power in 1991.
Under Mr. Meles, Ethiopia has invested heavily in public infrastructure and branched into competitive businesses like flower farming.
Ethiopia has been one of the fastest-growing non-oil-dependent economies in the developing world, with the economy expanding above 7 percent last year. Though the country remains poor, with a per-capita income of a little more than $1,000, some credited Mr. Meles with making strides toward the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. Others have complained that food aid, jobs and other social benefits were often withheld from farmers, teachers and other people who supported the opposition.
Mr. Meles played an outsize role in the region, recently trying to help broker peace between Sudan and the newly independent nation of South Sudan.
Josh Kron contributed reporting from Kampala, Uganda.