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Controverisal Ethiopian Leader Meles Zenawi Is Dead

Ethiopia announced the death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi on Tuesday, August 21.
Khaled El-Fiqi
Ethiopia announced the death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi on Tuesday, August 21.

Ethiopia's longtime ruler, prime minister Meles Zenawi has died of an undisclosed illness. He was 57. Meles, as he is known, was a long-time ally of the U.S. and seen as a strong bulwark against terrorism.

Meles twice sent Ethiopian troops into chaotic, neighboring Somalia, to fight Al Qaeda linked rebels, most recently last December. He's been praised for fast tracking economic development to hasten his country's growth: but as VOA reports, to speed development plans, he also cut off all political dissent.

Human Rights Watch has a blistering assessment of his government, saying since Meles took power in 1991, Ethiopia "has seen a sharp deterioration in civil and political rights". Critical political speech is punished, as are the rights to association and assembly. HRW says that's weakened the Ethiopian judiciary system and muzzled reporters.

The organization says the Meles government is guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity, as Ethiopian troops attack civilians, forcibly resettle residents away from their homes and jail journalists for life for reporting on the government's actions.

There were rumors of Meles' ill health for several weeks, notes Reuters. He was a no-show at an African Union summit meeting in the capital of his own country last month.

Last month, an Ethiopian newspaper was blocked from reporting on his deteriorating health because it would incite "national insecurity and endanger the government and public", notes the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The government wouldn't even say where he was receiving medical treatment, although Reuters says it was Brussels. Media reports from Ethiopia say deputy prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn will become acting prime minister.

Meles, who formerly headed an Ethiopian rebel group, came to power via a coup against the country's military junta in 1991. His own government was later credited with a huge economic turn-around. Bloomberg says Ethiopia's economy grew, on average, 11 percent a year between 2004 and 2011. It's a change from the early eighties, when devastating famine killed millions (giving rise to the Live Aid concerts).

Meles also attracted investment into agriculture and manufacturing, and private business has zoomed. According to the Wall Street Journal, there were almost no private businesses in Ethiopia in 1991; presently, there are an estimated 45,000 businesses.

And, as the New York Times notes, Ethiopia, as a U.S. military ally, gets about a billion dollars of U.S. aid annually.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Korva Coleman is a newscaster for NPR.

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