The highly active prime minister attended the Group of 20 summit in Mexico in June but had not been seen in public for about two months. Government officials were vague about his whereabouts, saying he was suffering from an illness after receiving medical treatment in an unspecified hospital in Europe.
Mr. Meles, a onetime Marxist guerrilla who redefined himself as an economic reformer, was a strategic U.S. military ally in the Horn of Africa. He allowed the United States to send drones from Ethiopian territory into neighboring Somalia. With Washington’s backing, he sent Ethiopian troops into Somalia to fight Islamist and other anti-American militants between 2006 and 2009.
His death plunged his impoverished nation of 75 million people into political uncertainty. Developments were being watched closely in Washington, which has provided more than $2 billion in aid to Ethiopia since 2010. The Washington area is home to more than 200,000 Ethiopian immigrants, the largest population of Ethiopians outside the country.
Historically known as Abyssinia, Ethiopia was a monarchy for much of its history and was ruled from from 1930 to 1974 by Emperor Haile Selassie I. He was replaced by Soviet-backed dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, who ruled from 1974 to 1991. The country has suffered droughts, famines and grinding poverty that led to violent dissent.
Like many modern African leaders, Mr. Meles began his dramatic rise to power when he joined an armed rebel group. He quit medical school at Addis Ababa University in 1974 and went to the bush to wage a revolution against Mengistu’s repressive communist regime.
At first, Mr. Meles fought briefly on the front lines with the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, which he helped mobilize when he was 20. He rose quickly to take over the leadership in 1989.
By that time, the Mengistu regime was deeply unpopular at home and abroad. Mengistu’s policies — neglecting regions and ethnic groups that did not support him — were said to have worsened a famine that claimed 1.5 million lives from 1983 to 1985.
Mr. Meles and a slew of united rebel groups, including those fighting to found a new Eritrean nation, finally overthrew Mengistu in 1991. Mr. Meles became Ethiopia’s president in 1991 and prime minister four year later. Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia once Mengistu had fallen.
Mr. Meles quickly backed away from his self-described “intellectual communist views” and became what the Ethiopian and foreign news media described as a “mellowed Marxist” pragmatic in courting Western donors.