Mr. Meles represented Africa at Group of Eight, G-20 and climate change meetings. But his reputation quickly soured among human rights groups that documented killings of political opponents and the jailing of reporters. Mr. Meles also repeatedly broke promises to let others have a chance at governing.
“I would love to be the African leader that steps down, that overthrows this idea of a Big Man ruler. I don’t want to stay in office forever,” he told The Washington Post in the aftermath of Ethiopia’s May 2005 election, when 193 political protesters and seven police officers were killed during street demonstrations.
That week, top leaders of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy, the opposition party that had made significant gains during the election, were imprisoned along with an estimated 30,000 people in a vast crackdown.
Mr. Meles defended the arrests in the interview. “It was insurrection, and in my view that’s treason,” he said. “Democracy is about having the rule of law.”
In 2010, Mr. Meles and his party won reelection in a landslide, capturing all but two of 547 parliamentary seats. The European Union and the United States contended that the poll was flawed. Mr. Meles described an E.U. monitoring report as “trash that deserves to be thrown in the garbage.”
Meles Zenawi was born Legesse Zenawi on May 8, 1955,in the northern town of Adwa. As a young rebel later, he took the nom de guerre Meles to honor Meles Tekle, a Tigrayan nationalist student killed by Mengistu’s ethnic Amhara-dominated government.
Mr. Meles married Azeb Mesfin, a former rebel fighter in the liberation struggle. In addition to his wife, survivors include three children.
Even his critics acknowledged that Mr. Meles oversaw some of the fastest growth in sub-Saharan Africa, including the construction of roads and bridges, built in part with extensive foreign investment and the long-term leasing of large tracts of farmland to China and India, said John Harbeson, an African studies lecturer at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
At the same time, “there has been significant displacement of rural populations,” Harbeson said.
Mr. Meles once hinted at the personal stress of ruling when an Ethiopian journalist asked whether he thoughts his eldest daughter should go into politics. “If you have the fire, go for it,” he said. “If you do not, stay as far away from it as you possibly can, for your own health.”