News / Africa

Meles Zenawi Leaves Mixed Legacy After 20 Years in Power

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in Addis Ababa, January 27, 2012.
Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in Addis Ababa, January 27, 2012.
Gabe Joselow
NAIROBI — Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has died at the age of 57 after months of speculation about his health. State television announced his death Tuesday, saying he had been recovering overseas.  Meles leaves a mixed legacy after more than 20 years in power, having guided rapid development with one hand, while silencing all forms of dissent with the other. 

Rise to power

Meles came to power in a 1991 coup, as the head of an alliance of rebel groups called the EPRDF (Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front).

Their rebellion helped to end a harsh communist dictatorship, known as the Derg, during which time tens of thousands of government opponents were imprisoned or executed.

Meles has been praised for helping to dig Ethiopia out of poverty following years of civil war.

His ruling party has gone to great lengths to incorporate the United Nations Millennium Development Goals into its national policy.  According to the U.N., the country has spent 60 percent of its total expenditures on agriculture, education, health and other poverty-alleviating sectors in the last seven years.


Meles outlined his hands-on development philosophy in a speech at the U.N. General Assembly in 2010.

"We have taken full charge of our destiny, devised our own strategy, and maximized the mobilization of our domestic resources to achieve the Millennium Development Goals.  We made the best use of the limited available international assistance to supplement our own efforts," he said.

While Meles often dismissed the effectiveness of foreign assistance, external aid to Ethiopia averaged more than $3.8 billion per year between 2008 and 2011, according to the World Bank.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia Tibor Nagy described Meles as a visionary with a clear plan for his country's future.

"I had many private conversations with the prime minister and he's not shy in using words like 'Ethiopia cannot be a beggar nation' or 'If our people don't see certain progress in x number of years then we're all finished.'  He was very realistic about that and not afraid to articulate it," said Nagy.

US ally

Meles also was known as an ally with the United States in the war against terrorism.

But Nagy recognizes there were philosophical issues that were difficult to bridge, including the government's reluctance to relinquish control over telecommunications, to open up to private ownership or to allow foreign banks to operate in the country.

Human rights groups have long-criticized the Ethiopian government for suppressing opposition voices by limiting freedom of speech and assembly.

“Those rights have been steadily eroded throughout the leadership of Meles Zenawi, so we have a situation now where it's almost impossible in Ethiopia for people to express their opinions, to protest, to criticize the government, and in that context that means that the government continues to commit a wide range of human rights violations," said Claire Beston, the Ethiopia and Eritrea researcher for Amnesty International.

Beston says the rights situation really deteriorated after the 2005 elections, which opposition parties say was rigged.  Nearly 200 people died in post-election violence and protests.

In recent years, Ethiopian courts have sentenced journalists and opposition activists to lengthy prison sentences under an anti-terrorism law.


For nearly the entire Meles regime, tension between Ethiopia and neighboring Eritrea remained high.  The two countries fought a border war from 1998 to 2000 that killed more than 70,000 people.

The Ethiopian military has also twice intervened in neighboring Somalia to confront Islamist militants allegedly backed by Eritrea.

While Meles has been a strong and visible force behind the ruling party for the last 20 years, analysts say he also has groomed a number of younger politicians, including Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn - a technocrat with an engineering degree from a university in Finland.

Dr. J. Peter Pham, Director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington says any successor will have “big shoes to fill.”

“There is a shift in generation and whether that transition will be smooth, whether it will be successful remains to be seen.  But the fact that provision was made for a technically prepared next generation itself is, I think, another legacy piece," he said.

Photo Gallery: Meles Zenawi

  • The casket containing the body of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi arrives at the Addis Ababa International Airport, Ethiopia, August 22, 2012.
  • The body of Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is escorted upon arrival in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa early August 22, 2012.
  • Ethiopian women in black gather to mourn as the body of the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi arrived in Addis Ababa, August 22, 2012.
  • Ethiopians carry posters in Amharic reading "Meles We Love You" as they gather to mourn as the body of the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi arrived in Addis Ababa, August 22, 2012.
  • Ethiopian national flags fly at half mast in Addis Ababa, August 21, 2012.
  • Officials move a portrait of Meles shortly after the announcement of his death in Addis Ababa, August 21, 2012.
  • Ethiopian government spokesman Bereket Simon (R) makes the official announcement of Meles' death in Addis Ababa, August 21, 2012.
  • U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets with Meles at the London Conference on Somalia, February 23, 2012.
  • The late Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi arrives with his wife Azeb Mesfi for the 18th African Union Summit in Addis Ababa, January 29, 2012.
  • Meles speaks to reporters after meeting with Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf in Cairo, Egypt, September 17, 2011.
  • Meles and other world leaders pose during a group photo at the G20 summit in Toronto, Canada, June 27, 2010.
  • Meles lifts his cap to salute supporters of the EPRDF party at the Meskel Square in Addis Ababa, May 25, 2010.
  • A poster featuring the prime minister displayed in downtown Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, May 2010.
  • U.S. President George W. Bush chats with Meles during a meeting with Kenyan President Daniel Arap Moi for talks on combatting international terrorism, the White House, Washington, December 5, 2002.
  • German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder welcomes Meles to Berlin, Germany, February 5, 2002.
  • Meles and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet in Moscow, Russia, December 3, 2001.
  • UN Secretary General Kofi Annan with Meles before their meeting in the office of the prime minister in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, April 30, 1998.
  • Salim Ahmed Salim, Secretary General of the Organization of African Unity, meets with Meles in Addis Ababa, June 28, 1995.
  • Meles accompanies Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as he arrives at Addis Ababa's African Hall to attend a meeting, June 26, 1995.

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Comment Sorting
August 31, 2012 7:52 PM

by: Adiss Giba from: London
August 25, 2012 7:09 PM
Meles was a traitor and enemy of Ethiopia who voluntarily made Ethiopia land locked by giving Assab to his Eritrean cousins.

He was an advocate of Eritrea and the disintegrations of Ethiopia.
He was the half Eritrean Head of army who made the sacrifies of 100s and thousands of Ehiopians army meaningless by stopping the war movement towards Asmara and Asab just before it was finalised. This to protect his Eritrean cousins.
Death is less than he deserved. Only sorry he did not face Ethiopian Justice.

by: Mulu from: Seattle
August 22, 2012 11:29 AM
The paper can be straight forward. Instead of writing "Nearly 200 people died in post-election violence and protests". It could state that "Melles and his security killed 200 civilians in cold blood while they were protesting and arrested more than 30000 people in a single week". It is not fair to try to soften a crime he committed. After all, no one recently has killed 200 unarmed civilians in a single incident. Only Melles and his gangs.
In Response

by: Glad is gone from: ethipia
August 31, 2012 7:50 PM
come on so many bad things happen under this guy. If he were a good leader he would never wnat to be in power for more than 20 years. Thank God he is gone for good. I woulder who would take turn on us next.
pray harder Ethipian God is with us
In Response

by: Samuel Gebremedhin from: Ethiopia Hawassa
August 23, 2012 5:17 AM
of course, this happen not because of Meleses' leadrship only but also due to the arrogant thinking and mobilization scheme of opposition party. But I can asure you that the leadership of Melesse and his wonderful legacy will be reminded in minde of the whole people of Ethiopia. Donn't think the situation of Ethiopia has changed, don't try to tell us what you don't know But the nation, nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia know what would be best for them.

by: Samu from: AA
August 21, 2012 8:36 AM
Meles is personally a brilliant and disciplined guy but he is a man who after 20 years in power has failed to take us into a sustainable democratic system.
As head of state, he is responsible for the killing, torture, and imprisonment of thousands of political opponents. His party is responsible for the unfair economic resource distribution which favors party affiliated groups or persons.
We know he has achieved quite good results in the social, economic, and regional/international politics, but for a poor country like Ethiopia, first and foremost establishing a sustainable and democratic system is what matters most.
Had he and his colleges established a sound government system, we would not have worried as to what may happen now.
The bottomline, Meles is a failure!
In Response

by: Tina from: US
August 31, 2012 9:02 PM
I can't believe you said him failure! Do you really know what you are talking about. I don't live in Ethiopia and I have been only once there since Meles has been in power. I have been in the capital (ADDIS) and in provinces to visit my poor relatives. I heard what people say about him, how they learn the respect of any job from him. I witnessed the change in the country. He was the figure of success in Africa. Look at the mourning and preparation for his burial. He lived honored and respected and also died respectably. He is an example of being loved by his people. Please think what you are going to write and learn to write and talk the truth,
In Response

by: Tesfay Seyoum from: Mekelle
August 23, 2012 10:46 AM
My goodness,what kind of people are living in ethiopia? By the way,what party are you? Do you remember the past Derge regime? We know everything? Why we are cheatting for ourthelves. All Ethiopian citizes are living in the best peace,democracy and equal nations and natinalities.I do not know,if you are trying to live by falsfying and denying the truth.
I recommend you to go to Amanuel Hospital realy from my heart.
Do not try to turn others to the rabisg thoughts.
In Response

by: Jose from: AA
August 22, 2012 7:47 AM
Samu, You are an amazing guy just because your not a simple hater, I appreciate that. But, I completely disagree with you on what you said about PM Meles. FAILURE????? OMG !!!! I can't explain this this to a person as logical as you.

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