Meles Zenawi dies after weeks of illness

The announcement of the death of Ethiopia’s prime minister Meles Zenawi puts an end to several months of speculation about his absence from public life. However the announcement of his demise in the state-controlled media has not yet revealed either the cause or the place of his death. It is widely thought that he had been undergoing treatment abroad.

The death of Meles at the age of 57 leaves a gap at the top of the country’s government but also in the leadership of the sensitive east African region. Kenya’s prime minister Raila Odinga has already said that he fears for the stability of Ethiopia in the wake of Meles’ death.

Deputy prime minister and foreign minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, becomes acting prime minister for the time being.

Meles became president in 1991 after he toppled the ferocious Marxist Derg dictatorship, which had held power since 1975. He then became prime minister in 1995 after one-sided elections dominated by his Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).

He led the country to increasing prosperity, focusing first on the need for agricultural reform to end the continuing cycles of devastating famine. In recent years he has been behind the drive for large infrastructure projects such as roads, railways and above all dams in the north and the south of the country.

Much of his political and financial backing has come from the United States, which singled out Ethiopia, largely a Christian country, as the bulwark against increasing Muslim fundamentalism in the horn of Africa.

In recent years Meles cracked down on all opposition to his rule, especially after the contested 2010 elections. Since then most of his political opponents have either gone into exile, mainly in the United States, or have been imprisoned. He leaves a legacy of growing ethnic divisions throughout the country.