ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, an economic reformer condemned at home as an autocrat but hailed in the West as a bulwark against militant Islam, has died after a long illness, aged 57.
Twenty-one years after he seized power from a military junta, Meles died in a Brussels hospital late on Monday, ending months of rumor that he was gravely ill and prompting sharply contrasting reactions; the White House mourned his “untimely loss”, while opponents rejoiced at the death of a “tyrant”.
Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn will be sworn in as acting prime minister by parliament and the ruling party will meet to choose a successor but no date has been set.
Secretive to the end, it was left to officials of the European Union to disclose that Meles was being treated in the Belgian capital when he succumbed to an unspecified illness. Government spokesman Bereket Simon said only that he had been ailing for a year and died after being rushed to intensive care.
Meles had seized power in 1991 from Mengistu Haile Mariam’s military junta and went on to become a towering political figure on the continent. Widely credited for steering one of the world’s poorest countries to fast economic growth, he made his predominantly Christian country a close ally of Washington and twice sent troops into neighboring Somalia to fight Islamists.
“The death of Prime Minister Meles has robbed Africa of one of its greatest sons,” the African Union, which is headquartered in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, said in a statement.
Rights groups criticized him for cracking down hard on dissent but the West generally turned a blind eye to the repression, reluctant to pick a fight with a partner in the fight against al Qaeda-linked groups in Africa.
U.S. President Barack Obama offered condolences, praising Meles’s commitment to the poor and calling it an “untimely loss” for Ethiopia; British Prime Minister David Cameron described Meles as an “inspirational spokesman for Africa”.
In Addis Ababa, Ethiopians crowded into cafes to watch television coverage after a special news broadcast announced Meles’s death. An EU source said he had been a patient at the Saint-Luc University Hospital in Brussels.
His deputy Hailemariam said they had spoken only recently:
“He was recovering well, even taking part in light sporting activities. We were often in touch while he was recovering and we were optimistic that he would go on towards a full recovery,” he said. “Meles was one of a kind. It is very difficult to replace a man of his stature.”
A cortege accompanied by police outriders left a hotel next to the hospital, and took a casket, believed to hold Meles’s body, to a private Belgian airstrip near the city’s main airport. Belgian military officials and police were at the airport as the casket was loaded onto an Ethiopian Airlines jet.
Somalia’s al Shabaab militants, who encountered Ethiopian troops twice under Meles’ tenure, once in 2006-2009 and again from December last year, were jubilant: “He led the African leaders who had fingers in Somalia for two decades, but all in vain,” said al Shabaab spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage.
Government spokesman Bereket said Africa’s second most populous nation was stable and would continue on the path charted by Meles. The ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, will select his successor.
Negasso Gidada, who was president during Meles’ tenure and now chairman of the opposition movement Unity for Democracy and Justice, said he hoped the transition would be peaceful: “We urge the EPRDF to change for the good the political, democratic and human rights situation in the country,” he said.
David Shinn, a former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, said he expected many of Meles’ defense policies to remain the same: “For internal security reasons, there will be a continuing focus on Somalia and I do not foresee any significant change towards Eritrea,” said Shinn, referring to Ethiopia’s arch-foe.
A long-running conflict has fuelled tensions along their disputed border and both governments accuse each other of supporting the others’ rebel groups.
“What will happen to this problem, we leave to the incoming government of Ethiopia,” Eritrean Foreign Minister Osman Salih Mohammed said in South Africa, describing Meles as having been “instrumental” in the crisis.
Meles presided over a seven-year run of double-digit economic growth, advocating a mixture of heavy state spending and private investment.
He was widely applauded for ploughing money into infrastructure but criticized by some for selling off swathes of land to foreigners. Many Ethiopians complain that his close business ties with China did not translate into more jobs.
International rights groups criticized Meles’s handling of dissent. He rounded up numerous opposition leaders after the disputed 2005 polls and several opponents and journalists have been arrested under a 2009 anti-terrorism law. Late last year, two Swedish journalists were jailed for 11 years for promoting the activities of a rebel group and entering Ethiopia illegally.
“Today is a day of joy for most Ethiopians and all freedom loving people around the world,” opposition website Ethiopian Review said, describing Meles as a “genocidal tyrant”.
Former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said Meles’s death heralded a challenging time for Ethiopia.
“I ardently hope that the transition period will be smooth and peaceful and that Ethiopia sees leadership that reflects the aspirations of its people and realizes the potential of this extraordinary country,” Annan said in a statement.
State television said details of Meles’s state funeral would be announced soon.
Acting Prime Minister Hailemariam, 47, was an adviser to Meles in 2006 before being picked as his deputy in 2010. He had also replaced Meles as chair of a number of parliamentary committees in the past few years, a sign that he was being groomed for the post, diplomats say.