Ethiopia's Meles: ex-rebel turned key regional strongman (UPDATED)

by Jenny Vaughan

ADDIS ABABA, Aug 21, 2012 (AFP) - Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, an intellectual ex-rebel vilified by some as a dictator but praised by others as a visionary, dominated politics at home and in the region for over two decades.

Meles, a sharp-witted and charismatic player in the volatile Horn of Africa region, died overnight Monday at the age of 57.

Iron-fisted and austere, Meles was propelled into the club of African rulers in power for more than 20 years by a landslide victory in 2010 elections, where he won 99 percent of the vote.

From the revolutionary who fought to topple Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991, Meles created a new persona for himself as the champion of Africa's economic and environmental rights on the international scene.

But while he cast himself as the much-needed strongman capable of lifting Ethiopia out of poverty, harsher critics charged that some of his actions were reminiscent of previous ruthless Ethiopian autocrats.

Born on May 8, 1955, Meles abandoned his medical studies before he turned 20 to join the rebel Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) to fight Mengistu.

After taking over the TPLF's leadership he forged a broader coalition with other regional movements to make up the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), now the country's ruling party.

With US backing, the rebellion toppled Mengistu's bloody dictatorship in 1991, a year after Meles abandoned Marxism.

The diminutive Meles, with his characteristic goatee and arched eyebrows, was one of the most recognisable figures on the African scene.

In the final decade of his life Meles challenged the world's powerful and spearheaded an African push for more fairness in key climate change talks.

While he was regularly singled out by rights groups as one of the continent's worst human rights predators, some Western observers took the pragmatic view that Ethiopia and the region needed Meles where he was.

Former US president Bill Clinton once called him a "renaissance leader", while a leaked 2009 US diplomatic cable described him as "quiet, deliberative and certainly not a 'man about town'", adding he was a "voracious reader and very introspective."

He was credited with Ethiopia's economic boom in the past decade, with economic growth shooting from 3.8 percent in the 1990s to 10 percent in 2010.

Meles, who earned degrees in business from Britain's Open University and in economics from Erasmus University in The Netherlands, used to list his hobbies as reading, swimming and tennis.

Unlike many of his fellow African leaders Meles never earned a reputation for having a taste for luxury.

On the domestic front Meles would regularly come under fire from human rights organisations who accused him of gross abuses against ethnic minorities, including Ethiopia's ethnic Somalis in the eastern Ogaden region where rebels have fought a long running insurgency.

Similar ethnic conflicts have boiled amongst the Oromo people in central Ethiopia, the Afar in the far east on the border with Eritrea, and the Anuak people near the border with South Sudan.

Meles would brook no criticism: in 2005, nearly 200 people died in a crackdown on demonstrations by the opposition, who accused Meles of rigging elections.

But some Ethiopians argued that he did what was necessary to stabilise the vast and ethnically diverse state.

The much criticised 2009 anti-terrorism law, which rights groups have said is far too vague and has been used to quash freedom of speech and peaceful political dissent, has seen multiple opposition figures and journalists, including two Swedes, jailed for lengthy terms.

The US-based Committee to Protect Journalists accused Meles of having used "the fight against terrorism as a cover to silent peaceful voices of dissent."

In the wider region, Meles was never afraid to make full use of Ethiopia's powerful and well-equipped army.

After overseeing the independence of Eritrea from Ethiopia in 1993 -- run by fellow ex-rebel fighters who had also fought to topple Mengistu -- Meles returned to war, with a 1998-2000 border war leaving tens of thousands dead.

A peace deal led to a tense standoff, with Meles refusing to pull troops from the border town of Badme, even after an international court ruled the town belonged to Eritrea. The town has been the source of festering discontent between the nations ever since.

Meles also invaded long time Ethiopian foe Somalia, sending troops and tanks to topple an Islamist regime in 2006, before pulling out the following year in the face of guerrilla attacks. He sent Ethiopian troops back into Somalia in 2011.

He was married to a former Tigray rebel fighter Azeb Mesfin, a member of parliament, women's activist and businesswoman, with whom he had three daughters and one son.