(OPride) –– After months of rampant online rumors and speculations about his health and whereabouts, the state-run media pronounced Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s strongman of two decades, dead. He was 57.
Born on May 8, 1955 at Adwa in northern Ethiopia, Zenawi has been the prime minister of Ethiopia for nearly 17 years. Prior to that, he served four years as the president of Ethiopia’s transitional government. The former rebel-leader dropped out of Addis Ababa University’s Medical School, where he studied for two years, to join the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front in 1974. He has been the chairman of both the TPLF and the ruling coalition, Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front, since 1989.
After the highly disputed 2005 election, Zenawi consolidated his grip on power acting against his critics without impunity. When his party won 99.6 percent of seats in the 2010 parliamentary election, many warned against the emergence of a strong one-man rule system. Since then, Zenawi’s regime has been widely criticized for using draconian laws to stifle free press and the civil society. Earlier in July , Ethiopia’s kangaroo court handed down heavy sentences to 24 dissidents, including prominent journalist Eskidner Nega. The country’s only functioning “media”, the Ethiopian Television and Radio, serve as megaphones for those in power.
Zenawi’s illness and weight loss first became apparent during his final international appearance at Group of 20 Summit in Mexico last May. Zenawi who is said to have been receiving treatment abroad, for what some say, cancer, has since been declared dead twice by dissident websites abroad.
According to the official statement, which was read on the national TV in six different local languages, the PM’s illness deteriorated on Monday after he was struck with an infection. The statemet did not specify where he died. Reuters later reported, citing European Economic Commission spokesman Olivier Bailly, Zenawi died Monday night in Brussels. Zenawi’s ailment, for which he has been receiving treatment abroad over the last two months, remains a mystery almost two days after he’d died.
The government statement praised the late prime minister as “great son of Africa and renaissance leader.” Officials insist there will not be major policy shifts and deny rumors of power struggle inside the ruling elite. Per that country’s constitution, the deputy Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegne, will work as acting PM until the parliament reconvenes shortly, government spokesman Berket Simon said in a press conference. Simon added that Desalegne would be a fully-fledged PM after the national parliament holds an extraordinary session. The government is now summoning all parliamentarians, he said. The ruling party’s general assembly, where the real PM is most likely to be elected, is scheduled for next moth. Although Zenawi had been quite ill for sometime, illness has never been a hindrance to the premier, according to Simon.
The state media’s announcement on Tuesday – after two months of downplaying the state of the premier’s health – had sparked a lively debate about the premier legacy. As African heads of states joined the quorum praising Zenawi’s economic development credentials and intellect, Ethiopians, mostly those abroad, who had run away fearing Zenawi’s two-decade long intimidation and imprisonment, turned to social media to offer their grievances. Others spoke of Zenawi’s mixed legacy. “He ruled Ethiopia with an iron-fist and engaged the international community through deceit and cunning,” said Lencho Bati, former spokesman for the Oromo Liberation Front. “Decades of paradox filled with hope and misery tainted his legacy.”
After taking over the reign of power from his predecessor, the communist dictator Mengistu Hailemariam, Zenawi ruled the country through an ostentatious self-rule where in reality all powers rested with the Tigrean elites. To subdue other nations and nationalities in the country, Zenawi systematically weakened and dismantled their political institutions.
Seen as a soft-spoken intellectual by donors, Zenawi was able to project Ethiopia as a linchpin of stability in the region. However, under his two-decade rule, Ethiopia invaded Somalia, twice, and neighboring Eritrea, in a border conflict that remains unsolved.