By Emily Wax
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who was once hailed as a major U.S. ally against terrorism but whose 21-year rule was tarnished by the killing and jailing of political protesters and a grisly border war with former ally Eritrea, died late Monday while being treated abroad for an undisclosed illness. He was 57.
The death was announced by Ethiopian state television, which said only that Meles died shortly before midnight after contracting an infection. The government did not specify where he died, and the circumstances of his death were laced with intrigue.
The highly active prime minister, who attended the Group of 20 summit in Mexico in June, had not been seen in public for about two months.
Government officials were vague about his whereabouts, saying he was suffering from an unspecified illness after receiving medical treatment in an undisclosed hospital in Europe.
Meles, a onetime Marxist guerrilla who redefined himself as an economic reformer, was a strategic U.S. military ally in the Horn of Africa. He allowed the United States to send drones into neighboring Somalia from Ethiopian territory.
With Washington’s backing, he sent Ethiopian troops into Somalia to fight Islamist militants and other anti-American fighters between 2006 and 2009.
His death plunged his impoverished nation of 75 million people into political uncertainty. Developments were being watched closely in Washington, which has provided more than $2 billion in aid to Ethiopia since 2010. The Washington area is also home to more than 200,000 Ethiopian immigrants, the largest population of Ethiopians outside the country.
Historically known as Abyssinia, Ethiopia was a monarchy for much of its history and was ruled from 1930 to 1974 by Emperor Haile Selassie I. He was replaced by Soviet-backed dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, who ruled from 1974 to 1991. The country has suffered from droughts, famines and grinding poverty that led to violent dissent.
Meles’s dramatic rise to power began when he joined an armed rebel group. He quit medical school at Addis Ababa University in 1974 and “went to the bush” to wage a revolution against Mengistu’s repressive communist regime.