Meles Zenawi had just started speaking during a G8 summit in Washington last May when a heckler shouted out: “You are a dictator. You have committed crimes against humanity.”
At an event that underlined the Ethiopian prime minister’s standing as a friend of the West and economic reformer, the interruption highlighted the opposing view of a leader who to his enemies was an intolerant strongman with blood on his hands.
Silenced for a moment, Meles looked down and glowered.
A towering figure in Africa’s political landscape, Meles died late on Monday in an overseas hospital. He was 57.
Inscrutable to the last, the television announcement said he had succumbed to an unspecified infection following an undisclosed illness. It did not say where he had died.
He was born Legesse Zenawi in 1955 in Adwa, the site of Ethiopia’s celebrated victory against Italian colonial invaders in 1896. As his political convictions took shape, he took the nom-de-guerre Meles as a tribute to Meles Tekle, a young activist killed by the government.
By the time communist junta leader Mengistu Haile Mariam launched his Red Terror purge in 1977, Meles had long since ditched his medical studies and was fighting in the bush.
He cut a romantic figure as a leading light in the disciplined, almost ascetic, Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) guerilla movement as it launched raids on government forces from mountain hideouts.
Deep in the bush, the revolutionary won converts among visiting foreign journalists and dignitaries, briefing them on his plans to resolve the tensions plaguing the country’s ethnic groups and reform its ancient farming system.
His mix of urbane, under-stated charm and steely resolve learned on the front line stayed with him.
Aligned with other groups in the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), Meles’ rebels entered Addis Ababa after a rapid advance in 1991 that amazed locals. Mengistu fled into exile.
Meles led the country first as transitional president and later, after poorly contested 1995 elections, as prime minister.
”New generation” African leader
The West welcomed Africa’s youngest leader enthusiastically, grateful for his overthrow of a communist regime.
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton described Meles as being part of a “new generation” of African leaders. He was invited to join then British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s crusading Commission for Africa.
In power, Meles scorned the personality cults common among many revolutionaries turned leaders. There was a distinct absence of the official portraits so widespread elsewhere in Africa.
His austere approach mirrored his personal life. Insiders said he spent a lot of his spare time swapping emails with academic economists around the world.
In 2007, early copies circulated of a treatise he had found the time to write - a work criticizing what he called the “neo-liberal” economic model pushed on African by the West and promoting the more interventionist model of Taiwan.
“Meles was not the typical politician. He didn’t like to go out and mingle among the population,” David Shinn, former U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia (1996-1999) told Reuters.
“He basically had an agenda, things he was trying to accomplish and he devoted his time in power to that text.”
Growth and dissent
At home, his administration set about trying to pull Ethiopia out of poverty, pledging to drive growth and improve the lives of peasant farmers.
The Horn of Africa country embarked on a mass of energy and infrastructure projects. Meles forged close business ties with India and Turkey as well as Asian powerhouse China.
Between 2004 and 2011, economic growth barely fell below 8 percent a year.
But Meles’ record was been colored by his crackdown on dissent in the country with more people than Germany.
One defining event of his rule came during three days following his party’s contested election victory in 2005.
Students and activists, then gangs of street youths, went out to protest against what they saw as a stolen vote. Meles told the BBC he had given his security forces a simple order to confront the trouble: “Stop the insurrection.”
Hours later, images appeared around the world of dead youths, crammed onto trolleys in the corridors of Addis Ababa’s Black Lion hospital, many of them with bullet wounds.
The authorities went on to round up almost the entire leadership of an opposition group that had won an unprecedented number of seats in parliament.
In 2009 came an anti-terror law, under which more than one hundred opposition figures have been arrested. The government said it was tackling rebel groups that have links with al-Qaeda and arch-foe Eritrea, which won independence from Ethiopia in 1993.
Behind all the political wrangling, there was also the smoldering border conflict with Eritrea that flared into all-out war between 1998-2000.
In later years, the balding, bespectacled Meles showed signs of tiring of politics, repeatedly promising a retirement that never came.
“We are making progress on the economic front, though not necessarily according to the standard orthodox prescription,” he told Richard Dowden, Director of the Royal African Society, during an interview in May.
“I will retire in 2015 and probably teach at the leadership academy, maybe do some writing,” he said.