One of the West’s staunchest allies in Africa, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, has died from a mystery illness with no clear successor in line to take power.
“Prime Minister Meles Zenawi passed away yesterday evening at around midnight,” said Bereket Simon, the country’s Information Minister.
Mr Meles, 57, had not been seen in public for two months, and had been reported to have been sick in a hospital in Brussels, although Mr Bereket gave no details of the illness. He was last seen in public at the G20 summit in Mexico in June.
“He had been recuperating well, but suddenly something happened and he had to be rushed to the ICU (intensive care unit) and they couldn’t keep him alive,” Bereket added.
According to Ethiopia’s constitution, Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn is to “act on behalf of the prime minister in his absence”.
Government officials are expected to hold a press conference later on Tuesday.
Mr Meles, a sharp-witted and charismatic player in the volatile Horn of Africa region, died overnight Monday at the age of 57.
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.
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 per cent 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, Mr Meles abandoned his medical studies before he turned 20 to join the rebel Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) to fight Mengistu.
Speculation over his health had mounted in recent weeks and the 57-year-old had not appeared in public for the past two months.
His officials, led by Bereket Simon, a close friend of Mr Meles and Ethiopia’s communications minister, had denied that he was ill and insisted instead he was “taking a rest” and would be back to work “soon”.
But state television announced early on Tuesday that Mr Meles had died in a hospital abroad – believed to be in Brussels – after complications following treatment for an unspecified illness.
He led the continent’s second-most populous country for more than 20 years, after marching into its capital at the head of a guerrilla army to oust Marxist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991.
He became a “donor darling”, whose country was slated to receive £1.3 billion in British aid between 2010 and 2015.