Profile: Ethiopian leader Meles Zenawi

Meles Zenawi
Mr Meles is the African Union's spokesperson for climate change

By Uduak Amimo, BBC News, Addis Ababa

Ethiopia is a country under construction.

Drive out of the main Bole International airport in the capital, Addis Ababa, and you are immediately confronted by building works all the way down to the central Meskel square.

Leave the capital and your journey will no doubt be slowed down by road works.

It is all part of an ambitious program to industrialise the Horn of Africa’s most stable country over the next five years.

And that ambition belongs to the Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and his governing coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).

Mr Meles has led the country for 19 years, after abandoning his medical studies at the Addis Ababa University to help overthrow the communist government of Mengistu Haile Mariam.

In interviews with international media organisations last year, he said he wanted to step down and serve the party in a different capacity.

  • Led EPRDF rebels who ousted Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991
  • Married to a former liberation fighter
  • Seen as pro-Western
  • Criticises foreign interference
  • African Union’s spokesperson on climate change

Intolerance and disregard

But a congress of the EPRDF decided he could not go just yet, he had to stay on and help groom a successor.

Speaking to foreign journalists during one of his monthly news conferences, Mr Meles, 55, said he would respect the party’s decision.

Ethiopia’s prime minister returned to his books in the 1990s, obtaining an MBA from a British university and another masters in economics from a Dutch university almost 10 years later.

Since taking over the country’s reins, Mr Meles has steadily reduced Ethiopia’s reliance on foreign aid, but this still accounts for about 30% of the budget.

And despite a number of low-level insurgencies in the country, Ethiopia has remained the most stable country in the Horn of Africa.

But critics of Mr Meles say that his academic achievements and oratory blind Western donors to, what they say is, an intolerance for dissent, a disregard for civil liberties and a culture of political repression.

Sharp

His responses to media questioning of these issues reveal a sharp wit and an even sharper tongue.

But they also reveal a frustration with the image of Ethiopia and Africa in Western media.

When asked whether he would yield to international pressure to release jailed opposition leader Birtukan Mideksa, he parried with a question about the US handling of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.

Critics of Mr Meles complain that he disregards civil liberties

His frustration with foreign interference was the reason for the recent Charities and Civil Societies Law which limits external financing for local organisations and the areas they can work in.

The opposition say the law was designed to cut off their funding from the diaspora.

His government argues that the new anti-terror law was adopted wholesale from Western countries, but local journalists counter that the expanded definition of terrorism curtails their reporting.

Continental leader?

Mr Meles has emerged as a strong champion for Africa, representing the continent at a number of G8 meetings, Tony Blair’s Commission for Africa and in December 2009, the climate change negotiations in Denmark.

The African Union, which is based in Addis Ababa, has since retained him as its spokesman on climate change.

And on a continent overshadowed by the strong personality and deep pockets of his Libyan counterpart, Muammar Gaddafi, diplomats say Ethiopia’s prime minister holds his own.

He believes that African reliance on Western aid must stop and has argued forcefully for more trade on a level playing field.

Mr Meles is married to a former fighter in the liberation struggle, Azeb Mesfin, and they have three children.

When asked by a local journalist whether he would like to see his eldest child, a daughter, follow his footsteps into politics, his advice to her and other Ethiopian children was: “If you have the fire, go for it. If you do not, stay as far away from it as you possibly can, for your own health.”