Ethiopia's Meles on road to 25 years in power

Fri May 21, 2010 5:27pm GMT

By Barry Malone

ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Meles Zenawi, a young rebel who dropped out of medical school to go to war against east Africa's biggest army, had contracted malaria and was close to death, hiding near a river in remote northern Ethiopia.

His father, the story goes, turned up with some medicine just in time to save his son's life. He begged the idealistic guerrilla to abandon the war and come home.

Meles refused and the next time he saw his family was 17 years later when he emerged as leader of Ethiopia after the fall of Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam.

"He believed in the struggle," a party colleague in Addis Ababa told Reuters. "He had a desire to see a better Ethiopia. Despite what some say, he still does."

The 55-year-old has now been in charge of one of Africa's most complex countries for almost 20 years and is expected to win national elections again on Sunday, amid accusations from opposition groups of widespread intimidation.

Meles was born Legesse Zenawi in 1955 in Adwa, the site of Ethiopia's most celebrated victory against Italian invaders in 1896. He took the nom-de-guerre Meles as a tribute to Meles Tekle, a young activist killed by the government.

When Mengistu announced the start of his Red Terror purges in 1977, Meles was already in the bush and a rising figure in the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) that he helped found as a 20-year-old.

The TPLF would ultimately succeed, and after aligning with other groups and forming the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition, entered Addis Ababa in 1991, much to the amazement of the locals.   Continued...

<p>Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi attends a news conference at the 20th World Economic Forum on Africa in Tanzania's commercial capital Dar es Salaam May 6, 2010. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya</p>
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