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.
“They were this army of kids in shorts with huge afros, marching into the city,” an Addis resident told Reuters. “We didn’t even know who Meles Zenawi was.”
Ethiopians soon got to know the 35-year-old intimately when he took power, first as transitional president and later, after poorly contested elections in 1995, as prime minister of the renamed Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.
The EPRDF set about trying to change the desperately poor country, pledging to drive growth and improve the lives of peasant farmers. It introduced a system of ethnic federalism, opening regional parliaments and giving Ethiopia’s main ethnic groups the chance to govern the areas in which they dominate.
The West welcomed Africa’s new youngest leader enthusiastically, grateful for his overthrow of a communist regime and impressed with his obvious savvy.
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton said Meles was part of a “new generation” of African leaders and he was invited to join then British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s crusading Commission for Africa.
But Meles’ record of solid economic growth, poverty reduction and closer ties to the West is being marred by a crackdown on dissent, rights groups say.
The analysts who say the once bright hope for the continent has become autocratic blame two major incidents.
“CULT OF THE PERSONALITY”
The first came shortly after Ethiopia fought a bitter war with neighbouring Eritrea, a country that ceded from Ethiopia once Mengistu had fallen.
The war bred divisions within the TPLF central committee that soon spilled over into arguments about economic policy.
That row ended with 12 of the TPLF central committee expelled and some, including former Defence Minister Seye Abraha, ended up in prison on corruption charges.
The second test was Ethiopia’s last national elections in 2005, seen as the first poll that could be truly democratic. Meles and the EPRDF were caught off-guard by the rise of the ad-hoc Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD).
When the EPRDF claimed victory, the CUD cried fraud, street riots erupted and 193 protesters and seven policemen died. The CUD leadership was imprisoned.
Meles showed his stubborn streak under pressure from Western donors, refusing to back down and saying Ethiopia could survive without them if it had to.
“He intimidates Western ambassadors in Addis,” a junior diplomat told Reuters. “At their meetings, they bring up a subject and he just lectures them on it.”
Despite his “strongman” image, the voracious reader often shows flashes of wit and is well liked by those who work closely with him and by many senior diplomats.
“America didn’t give us money because of Somalia,” he said in reply to a question on whether the U.S. had given financial support to Ethiopian troops who entered the neighbouring country to oust an Islamist regime.
“This doesn’t mean America hasn’t given us money for food aid or HIV prevention before. It has. But we’re not going to fight Somalia using condoms.”
With the results of Sunday’s election seemingly a foregone conclusion, the father of three looks set to see out almost a quarter of a century in power. But he has always insisted it is the party and Ethiopia that count, not him.
“Africa’s downfall has always been the cult of the personality,” he once said. “And their names always seem to begin with M. We’ve had Mobutu and Mengistu and I‘m not going to add Meles to the list.”