* Rose from bush war fighter to towering political figure
* Oversaw Ethiopia's economic transformation
* Key Western ally in volatile Horn of Africa region
* Rights groups, opposition criticised strong leadership
By Aaron Maasho
ADDIS ABABA, Aug 21 Ethiopian strongman Meles
Zenawi led one of Africa's most populous nations for more than
two decades, steering it along the path of economic growth while
clamping down on dissent.
A towering figure in Africa's political landscape, Prime
Minister Meles died late on Monday aged 57 at an overseas
hospital where he had been recovering from an undisclosed
illness for two months, state-run television said on Tuesday.
He was born Legesse Zenawi in 1955 in Adwa, the site of
Ethiopia's most celebrated victory against colonial invaders
Italy in 1896. He took the nom-de-guerre Meles as a tribute to
Meles Tekle, a young activist killed by the government.
But the time Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, the head of the
Communist junta that ruled the country from 1974 to 1987,
launched his Red Terror purge in 1977, Meles had ditched his
medical studies and was fighting in the bush.
He was a rising figure in the Tigrayan People's Liberation
Front (TPLF) that he helped found as a 20-year-old, which then
aligned with other groups to form the Ethiopian People's
Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition.
The EPRDF entered Addis Ababa in 1991, much to the amazement
of the locals.
Meles led the country first as transitional president and
later, after poorly contested elections in 1995, as prime
minister of the renamed Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia,
winning renewed mandates in 2005 and 2010 in polls that rights
groups said were rife with violations.
GROWTH AND CRACKDOWN
The West welcomed Africa's youngest leader enthusiastically,
grateful for his overthrow of a communist regime and impressed
with his urbane manner.
It also came to value him for the central role his country -
home to one of Africa's biggest armies - played in regional and
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
At home, the EPRDF set about trying to pull Ethiopia out of
poverty, 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.
Under Meles' leadership, the Horn of Africa country also
embarked on a mass of energy and infrastructure projects, while
hospitals and schools throughout the country have surged
Officials expect economic growth of 11 percent for the
2011/2012 fiscal year that ended in June, thanks to rising
agricultural output, the seventh consecutive fiscal year of
growth. However, inflation remains stubbornly high, hitting 20
percent in July.
Meles forged close business ties with India and Turkey as
well as Asian powerhouse China, which footed the $200 million
bill for the sprawling, new headquarters of the African Union.
The former rebel has made key contributions to regional
security, twice sending troops into Somalia to battle Islamist
rebels, while Ethiopian peacekeepers have been deployed in
several African hotspots such as Sudan's Darfur and Abyei
But Meles' record of solid economic growth, poverty
reduction and closer ties to the West has been coloured by a
firm crackdown on dissent.
Following the disputed polls of 2005, Ethiopia rounded up
almost the entire leadership of an opposition group that won an
unprecedented number of seats in parliament and jailed them for
life for treason.
In 2009 followed an anti-terror law, under which more than
one hundred opposition figures have been arrested. The
government insists it is tackling rebel groups that have links
with al Qaeda and arch-foe Eritrea.
More than 10 journalists have also been charged under the
law, according to the Committee to Protest Journalists. The
group says Ethiopia is close to replacing Eritrea as the African
country with the highest number of journalists behind bars.
Two Swedish journalists were jailed for 11 years on charges
of entering the country illegally and aiding a rebel group.
Navi Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner of Human Rights, has
slammed the verdicts, saying journalists, human rights defenders
and critics were facing a "climate of intimidation".
Meles responded with trademark defiance, labelling the duo
as "messengers boys of terror groups".
During the Group of Eight summit in Washington last May,
Meles was interrupted soon after he started to speak: "You are a
dictator! You have committed crimes against humanity!" a member
of the audience said.
The bald, bespectacled strongman, visibly shocked at first,
tried to continue talking before staring down, stony-faced.