His death at age 57 leaves a major power gap in the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia has played a key role in the fortunes of many of its neighbours, as well as host to the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa.
The African Union hailed Meles for his promotion of economic growth, as well as his role as peace-maker between Sudan and South Sudan and his support for the fight against Somalia’s Al-Qaeda-linked Shebab insurgents.
“The death of Prime Minister Meles has robbed Africa of one of its greatest sons,” said AU commission chair Jean Ping’s office in a statement.
“He has played an important role in pioneering a new era of hope and growth in Africa, driven as he was by the vision of Ethiopia and Africa’s renaissance.”
European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso said Meles “demonstrated his strong personal commitment over many years to improving the lives of not just his own but all African peoples, through his work on African unity, climate change, development and in promoting peace and stability.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron hailed Meles “as an inspirational spokesman for Africa on global issues” who had “provided leadership and vision on Somalia and Sudan”, while French President Francois Hollande praised his “contribution to diplomatic efforts to advance peace in the Horn of Africa.”
South Sudan’s Information Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin said Meles had been key in mediating the country’s post-secession rows with former civil war foe Sudan.
“He was one person who could say in black and white what the position of both countries was — and was respected by both,” Benjamin said.
Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki called Meles a “pragmatic and visionary” leader who helped stabilise his country, adding that his death was a “devastating loss”, while South African President Jacob Zuma lauded Meles as “a strong leader, not only for his country but on the African continent”.
Asuman Kiyingi, Uganda’s state minister for regional cooperation, said his country was “shocked and saddened” by Meles’s death.
“He has been so instrumental in finding solutions to African problems,” Kiyingi told AFP, noting Meles’ support for African Union forces battling the Shebab.
Ethiopian troops invaded Somalia for a second time last year — after a US-backed invasion in 2006 — and Ethiopia is supporting an AU force’s fight against the Shebab.
In contrast to the praise from world leaders, rights groups have criticised Meles’s legacy, accusing his government of using anti-terrorism legislation to stifle peaceful dissent and freedom of expression.
Nearly 200 opposition members and journalists were jailed under the disputed legislation in 2011.
“The government and the next prime minister should take the opportunity for change represented by the succession of Meles Zenawi to move towards a greater respect for human rights,” Claire Beston, Amnesty International’s Ethiopia researcher, told AFP.
The 2009 anti-terrorism law has seen several opposition figures and journalists, including two Swedes, jailed for lengthy terms, and should be overturned, said the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
“Ethiopia’s leadership should demonstrate its commitment to human rights reform by taking urgent steps to amend or repeal some of the most damaging legislation, including its anti-terrorism laws and restrictions on civil society,” said Leslie Lefkow, HRW’s deputy Africa director.
“It should release the scores of political prisoners who are unlawfully detained and make clear that the transition will result in a meaningful opening of political space.”
Somalia’s Shebab insurgents meanwhile celebrated the demise of a longtime foe who has twice sent invasions to fight the country’s Islamists.
“The death of Meles was uplifting news for Somalis, we wish Allah will punish him for what he did to our people,” spokesman Ali Mohamud Rage told the insurgent-run Radio Andalus, which dedicated a special programme to Meles’s death and broadcast messages from supporters welcoming the news.
Meles, a former rebel fighter who came to power in 1991 after toppling the bloody dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam, died in hospital in Brussels, officials said.