Celebrated by donors as a visionary philosopher-king who brought development to his country of 75-million people, his domestic critics condemned him as an iron-fisted dictator.
Meles's Tigray People's Liberation Front had waged a successful war alongside the Eritrean People's Liberation Front to topple Soviet-backed dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. Meles came to power in 1991 and he supported Eritrea's independence in 1993, but within five years the former allies were fighting a bloody war that, by 2000, had resulted in nearly 100 000 deaths.
In power, Meles pursued a pragmatic course in a coffee-dominated economy, 30% of which still relies on foreign aid. There was a nationalist restriction on foreign banks combined with government monopolies in the energy and communications sectors, plus incentives for foreign leasing of agricultural land to produce food and flowers.
Meles often pursued an independent economic course based on a carefully considered strategy to commercialise small-scale farming and promote manufacturing. Rural schools and clinics grew in number and child mortality was reduced.
The late prime minister consistently called for fairer trade and an end to aid dependency in Africa. Ethiopia has had impressive annual growth – about 9% – for a decade. Yet Meles's critics say villagers were forcibly relocated to make way for foreign investors and poverty and food insecurity are still widespread.
Meles's ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front has remained the dominant political group in Ethiopia since 1991. In 2005 the opposition won 23 parliamentary seats in Addis Ababa, but the regime reacted harshly, killing 200 protesters and jailing 30000 opponents. Some were later tried for treason.
Five years later, continued repression – including a clampdown on the media and foreign-funded non-governmental organisations, as well as the use of draconian anti-terrorism laws – and a divided opposition ensured that the Revolutionary Democratic Front and its allies won 99.6% of parliamentary seats. More arrests followed these polls.
Meles's popularity was, however, hard to gauge in a country where the media and civil society are closely monitored. He announced he would step down in 2015, but had broken a similar promise in 2010.
Meles had so dominated Ethiopia's political system for two decades that a power vacuum now seems certain. No other political figure has the stature to hold together the fractious ruling coalition. His deputy since 2010, Hailemariam Desalegn, an engineer who also serves as foreign minister, is expected to take over as interim leader, but it is unlikely that the succession will be smooth. Much uncertainty lies ahead.
In foreign policy Meles used Addis Ababa's hosting of the African Union Commission to raise his international profile, representing the continent in the Group of Eight and the Group of 20. The United States has maintained close ties with Ethiopia, the pre-eminent military power in the Horn of Africa, benefiting from its experience and intelligence in fighting Islamist networks. Meles supported the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and has allowed Washington to send drones into Somalia from Ethiopian territory.
Ethiopia itself sent troops to Somalia to fight anti-US Islamists between 2006 and 2009 and has intervened sporadically since. It now forms the backbone of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Sudan's volatile Abyei region.
Ethiopia is also the largest African recipient of British aid. Meles, however, avoided dependence on the West by obtaining Chinese assistance for building roads, railways and dams and championing a Chinese model of development. He will ultimately be remembered as a pragmatic autocrat.
Dr Adekeye Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution in Cape Town. An earlier version of this piece was first published in the Guardian of London.