Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was born on 8th May 1955 in Adwa, Tigray, in northern Ethiopia, to an Ethiopian father from Adwa and a mother from Adi Quala, Eritrea. He received elementary education at the Queen of Sheba Junior Secondary School and completed his High School in 1968. In 1972, he then joined the Medical Faculty of Haile Selassie I University (now Addis Ababa University) where he studied medicine for two years.
A pre-medical student, he interrupted his university studies in 1974, to join the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) which was set up when the student Tigraean National Organization decided to launch armed struggle against the military dictatorship, the Derg, in February 1975. His first name at birth was "Legesse". He later changed his name to Meles, in honour of a student activist and fellow Tigrayan "Meles Tekle" who was executed by the Derg (military dictatorship) in 1975.
In 1995, Meles acquired a First Class MA in Business Administration from the UK's Open University and in 2004 an MSc in Economics from the Erasmus University of the Netherlands. In July 2002, he received an honorary doctoral degree in political science from the Hannam University in South Korea.
Prime Minister Meles Zenawi received various international awards for setting up a good foundation for the development of Ethiopia and for his contributions to global peace and his effort to stabilize the Horn of Africa.
- Before he joined the Medical Faculty of Addis Ababa University, he was awarded the Haile Selassie I Prize Trust, a highly selective award given only to the most outstanding graduating students.
- The Rwanda government awarded Prime Minister Meles Zenawi Rwanda's National Liberation Medal, the "Uruti", in July 2009 for helping to liberate Rwanda and end the genocide in the country. Alongside two other African leaders, Meles was also given Rwanda's highest accolade, the "Umurinzi" medal, Rwanda's Campaign Against Genocide Medal.
- Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was awarded the World Peace Prize for his contributions to global peace and his effort to stabilize the Horn of Africa through cooperation with Inter-Governmental Authority for Development (IGAD).
- Tabor 100, an African American entrepreneur's organization, honored Prime Minister Meles Zenawi for his contribution toward economic and social transformation in Africa with its prestigious Crystal Eagle International Leadership Award in April 2005. Tabor 100, a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization, calling Meles Zenawi "international leader of the year 2005", also honored the efforts of the Ethiopian government in general for its war on poverty and backwardness.
- Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was awarded the Good Governance Award of the Global Coalition for Africa for leading Ethiopia along a democratic path during the challenging period of transition. He was selected for the good governance award by the US-based Corporate Council on Africa.
- Prime Minister Meles Zenawi received the Norway-based 2005 Yara Prize for Green Revolution (Yara) for initiating a good foundation for economic progress in Ethiopia, particularly in the agricultural sector, where the poor country has doubled its food production. During the award ceremony held in the Norwegian capital of Oslo, the director of the UN project for Africa said, "With our support, Ethiopia can lift itself from poverty and hunger. Under Prime Minister Meles the country has created the grass roots structure to enable this to happen." Honorable Meles donated his $200,000 US Dollars, a financial prize given to him along with the the Green Revolution award by the Norwegian Yara Foundation in September 2005 to a foundation called "Fre-Addis Ethiopia Women Fund" (Fre-Addis Ethiopia Yesetoch Merja Mahiber). The Fre-Addis Ethiopia Women Fund has an objective "to empower girls through providing educational opportunities" and it currently supports 514 needy and orphan rural girls to pursue their education throughout the country.
- Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was given the Africa Political Leadership Award of 2008 by the US-based newspaper, Africa Times. Previous winners of the award include Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela and others.
- Ethiopia's military honored Prime Minister Meles Zenawi for his leadership during the 1998-2000 war with its northern neighbour when Eritrea invaded Ethiopia in 1998.
- Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was honored by residents of the historic and ancient town of Axum, in Ethiopia, for his political and diplomatic leadership role in the return and re-erection of the Obelisk of Axum after a 68-year stay in Rome, Italy.
- Prime Minister Meles Zenawi received a Gold Order of Merit award from the Confederation of African Football (CAF) in February 2007. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was given the CAF organisation's highest award for his services in advancing the progress of African football. Ethiopia was one of the founding countries of the CAF (1957) and the organization, with the dedication of AU leaders like Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, was celebrating the International Year of African Football in 2007.