"A thousand years from now, when Ethiopians gather to welcome the fourth millennium, they shall say the eve of the third millennium was the beginning of the end of the dark ages in Ethiopia," he said to an ululating crowd.
The speech was not only important because of the ambitious vision it outlined, but because it took place just two years after the episode that will likely overshadow his achievements more than any other -- the disastrous and bloody 2005 general elections.
It's hard to overstate the fervor of that campaign. Ethiopians who had never lived in a democracy before were promised their first properly contested poll since Meles and his allies sent Mengistu fleeing to exile in Zimbabwe.
In the end, when Meles declared that his party had won a parliamentary majority, the opposition screamed fraud. In ensuing street riots, his police and soldiers killed almost 200 Ethiopians, most shot dead. Some were beaten to death.
The reaction from Meles was cold. He was sorry for the deaths, he said, but he'd simply told the security forces to "stop the insurrection." These were not normal demonstrations, he insisted. Afterwards, opposition leaders were rounded up and jailed.
With the opposition out of the way, along with several journalists, he ploughed on with the day-to-day running of government. His economic achievements, and his role as an opponent of Islamism in the Horn of Africa, pleased Western donors, most of whom usually offered little more than a temporary slap on the wrist.
That's not to say that Meles's attempts at reform were all mere window-dressing. The premier and his government did much to let the light in. Under his watch, a safety-net system -- a form of social welfare, he called it -- for the country's millions of hungry people was introduced, which, while unsuccessful at weaning them off foreign aid, ensured that the calamitous famine of 1984 and 1985 would never be repeated.
Economic successes continued even after the political turmoil of the 2005 elections. Under the leadership of this former Marxist guerrilla, Ethiopia became one of the fastest growing economies not only in Africa but in the world, posting double-digit growth figures for the last seven years in a row. Infant mortality plummeted. A small middle class emerged. Roads were built. Rivers dammed. Villages electrified. Despite this undeniable progress, most Ethiopians remained poor -- something Meles insisted he was working toward eradicating with a series of five-year plans.
Masterful at dealing with Western governments, he cleverly played off their own security concerns and their rivalry with China and India, to which he also cozied up. There were few African leaders who could berate their donor countries while simultaneously holding out their palm for more aid money, but Meles had the chutzpah to carry it off.
These achievements are even more remarkable given the fact that, according to a Western intelligence officer who knew Meles when he was still a bush rebel and after he came to power, the premier entered office knowing almost nothing about economics.
"When I had my final conversation with him after spending the better part of two months in Ethiopia immediately after he took over in the summer of 1991, I asked Meles what he would like me to do to help him before I left," the man recounted.
"I need to learn something about economics," Meles told him. "Can you get me some basic books?" The intelligence officer then went to an embassy, looked through its library, and picked about a dozen volumes and had them delivered to the new leader.