By now, talks about the Ethiopian Prime Minister’s health could not be dismissed as mere rumors.

Of course, the rumor mill has never abated in years. Claiming his or his ministers misfortune is a favorite talk-point of some Ethiopian diaspora outlets. In deed, according to Google search, the Premier and a number of  key officials were reported as dead or in comma years ago. Similar rumors often spread in Addis, though the local press got to be cautious for obvious reasons. The latest of such cases would be the claim that Wikileaks will disclose the deteriorating heath conditions of Meles Zenawi. A rumor widely reported as a fact until Wikileaks released the full throve and discredit it.On June 17, 2012, Chinese President Hu Jintao met with Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in Los Cabos [Photo - China Foreign Ministry]

Thus, no wonder, the latest claim of Meles’s illness was subject to suspect, ab initio. But there were also several variables that equivocated the evidences brought to back up the claim.

The  first and oft-cited evidence the recent rumor is a photo taken after a meeting of the Prime Minister with the Chinese President on the sidelines the G-20 summit on June 17, in Los Cabos, Mexico. (see photo, on the right side, from China’s Foreign Ministry.) The photo is believed to shown a pale and thinner Meles Zenawi than the one we usually see. There was also a brief footage of the meeting, where the Premier appeared pale.

But the claim wasn’t given much weight. Perhaps because the footage didn’t get much, if any, coverage in the local media and was too brief to be conclusive at any rate. Though the photo was posted on state-owned media, it lacked clarity. Not to mention, the doubt casted by its publication on state media. In fact, curiously, Meles Zenawi appears more pale on the photo posted on ETV website than on the Chinese site. Looked like an indication of that the top brass are not worried about the rumor.   The credibility of the claim was further undermined as it was spearheaded by EthSat TV, an openly opposition activist outlet and allegedly affiliated with Ginbot 7, according to a US State Department report released last year.

Government spokesperson dismissed the claim on June 22, saying ‘the Prime Minister is good health, to my knowledge’. The spokesperson added, ‘the Prime Minister is carrying out his duties properly’. News reports of the Spokesperson’s reply had little effect, as the public knows better than to expect a timely info on a matter of this gravity. But, then, the Premier was reportedly in a meeting in Brazil that day.

The rumor got a new momentum by June 26, however. That is when the state-owned ETV aired a footage of the Premier meeting Somalia’s president Sharif Sheikh Ahmed in Addis Ababa. An already alerted audience was quick to pick signs of illness. Many agreed the Premier’s weight loss was too big to be deemed to be normal. The possibility that Meles might have started a diet, as suggestion by Fortune, only raises further question as to what forced him to embark on such a radical change.

Last week, the rumor mill received further boost  when the Parliament extended its session beyond July 7 – a date when its about three months long recess was suppose to begin. The extension was interpreted a result of the Prime Minister’s inability to go to parliament and defend next year’s budget bill, a task he personally carried out in the past two decades. This added weight to the rumor on the Prime Minister’s heath, though, in actuality, the extension was not unprecedented. The Parliament’s office claimed the extension was due to another planned event (exhibition?), but it was not taken seriously.

This week the Premier’s absence was even more visible: Especially with his absence in the celebration of South Sudan anniversary in Juba and the reception of foreign dignitaries. In deed, in the past two years, it has become customary to see his deputy, heir-apparent, Hailemariam Desalegne covering major events from UN general assembly to chairing the Council of Ministers. Yet, it is expected that Meles Zenawi would go to S.Sudan – a country of strategic significance to Ethiopia and where he is expected to use his personal clout to convince officials in Juba into taking a compromising stance towards with Khartoum. Similarly, PM Meles would wish to use his personal charm with Nick Westcott, EU Managing Director, who just arrived in Addis yesterday.

The afore-mentioned indicators may not be unexplainable – especially, when taken individually. After all, the PM was absent from public view only for 18 days. And, this is not unprecedented. In fact, he similarly disappeared in mid-September 2011 for almost 17 days skipping several events, as reported then in this blog. Though, there were no photographs then that suggest a health issue.

Tomorrow will be different, however.

Ethiopia is hosting of the African Union summit as of this week. The heads of governments are expected to meet tomorrow. A  document titled “Program of Event During the Period of the July 2012 Assembly of the Union – Addis Ababa, Ethiopia”, available online, indicated the Ethiopian Premier is expected on three events. Those are:

Banquet offered by H.E. Ato Meles Zenawi, Prime  Minister of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia [July 15, 2012  19.30 hrs]

Consideration of the Report of H.E. Mr. Meles Zenawi, Prime Minister of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia and Chairperson of NEPAD Heads of State and Government Orientation Committee (HSGOC)  – [July 16]

Consideration of the Report of H.E. Mr. Meles Zenawi, Prime Minister of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia and Coordinator of the Committee of African Heads of State and Government on Climate Change (CAHOSCC) on Africa’s preparation for the Climate Change Negotiations at the 18th Conference of Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) (COP 18) – [July 16]

However, this blogger learnt on Friday that the PM won’t attend the AU Summit, which will discuss his reports on Monday. It couldn’t be confirmed if he wi
ll receive the Egyptian President and also attend the banquet on Sunday. Yet, it appears unlikely.

While there is no official statement, the informally communicated explanation for this is: The Prime Minister needed rest. It is just exhaustion. But exhaustion is a very broad word – be it in its dictionary meaning  or medical sense. The cause can range from intensive diet or frequent meeting to an attempt to quit cigarette to, God forbid, cancer or treatments of cancer. Unsurprisingly, the latter is the primary explanation advanced by the diaspora media.

Upon writing this article, Tsedi Lema, editor-in-chief of the English language monthly magazine Addis Standard, came up with a breaking news on facebook:

President Makky Sall of Senegal confirmed that PM Meles was absent due to his health condition; Thomas Yayi Bon wished PM Meles a speedy recovery.
The 27th summit of NEPAD heads of state and government orientation committee (HSGOC) going on in the conspicuous absence of PM Meles Zenawi, Known by many as the lone mover and shaker of the beast. Among the 21 member countries, most are represented by their presidents and Prime Ministers. The meeting is chaired by the president of Senegal Maky Sall……
Present amongst the participants are president of South Africa, Cameroon, Namibia, Lesotho and Malawi. Ethiopia is represented by [Advisor to the PM] Ato Neway Gebre Ab.
[…the great team at Addis Standard are all here bringing you the latest.]

Let’s save for another day the question why the government chose the Ethiopian people hear about their leader from a foreigner.

The more urgent question is why they felt it necessary to delay the news this long – with an astonishing level of secrecy. Apparently, even some higher officials were left in the dark in the absence formal clarification.

One possibility would be, taking the worst case scenario, the PM and the officials needed time to ensure a smooth transition. The extension of the Parliament’s session then could be for something bigger than a budget bill.

But this is contradicted by several indicators as well as the absence of visible tension among key ministers, who were busy revising their budget in the past week. Not to mention, the alert level is not raised in the military and the federal police, nor is there a change in the personal security of key ministers, as would be expected  in a country that had no peaceful transition of power for about seven hundred years.

Another possibility is that the officials were hoping that the PM will recover sooner, at least in time for the AU summit. Thus, they might have planned to present the PM himself and redicule all the rumor. Yet, the non-appearance of the Premier do not necessary indicate ‘a deteriorating  health status’ as some were quick to claim.

It could simply be the case that he didn’t recover as fast as hoped. Given the significance attached to appearance in the Ethiopian public, the Premier’s public appearance, before getting his full stature back, might create the sense of power vacuum. Thus, a pre-mature appearance might be deemed dangerous than the rumor. The apparent calm among ministers’ and diplomats appears to support this possibility.


* editing were made to clarify the last paragraph (@12:40 am)

Check the Meles Zenawi archive  for related topics.

Daniel Berhane

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