PM Meles Zenawi’s health: A new wave of rumor hits the web

The world wide web was hit by another wave of rumor, on Wednesday.

While officials said, as usual to foreign media,  that Prime Minister Meles Zenawi ‘is in good condition and will be back in about a week’, European media claimed he is now "critically ill".

Speculations on the Premier’s health seemed to calm down following official statements and media reports on Monday and Tuesday discredited the claim made by some diaspora media that the Premier died.

Indeed, David Arnold of the VOA wrote early on Wednesday (around 2 am) that:

Speculation about the health of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi may be coming to an end soon. After days of rumors and unconfirmed reports that Meles was gravely ill, or even deceased, tfhe Ethiopian government says it will clarify the situation at a news conference on July 18. The rumors and unconfirmed reports began last week and gained momentum when Meles did not attend a meeting of the African Union in Addis Ababa as expected. There was even speculation about who might succeed Meles if he could not finish his term in office in 2015.

The Government Communications Affairs Office said July 17 it will hold a press conference Wednesday at 3 p.m. in Addis to disclose Meles’ health condition.

Following the news of a scheduled press conference, some diaspora journalists and bloggers pondered on social media whether the Premier himself will make a public appearance. Editor of the now defunct-Addis Neger, Abiye Teklemariam commented “such an appearance [would] be a devastating blow [to] the opposition.”

On Monday morning, however, officers of the Communication Affairs office appeared unaware of the press conference. Later, higher officials told journalists that it will be held soon, thereby triggering speculations on the reason behind.

It appears the Office informed the journalist (or VOA) sometime after Tuesday 4pm local time. Thus, one possible explanation would be that the Office didn’t finish preparing talking-points. Another possibility would be the officials changed their mind after noticing the relative calm on Tuesday, thus convinced that they can buy a few days. In deed, as there is no official statement  on the state-media yet, they might have chosen to save the press conference for a day when the next wave of rumor surfaces.

The next wave, however, was only few hours away.

Shortly after noon time, Agence France Presse (AFP) came up with its first, yet alarming, news regarding the Premier. AFP claimed:

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was in a Brussels hospital in a "critical" state Wednesday, several diplomatic sources told AFP, but the Ethiopian government denied he was unwell.

"He is in a critical state, his life is in danger," said a diplomat who asked not to be named.

In Addis Ababa, however, government spokesman Bereket Simon denied reports that the 57-year-old premier was ill. "He is not in a critical state. He is in good condition," the spokesman told AFP.

In Brussels, the Ethiopian embassy refused comment.

Diplomats in Brussels said he had been undergoing regular treatment on a private basis at one of the city’s major hospitals and had been in hospital for some days.

[Note: Belgium-based websites indicated that AFP’s news is based on three Brussels-based diplomats, apparently foreigners.]

Perhaps, the wave started on Tuesday if it is correct, as claimed by Belgium’s news agency, that ‘the newspaper Le Soir that revealed information Tuesday, Meles Zenawi suffer from a serious illness’. In that case, the last minute schedule for a press conference was made after the officials learnt about that news on Tuesday. Though, that doesn’t explain the cancellation.

While all the news claiming that the Premier is in Brussels and in a "critical" state were solely based on AFP, however, the news by The Telegraph was slightly different.

It is to be recalled that The telegraph reported on Tuesday that:

A Western diplomat told the Telegraph that reports on Ethiopian opposition websites claiming he had died were wrong. "Mr Zenawi is in Brussels receiving treatment," he said. "Rumours that he has died are not correct."

On Wednesday evening, The Telegraph reported:

On Wednesday, a Western diplomatic source in Brussels told the Telegraph that he is now "critically ill".

"He is being treated as a private person and the information is confidential but it is understood that he is critically ill," the diplomat said.

The claim that the Premier is ‘now critically ill’ seems to indicate a new development after The Telegraph talked to its diplomatic sources on Tuesday. In that case, the cancellation of the scheduled press conference could be due to a sudden change in the Premier’s health condition.

In deed, I am assuming that AFP and The Telegraph did really received the info from diplomats and the diplomats are well-informed. But, these are risky assumptions that would be seriously questioned by anyone who knows the current state of the western media – i.e., understaffed, an increasing trend of sensationalisation and sloppiness on third world related reports.

Similarly, one may ask whether foreign diplomats based in Brussels would  closely follow-up the case of an Ethiopian Prime Minister. If so, how come they are not updating their colleagues – Addis Ababa based diplomats? The latter have been telling local journalists and foreign correspondents in Addis that the Premier’s condition is not worrisome (or has gotten better).

The European media also made contradictory suggestions regarding the nature of the Premier’s illness, on Tuesday.

While BBC indicated on Wednesday that:

there were reports that Mr Meles was in hospital in Belgium, suffering from a stomach complaint.

The Telegraph wrote:

Mr Zenawi is thought to be receiving treatment for an unspecified condition at the Saint Luc University Hospital in Brussels. The hospital is a centre for the treatment of blood or "haematological" cancers.

Diplomats in Addis, however, tipped journalists that the Premier’s had a surgery.

Meles could return in 10 days

The messages from Addis Ababa are strikingly different, however.

The Ethiopian officials are insisting that the Premier’s illness is minor and/or a case of exhaustion. While the state-owned media is silent on the matter, higher officials have been providing statement for the Voice of America (VOA) radio Amharic language service on a daily basis since Monday.

On Wednesday, Sebhat Nega, a founder and senior member of the ruling party, told the radio that the Premier may return home in ten days. Though Sebhat is not currently part of the leadership of the ruling party, he remains an influential and is believed to be a key power-broker.

VOA news blog reported Sebhat Nega’s statements as follows:

Mr. Meles’ friend and former ruling party leader, Sibhat Nega, told VOA the prime minister will be back in Ethiopia within a week.

He has not been seen in public for at least two weeks.

The government had scheduled a news conference Wednesday afternoon, but it was cancelled without explanation.

Nega said the government has been functioning normally during the prime minister’s absence.

The parliament passed the prime minister’s budget on Monday.

Nega said if anything happens to the prime minister, the parliament will choose a new leader after the ruling party presents its candidate.

All but one of the members of Ethiopia’s Parliament are part of the ruling party TPLF.

Similarly, the Ethiopian-Reporter, an Amharic bi-weekly with high circulation and believed to have sources in the ruling party, declared early on Wednesday that the Premier is in good health. The newspaper claimed that the First Lady returned home this weekend, as the Premier’s health improved. According to the newspaper, the Prime Minister is expected to return home soon.

Another note worthy development is that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, reported on Wednesday:

Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Hailemariam left for China yesterday evening (July 17th) to attend the fifth Ministerial Conference of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). The meeting is being held in Beijing from July 19th to July 20th.

Premier visited by colleagues

While the public have yet to be officially informed of the Premier’s illness and whereabouts, his colleagues have been visiting him.

BBC reported on Wednesday that:

the The Ethiopian embassy spokesperson in London said the prime minister had been visited by high-level officials, but did not say where he was being treated.

This was corroborated by the Ethiopian Reporter published early on Wednesday. The newspaper indicated further that the visitors were Abadula Gemeda, spokesperson of the parliament, Minister Bereket Simon, head of Government Communication Affairs Office, Seyoum Mesfin, Ethiopia’s Ambassador in China, and Girma Beru, Ethiopia’s Ambassador in US. All the four are senior members and deemed highly influential in the ruling party.



1. As this article is a news round-up and commentary of Wednesday, please read previous articles on the Meles Zenawi archive for background and previous posts.

2. The western media is making contradictory claims that the PM was last seen in public two weeks ago during the G20 Summit in Mexico. However, that meeting took place in mid-June. On the other hand, according to my information, the Premier’s last appearance was in Addis Ababa meeting Somalia’s President on June 26 in a news on the national TV.

3. The news by VOA, published early on Monday, claimed, in an apparent attempt to add credibility to the diaspora media, that:

First speculation about Meles’ health began in local and opposition media around the world in 2009, when he was reported receiving treatment for an unnamed illness in Dubai. Rumors about the severity of his health re-appeared in opposition media when Meles failed to attend several major public events in recent weeks.

In actuality, such rumors are posted on those media on a regular basis. One can find such claims as far back as 2006 and as recent as mid-2011.

Ethiopian-Review, the website that declared the Prime Minister dead, claimed on June 2006 that:

Meles Zenawi has been admitted at Hadassah Hospital in Israel. 20th June 2006 EPPF Information Center would like to confirm that the Weyane Prime Minister Melese Zenawi has been admitted at Hadassah Hospital in Israel. The current health condition of the Weyane Prime Minister is not yet known, but EPPF Information Center is working round the clock gathering further information.

[Note: EPPF is an Eritrea based insurgen
t group, of which Elias Kifle, owner of Ethiopian-Review, was its North American head. Elias was dismissed from the post at the behest of the Eritrean President, according to Indian Ocean Newsletter.]

Meles Zenawi has been admitted to a hospital in Tel Aviv Tuesday night, after suffering massive stroke. Meles was taken to Tikur Anbesa Hospital from his bedroom after suffering a mild stroke, anonymous sources closer to his wife said.
These same sources are saying that his doctors discovered that stress and depression apparently contributed to the stroke.

4. I intend to discuss in detail on the scenario of a post-Meles Ethiopia in the delayed second part of my article “PM Meles Zenawi’s health; How critical could it be?”.

However, I advise any commentator worth his sault to take a very good look at the résumé of dep. Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegne as well as the data in the Cabinet members archive  of this blog.

Though, I believe, the Premier will return safe and sound, thereby making it a mere intellectual abstract exercise.


Check the Meles Zenawi archive for previous and forthcoming posts.

Daniel Berhane

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