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, the Ethiopian government says it will clarify the situation later.
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.
Then on Monday, Ethiopia’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister, Hailemariam Desalegne, confirmed that Meles was indeed ill, but refused to elaborate or say what the illness might be. The speculation increased again.
Meles has been the dominant political figure in this nation of approximately 93 million people since the rebel forces of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front entered the capital, Addis Ababa, in 1991 and ended the 14-year dictatorship of Mengistu Hailemarian. Meles has for more than 20 years served as chairman of the TPLF and the larger Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front that now holds all but one seat in the national parliament.
Until Monday, the government declined comment on Meles’ health. His hand-picked deputy, Desalagne, yesterday told a Bloomberg News correspondent in Addis, “There is no serious illness at all.” He said Meles would “return soon,” but did not talk about the nature of the illness or where the nation’s leader was receiving treatment.
The ambassador for public diplomacy, Getachew Reda, also gave a VOA reporter in the Amharic language service the same account, and refused to identify the illness and where the prime minister is being treated.
Rumors about Meles’ health abound
In a nation where the government maintains strict control over the local media, unconfirmed reports have surfaced in recent days on Ethiopian dissident web sites around the world that the prime minister suffers from cancer, a brain tumor and even that he might be dead.
One unverified report is that Meles has recently received treatment at Saint-Luc University Hospital in Brussels. The hospital did not reply to a VOA request for information about whether Meles was or had recently been a patient there.
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.
Out of public eye for two weeks
Although he was scheduled to open a New Partnership for Africa’s Development in Addis on Saturday, Senegal, Macky Sall, took his place and announced that Meles could not attend due “to health conditions.” Meles also failed to appear on Sunday at the opening of an African Union summit of more than three dozen African leaders at the Addis Ababa headquarters, where the prime minister usually plays host.
Earlier, Meles did not attend the July 9 celebration of neighboring South Sudan’s independence day, and failed to appear to address parliament on July 8 to approve Ethiopia’s current fiscal budget. State television did not include footage from a crucial July 16 parliamentary debate on the next budget, leading to speculation that he did not attend that state function either.
The Meles legacy and possible successors
Prior to his 2010 election, Meles publicly considered retirement but later said that the party pushed him to run for another five-year term.
During his current term Meles has risen in stature as an African leader in United Nations agencies and in the international community on issues such as climate change and economic development. He has launched major development programs in Ethiopia such as foreign investment in large commercial farmlands and the construction near the Sudanese border of the massive Grand Millennium Dam on the Abay River, which is a major source of Nile waters.
Many of these projects have stirred controversy within Ethiopia and among many in the Ethiopian diaspora. Although Ethiopia has been seen as a close U.S. ally for its support of anti-terrorism efforts in Somalia and the region, the State Department has been critical of his government’s human rights record, the manner in which the government ran recent national elections, and of stifling free speech through swift use of new anti-terrorism laws. Those laws recently resulted in lengthy jail sentences for many Ethiopian journalists.
Meles first served as president of Ethiopia for four years, then chose to become prime minister. The role of president, now held by Girma Woldegiorgis, is considered largely ceremonial.
Possible successors as prime minister include:
- The minister of health, Dr. Tewodros Adhanom Gebreyesus, whose leadership on health issues has garnered global attention. He is a close friend of Meles.
- Meles’ wife, Azeb Mesfin, who is a member of parliament and the party’s powerful nine-member executive committee.
- Hailemariam Desalegne, who is a former president of a southern region of Ethiopia who Meles elevated to national office in 2010.