- By Adrienne KlasaAdrienne Klasa is an editorial researcher at Foreign Policy.
In an echo of death rumors that have periodically surrounded former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe this year, there’s increasing speculation about the whereabouts of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi after a local radio station pronounced him dead. Meles hasn’t been seen in public since mid-July, and confirming his whereabouts and condition has proved difficult.
The confusion hit a fever pitch on July 30 when Ethiopian opposition radio outlet ESAT announced it had confirmed that Meles had died. They claimed to have received the information from diplomatic and international sources including the International Crisis Group (ICG).
The news spread rapidly via social media, only to be denied by ICG in a July 31 statement on its website:
International Crisis Group has no direct knowledge about the state of health of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. Crisis Group has never commented on Mr Meles’s health or his fate, and is not in a position to speculate about it. Crisis Group categorically denies any media claims to the contrary.
Meles has ruled Ethiopia through a tightly controlled autocratic regime for 21 years, and many speculate that his demise would throw the ruling establishment into chaos as his lieutenants vie for leadership.
Of course, it’s not at all clear that Meles is dead, or close to death. According to his party, he’s just on vacation. Or sick. Or tired. The latest statement from an Ethiopian government spokesperson claims Meles is on the mend from his mystery ailment:
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is in "a good condition and recuperating", a government spokesman has told the BBC, dismissing reports he is critically ill.
However, Bereket Simon declined to give any details about Mr Meles’ whereabouts or what he is suffering from.
Mr Bereket had earlier been quoted as saying the prime minister, 57, was on holiday.
ESAT is sticking with its story that Meles is, in fact, very dead indeed and that it used other sources to confirm a tip from a protected source inside ICG:
ESAT’s decision to report that Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is dead, according to reliable sources, has never been easy. It was two weeks ago that we received the news from highly credible sources in Brussels. Our sources that want to remain anonymous as they were not authorized to speak to the media on this sensitive matter told us that the International Crisis Group (ICG) concluded that Mr. Zenawi was deceased.
As a responsible media outlet, ESAT tried to investigate and verify the tip meticulously before it decided to broadcast the news. To be fair to the facts, we have also scrutinized the conflicting and contradictory information coming out from the ruling TPLF clique.
Two other African presidents — John Atta Mills of Ghana and Bingu wa Mutharika of Malawi — have passed away this year shortly after going abroad for medical treatment. However, whereas the recent death of Atta Mills was clearly reported, Mutharika’s was rife with confusion. The president at one point denied early rumors of his demise by announcing to journalists: "I’m not dead.… I’m on holiday." He passed away six months later.
Although the truth will certainly come out eventually, at present it’s not clear whether Ethiopia is in a crisis of leadership or simply has a terribly uncoordinated government communications department.