Updated July 20, 2012
Ethiopia says Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is taking “sick leave” but will remain in power while he deals with an unspecified illness.
Government spokesman Bereket Simon briefed reporters Thursday in Addis Ababa, following media reports that the Ethiopian leader was critically ill at Saint Luc Hospital in Brussels, Belgium.
Bereket specifically denied reports on Ethiopian dissident websites that Meles has brain cancer. The spokesman did not identify the prime minister’s illness or say where he is being treated, but said he is in “good and stable condition” and remains in charge of the government.
A government statement said Mr. Meles’ sick leave was prescribed by his doctor, and noted he will resume work when he recuperates.
“You wouldn’t make a statement like that – that is so open-ended – unless the problem is significant” Shinn said. He noted he has no information about the prime minister’s health.
He added that Meles is the kind of leader who plans ahead. And if he is ill, he says the 57-year-old prime minister likely has a plan in place.
“I’d be willing to bet very good money that he has been planning some way to deal with this issue in order to ensure some kind of reasonable succession of government in Ethiopia,” said Shinn.
Meles has led Ethiopia for more than 20 years, since taking power in a 1991 coup. He has not been seen in public for more than two weeks, and did not attend an African Union summit last Saturday and Sunday in the Ethiopian capital.
In an interview with VOA, Sibhat Nega of Ethiopia’s ruling party said Meles is in better shape than reported.
“I can tell you for sure that there is no undesirable eventuality regarding his health,” he said. “I am 100 percent sure that he’s recovering health-wise, and he will be back to his official duty in a number of days.”
Nega’s statements are consistent with those of government officials, who said Wednesday the prime minister is sick, but not gravely ill.
Nega, who is a friend of the prime minister’s, said the government has been functioning normally during Meles’ absence, insisting that the “system does not depend on one person.”
The Ethiopian government said Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is receiving medical attention at an undisclosed hospital outside of Ethiopia. There are reports that Mr Meles was in hospital in Belgium, suffering from a stomach complaint, according to BBC. (Photo: EPA)
By James Butty
July 19, 2012
A founding member of Ethiopia’s ruling Tigrai People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) party said ailing Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is receiving medical treatment in an unnamed European country and that he’ll return to his official duties in a few days.
Sebhat Negga said the prime minister’s health is not a major issue among the public.
Meles has not been seen in public for at least two weeks.
Ethiopian dissident websites have published unconfirmed reports that the prime minister suffers from brain cancer.
But, Negga said the Ethiopian opposition is trying to exploit the situation.
“I can tell you for sure that there is no undesirable eventuality regarding his health. I am 100 percent sure that he’s recovering health wise and he will be back to his official duty in a number of days,” he said.
Negga described as “completely untrue” European media reports that Meles is hospitalized in critical condition at Saint Luc Hospital in Brussels.
The hospital Wednesday declined to say if the Ethiopian leader is there.
Negga said the prime minister’s health is not a major issue for majority of Ethiopians. He accused the opposition of trying to exploit the issue.
“It’s not a very important issue [among] the people. It is the opposition parties that are trying to exploit this because they are wishful thinkers. Otherwise, in the normal situation, it’s not a major issue,” Negga said.
He accused the opposition of wishing that Meles were dead.
“They want Ethiopia to go back to the situation whereby there is no direction and there is no system,” Negga said.
He said there is no vacuum in leadership even in Mr. Meles’ absence because, he said, Ethiopia has in place a good system of governing.
“There is no concern. The system is there. The system does not depend on one person. People are curious about his health, but it should not be about the issue of governance,” Negga said.
He said Ethiopia is being run in the prime minister’s absence by the parliament and the deputy prime minister.
The group Human Rights Watch has accused Ethiopia of severely restricting basic rights of freedom of expression, association, and assembly. It said hundreds of Ethiopians were arbitrarily arrested and detained in 2011.
Last week, 20 Ethiopians, including a prominent blogger and opposition figures, were jailed for between eight years to life on charges of conspiring with rebels to topple the government.
Human Rights Watch said Ethiopia is using broad anti-terrorism legislation to crack down on dissent and media freedoms.
But, Negga said Meles is not a dictator and can never be one because the powers of the federal government are limited.
“The power of the center is given by the nations and nationalists and people in the original states. Therefore, he [the prime minister] doesn’t have any hand in the affairs of Oromo, Amhara, Tigrai, Afa, etc. They are not within his reach. They have their own structures, their own constitutions, their own president, and their own legislature,” Negga said.
Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia (AFP)
By David Arnold
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 at a news conference on July 18 [postponed until later this week].
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.
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.
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.
Ethiopian leader Meles Zenawi ‘in hospital’ (BBC)
Fears are Growing for the Health of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi (The Telegraph)
Ethiopia’s Deputy PM Says Prime Minister Meles Zenawi Is Ill (VOA News)
Ethiopia Says Meles Is Ill Amid African Union Summit Absence (Bloomberg)
Ethiopia Leader’s Absence Raises Health Questions (ABC News)