Published On  July 22,  2012






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The fog surrounding the whereabouts and condition of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is finally starting to clear, if only a little, after about a month of rumours, speculation, and reports lacking credibility raged through the grapevine with claims as extreme as to allege his death. The frenzy boosted the Google search popularity of the PM above that of even Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, whose country is in civil war, writes TESFALEM WALDYES, SPECIAL TO FORTUNE.


Gov: Meles Back to Work in Days



Bereket Simon, head of the Government Communication Affairs Office (GCAO) with a ministerial portfolio.

As confusion over the state and whereabouts of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi intensified, even despite a government press conference that merely fuelled more speculation, the tension and the quest for the truth led to Google searches about Meles breaking records by 5,000pc.

The only thing new that came out of the press conference that Bereket Simon, head of the Government Communication Affairs Office (GCAO) with a ministerial portfolio, called Thursday, July 19, 2012, was the official breaking of government silence that has hovered over the issue for three weeks.

Prior to Bereket’s media appearance, high ranking EPRDFites from Hailemariam Desalegn, deputy prime minister and minister of Foreign Affairs, to Sebhat Nega, one of the founders of the TPLF and head of the Ethiopian International Institute for Peace & Development (EIIPD), had been confirming Meles’s illness, at the same time assuring the public of his improving condition and his return home shortly, in interviews with international media.

Many expected new information from Bereket. Yet, the press conference only added more confusion.

Ethiopia was hosting the African Union Summit during the three days that preceded the press conference. Meles’s absence at this Summit, following his unannounced absence for the ratification of the national budget and the official closing of Parliament, brought speculation about the Prime Minister’s health to a climax.

The AU Summit happened to be the first official announcement that Meles had been unable to attend due to sickness, a statement made by newly elected Senegalese President Macky Sall. It was during these three days, July 15 to 18, that anxious people heated up Google's search engine, making Prime Minister Meles Zenawi more searched on Tuesday, July 17, 2012, than Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, whose country’s popular uprising had recently been upgraded to civil war status.

The search for Meles had shot up from 350pc to a breakout level, which means that the 5,000pc mark had been exceeded, Google’s Insights for Search indicated, thus, the huge interest in Thursday’s press conference.

The conference was called to address current national affairs, but it was mostly dominated by questions and answers about the PM’s health condition. All Bereket would give away was that Meles was not suffering from brain cancer, that the doctors have told him to take medical leave, and that he was still in charge of his premiership duties.

Meles’s status, he repeated at separate conferences for local and international media, was “good” and “stable.” He declined to disclose any key information about the Prime Minister, yet he refuted what he said were allegations.

“The Prime Minster had some health problems for which he needed professional attention,” Berket, who was uneasily smiling during the whole press conference, said.  “In that respect, he has been given the necessary medical treatment by his doctors.”

When asked about the exact disease of the PM, where he was hospitalised, his current location, and how long he would be absent from his duties, Bereket simply stood his ground.

“The rest will remain between him and his doctor,” he said.


Google Insights for Search analyses a portion of Google web searches to compute how many searches have been done for the terms it has entered, relative to the total number of searches done on the search engine over time. Google displays the data on a scale of 0 to 100.


He rejected terms of “serious” and “terminal” to describe the illness, instead describing it as “quite a recent phenomenon,” in spite of reports by international media that the Prime Minister was in a “critical state” at a hospital in Belgium.

Referring to the specialisation of the Brussels-based hospital, Saint Luc, where Meles is said to have been undergoing treatment, some international members of the media had claimed that Meles’s illness might be related to blood cancer, a brain tumour, or even an “unspecified stomach ailment.”

“It is not brain cancer; it is not whatever the detractor says in this respect,” Bereket rebutted.  “The speculation is baseless.”

The “person with herculean ability” was only “exhausted” from “workload,” he said. Meles was not succumbing to a stressful working environment, according to Bereket, who, nonetheless, tacked on that the workload the PM had been shouldering had definitely had an impact in terms of exhaustion.

The cause of the exhaustion?

The ambitious five-year Growth & Transformation Plan (GTP) and attendance in various international meetings that ranged from G7 to G20. These have led the doctors to advise him to take a break.

“As per the advice he has taken from his medical doctors, he will for some time stay out of executive government functions,” Bereket said.

Bereket was, however, not concrete about the length of leave from duty. He would only say a “few days,” “short,” and “not too long.”

At one point he specified that Meles would be back to his office in five to 10 days. He also said that Meles was still in charge and that he was not out from under his duties as Prime Minister.

For now, Hailemariam Desalegn, deputy prime minister and minister of Foreign Affairs, has been seen replacing Meles at official functions. He was at the forefront in the main and parallel meetings of the AU Heads of State & Government Summit, although he did not deliver a keynote speech. He also hosted the traditional banquet for visiting heads of state and government at the Sheraton Addis, on Monday evening, July 16, 2012.

Bereket, who argued that Ethiopia was well represented at the AU Summit, said that the Prime Minister’s absence did not create any gap in other government functions, either. Other government officials have done the job, according to him.

“He is in charge, but he has to take some rest,” Bereket said. “Leave of absence does not mean that there is nobody in charge. He is in charge and will be back in office after quite a few days.”

Bereket denied any power vacuum or conflict to grab power.

A prophetic commentary written by Yohannes Woldegebriel, a lawyer by training who had served as a special public prosecutor and chief prosecutor for anticorruption and customs, that was published in Fortune on May 9, 2010, following the demise of the then-Polish leadership, addressed the constitutional aspect of the current ambiguity rather astutely. The article, Constitution Skirts Emergency Succession of PM, President, argued that the existing constitution revealed that an emergency power succession plan in circumstances of sudden phenomena was virtually nonexistent.

The Constitution always presupposes, according to Yohannes, the Prime Minister’s healthy existence to delegate and to receive reports on the performance of his agent, the deputy prime minister, and further to ensure his loyalty “as a soldier to abide with the decision of his party” to avoid resignation. The deputy prime minister would not be able to exercise government authority as a right but only under the expressed delegation of the Prime Minister, wrote Yohannes, provided that the Prime Minister was away from his palace.

“Absence” is defined in Black’s Law Dictionary, as “the state of being absent, removed, or away from one’s domicile or usual place of residence. Not present at a particular time.”

“The leadership of the incumbent party took an interest in tackling the country’s power succession issues within its own domain instead of within the Constitution’s domain,” Yohannes wrote.

This constitutional gap, according to Yohannes, makes one wonder about the rest of the country’s legal system.



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