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
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
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
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
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
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,”
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
“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
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
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