The late Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, shown here in 2010. (AFP/Simon Maina)
The late Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, shown here in 2010. (AFP/Simon Maina)

In Meles’ death, as in life, a penchant for secrecy, control

Ethiopians awakened this morning to state media reports that Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, 57, the country’s leader for 21 years, had died late Monday in an overseas hospital of an undisclosed disease. Within seconds, Ethiopians spread the news on social media; within minutes, international news media were issuing bulletins. Finally, after weeks of government silence and obfuscation over Meles’ health, there was clarity for Ethiopians anxious for word about their leader. Still, it was left to unnamed sources to fill in even the basic details. Meles died in a Brussels hospital of liver cancer, these sources told international news organizations, and he had been ill for many months.

“Death of yet another African leader highlights secrecy & lack of transparency when it comes to ailing leaders,” CNN’s Faith Karimi noted on Twitter, where the hashtag #MelesZenawi was trending globally.

After Meles failed to appear at July’s African Union summit in his own capital, Addis Ababa, spokesman Bereket Simon was forced to acknowledge that the prime minister was ill. Still, he asserted that Meles would be back to work soon, a claim does not seem to have been credible. The government went on to consistently play down reports that Meles had a life-threatening condition, even as it refused to disclose his exact whereabouts or the nature of his illness. Authorities blocked distribution of the one local newspaper, Feteh, that tried to publish more detailed information about Meles.

The government’s handling of Meles’ health situation reflects its culture of secrecy, as Bereket acknowledged last month, along with its heavy-handed tactics to control news and information. Yet for all its efforts, the government could not control the public’s hunger for information. The official secrecy merely fueled rampant public speculation and fears about the country’s future.

The government’s tactics are a product of its long-time leader. The paradox of Meles is that he was a formidable politician who nonetheless feared criticism in the Ethiopian press.

To the world, Meles projected the image of an engaging intellectual, a bespectacled bureaucrat who championed development and fought climate change. Meles had the “ability to understand what foreigners wanted to hear. He spoke their language,” said Ethiopian journalist Mohammed Ademo, referring to Meles’ mastery of the politics of aid, poverty, and the global fight against terrorism. “In English, he was soft-spoken and appeared to be willing to consider and tolerate and debate all arguments freely,” said another Ethiopian journalist who spoke on condition of anonymity.

But Meles adopted a very different tone domestically. He continued the Mengistu regime’s censorship of famine and drought coverage, and he ruthlessly stamped out dissent. “He was often arrogant and rude when speaking to Ethiopians. Threatening in parliament,” said Mohammed. In one of his last speeches, Meles lashed out at critics, real and imagined, and accused independent journalists of being “terrorists.”

The new prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, has an opportunity to break with this fear and embrace openness to the press. He can start with the unconditional release of at least eight journalists now behind bars, among them the independent blogger Eskinder Nega, who is serving an 18-year term on baseless terrorism charges.