Dead Until Proven Alive

by    /  August 10, 2012  / 8 Comments

In Ethiopia a leader goes missing, the state maintains secrecy.

Meles Zenawi

Meles Zenawi speaks during the 2012 World Economic Forum. Photo: World Economic Forum

A news story is gripping Ethiopia. The news is the probable death, and confirmed critical sickness, of our “Dear Leader” Meles Zenawi. The irony of this is that it has remained a top national secret. Dead or alive, dictators remain secretive, suffocating, and repressive. But whether PM Zenawi will survive or not, the drama unfolding is a telling story of a dysfunctional dictatorship.

  1. Ethiopiques
  2. Why does a country with her own unique alphabet and long history of writing persist to deny citizens the right to freedom of expression in this era of Expression? No other country in Africa may typify this paradox more than Ethiopia. As Leopold Senghor’s famous collection of poems entitled “Ethiopiques” remained ‘powerful and popula’ so does the source of his intriguing title, Ethiopia, in her own ways. In “Ethiopiques,” I share Ethiopian views on pertinent issues related to journalism, culture and, of course, the overarching subject of politics.
  3. Mesfin Negash
  4. Mesfin Negash is an Ethiopian journalist living in exile in Sweden. He is one of the journalists accused of “terrorism” in 2011 by the Ethiopian government. The co-founder and first editor-in-chief of an acclaimed Ethiopian newspaper, Addis Neger, he is currently the Managing Editor of He is a political science student by training and known for his critical commentaries on significant political and social issues.

It has been 50 days since PM Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia was seen in public. Unfortunately, the Ethiopian intelligence was not intelligent enough to pre-record videos and photos to feed the propaganda mill as their counterpart in North Korea did to manage the death of their leader. Until very recently the Ethiopian government was in blind denial of the PM’s ailment and whereabouts, let alone his probable death. Ethiopians had to wait for another African president to come to their capital and officially tell them of the poor health of Ethiopia’s Big Man.

The story line from the government side has only one consistent argument: The PM is not dead. The rest is full of confusing cover-ups such as “There is no serious illness at all.” “It’s minor only.” “He is in Europe.” “He is back in town.” “He is enjoying his sick leave in the USA.” “He is recovering well.” “He is exhausted from his work load.” “We expect him to be back in days.” ”He’ll be on TV by this weekend.” “Doctors advised Meles to take a long leave.” “His whereabouts is not disclosed for security reasons.” “He is stable.” And finally, “He is getting better” without officially admitting that he was “critically ill” in the first place.

The story coming from the few international media covering the saga and critical Ethiopian media outlets based in exile is in perfect contradiction to the government’s stance. The news started in earnest with “He is critically ill and getting treatment in Belgium, secretly transferred to a U.S military hospital in Germany” and reached its climax when ESAT, an exiled Ethiopian satellite TV and radio station, “announced” the death of Meles Zenawi, quoting anonymous sources within the International Crisis Group (ICG) and others. ICG denied the report on Twitter.

However, to date no one has paid as high a cost in relation to this story as Feteh, a critical newspaper based in Ethiopia. The newspaper is technically banned by the authorities and 30,000 copies of the paper reporting about the subject have been confiscated. Other newspapers at home are very shy to discuss the matter. Either they publish stories in line with the official position or avoid the subject.

The health status of a leader is of public interest in any democratic nation. It is neither a state secret nor a security threat to a stable government that brags about the democratic stability of the nation.

In the absence of definitive evidence, no single piece of information is strong enough to stand against any kind of speculation, including the possibility of death. Under normal circumstances, the assumption is that someone—especially a leader—is alive until proven dead, but this is not the case under secretive dictatorships. It rather reminds me of the reversed assumptions in Zenawi’s courts where the internationally recognized presumption of innocence until proven guilty is reversed to became “guilty until proven innocent.” Is this an opportunity for Meles Zenawi to test the reversed presumption: You are dead until proven alive? May be.

8 Comments on "Dead Until Proven Alive"

  1. Belay August 11, 2012 at 10:41 am ·

    At first calling Mesfin as exile journalist is a hard lie ever heard. He was just a messanger of extrime oppositions (who want ethiopia to back to feudalistc era) under the pretext of free journalist, he never was professional in his x newspaper. Coming to Meles health status yes there is limitless secretive by goverment. The public should know the health status of his premim to some extent. The voilitilty of the region, the eagerness of the Egyptian and Eritrians regiem to support any violent gruoups at home and neighbouring countries, the greediness of the opposition to sink the country in any endless chaos as far as it shows them some clue to menilik palace could have endanger the countries exsitence and therefore its necessary to keep secrecy to some extent and make the sucessation peacefully ( if he is dead). The lack of democracy and democractic institution is one reason for all this, But I can firmly tell you the extime oppositions and their messangers like of Mesfin has a great Impact on our democratisation se back. All they need is any means to menilik palace what soever the consequence . And goverment reaction to this cause democratization in danger . Right after meles had power there were more than 20 free news papaer in a country where there was no even asingle just before him. Unfortunalty they alll were non professional who used to write using the stimulant chat.

  2. Tserste Hailu August 11, 2012 at 11:27 pm ·

    Mr Belay
    I don’t think you made yor simply tried to defame some one without substacial fact.This kind of response does not help for a civil discussion and may not help to counter the real problem.

  3. Gindalbis August 12, 2012 at 7:58 pm ·

    Mesfin Negash has to write such articles so as to maintain the flow of his monthly stipend in the form of social benefits, thanks to the lenient and rather unrealistic Swedish “hospitality” in entertaining convicts from other countries. Thus, you would expect this lunatic to write only about the “ills” of Meles, and of course not the good achievements, with a grin on his face sipping coffee while relaxing in the rather chilly Swedish summer. It takes guts and a liar to compare the current government with North Korea which I am sure he would not dare to do with the previous regime because he is on par with the oppositions nostalgic of Mengistu Hailemariam’s authoritarian rule. Perhaps it is this wish for a dictatorship that I sometimes think some Ethiopian’s yearn for deep inside their hidden motto for freedom and their obsession with the concept. Ethiopia is not in need of talkers, wishful thinkers and reality deniers. We are rather in need of problem solvers, people who can take great strides to see apparent change in the lives of individuals and not publicize on an international level about a neo-liberalist ideal of a luxurious form of free speech that will not add a drop to the war against poverty nor contribute to the country’s development. To the contrary, such fanatics as Mesfin Negash are working to the demise of Ethiopia presumably knowingly so as to see development aid not to reach Ethiopians using abstract tools supported with scant evidence as breach of free speech and human rights violations to suit their ill-intended agendas. They use exaggeration and sensational comments on petty and minor incidents bulging them to the level of a need for change of government that are otherwise left unnoticed elsewhere. Luckily, Ethiopians have learned to be skeptical of people as the likes of Mesfin thanks to experience in previous campaigns to usurp power from the majority-elected government by denying facts about the elections. What makes this new campaign so repugnant is the distance that some in the Diaspora have gone in a do-or-die attempt to calim Meles death without even having a shred of evidence to support them beyond the level of rumors. It is a very costly bet for them and a huge relief for Ethiopians since the world will know the truth, and therefore the legitimacy of their past futile attempts, in the not-too-distant future.

  4. Estifanos August 13, 2012 at 3:34 am ·

    Belay, you are good for nothing. You’re not in a position to question Mesfin’s profession. What is a profession mean. In simple words a profession is the sum of commitment and competence. Mesfin has those major elements. He a graduate of PSIR(political science and international relations) and as far as I know he is committed enough for his professional ethics. Mesfin has been working as a journalist for long time. Nobody says he is not a professional journalist except people who supports the dictator TPLF like you. As far as I am concerned, I have learned a lot from his articles and balanced analysis. In addition, for your information Mesfin and his Addis Neger friends are not the member of any political party, but they strongly oppose injustice, dictatorship, undemocratic leadership and so on.

    Mesfin, I am always proud of you!

  5. Mark August 13, 2012 at 10:13 am ·

    His name is Demisse he was a deacon at St. Urael Church.He was the supporter of EPRDF until the 2005 election. Prior to that he was a chief editor of Smea Tsideq religious magazine.He studied at Commerce and once was also served as a receptionist to a private hotel around Bole.Leaving the religious world he joined The Ethiopian Reporter where he reads political articles sent to the news paper. He then become conscious on politics. He did take no time than baptizing himself as Mesfin.To be honest he is a talented man who is incapable of managing his thoughts. He consider himself as one of the most humiliated person by the regime. Surprisingly, he and his colleagues run away imprisonment while Bertukan went to prison. Sad, one of his friend named himself Tahrir. When this is not working he named himself ye berhaw Leuel ” PRINCE OF THE DESERT” his name is Tamerat Negera. They fear imprisonment and fled to Europe but preach war from abroad. They want to be portrayed a hero.Andualem Eskinder and Reyot are exemplary by what they did. escape rather they face it. Mesfin and his colleagues to the contrary are boosting they always predict but with out fruit. any one would like to respond to me just e-mail me
    my phone number is 0924474172 Markos Woldyohannes dr

  6. Tazabi August 14, 2012 at 6:26 am ·

    A great and balanced read. A shame we can’t read stories like these on print and in our languages. A shame that many ran to attack the writer and defame him rather than debating the essence of the article. A shame that we have not managed to learn from decades of authoritarianism and dictatorship. A shame that people feel they have to insult others than respond intelligently. We are more adept at using guns and bullets than words and ideas to reach our desired ends. Even on a platform as such we choose to draw blood attacking the person than his ideas. A shame, A shame, A shame. A thousand deaths in one, to live a life as such, when the only way you know how to battle your opponent is to crush his reputation, exile him from his land, and harry him off the land, off the way of live, and now online.

  7. Zena Yissema August 15, 2012 at 8:06 pm ·

    The following were highly searched words in Google for the past 2 months:

    – Meles Zenawi
    – Meles Zenawi News
    – Meles Zenawi sick
    – Meles Zenawi ill
    – Meles Zenawi health
    – Meles Zenawi dead
    – Meles Zenawi death

    Can someone please find out what is the truth and tell us if Meles Zenawi is dead or alive? This is day 50 that 85 million people are without its leader. You can’t drag this for too long. We hope to hear the truth soon.

    The Ethiopian government spokesperson mentioned that Meles Zenawi is on sick leave, but never mentioned who is running the country in his absence. This leads me to believe that deputy PM Hailemariam Desalegn is not in charge. This means the government is breaking its own constitution for not allowing the deputy PM to lead the country when the PM is ill.

    My prediction is that the Woyanne party will pressure the deputy PM (Hailemariam Desalegn) to resign so that they can install their new man as the new PM.

    Time will tell! May God protect Ethiopia and its children!

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