He was last seen in public at the G20 summit in Mexico in June, but since then, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has even missed the African Union summit held in his own capital, Addis Ababa.
Meles, 57, has now been missing for more than seven weeks. Government sources say that Meles, who looked frail before his disappearance, is resting, but well.
“The prime minister is on vacation recovering from illness,” an Ethiopian government source said.
Yet there have been numerous reports that Meles traveled to Europe for medical treatment, prompting debate about its success. Some media reports have claimed Meles visited the Saint-Luc hospital in Belgium, while the Egyptian state information service reported that he underwent surgery in Germany.
The Ethiopian media, regarded as one of the least free in Africa, has also reported that Meles is recovering from medical treatment. However, there is confusion as to the prime minister’s state even within the secretive ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
“It is a mystery what has happened to Meles and not even his own ministers know his fate,” an exiled Ethiopian source said.
Some analysts have claimed that he will not return to power at all, after senior TPLF member Sibhat Nega stated that the party was working on a succession of power and that the government could continue in the event of individuals dying.
It would not be the first time an African government has failed to confirm the illness or death of a leader in office. A century ago, Ethiopian Emperor Menelik II was buried in 1913 without any public announcement after he had been incapacitated by a stroke for several years. The tendency to cover up the sickness and death of leaders has been criticized for destabilizing fragile democracies and triggering secretive succession crises. Ethiopians have taken to social media to debate Meles’ whereabouts.
His absence is of concern to donors, who pump almost US$4 billion of aid into Ethiopia every year.
Meles, who came to power in 1991 after a 30-year war that toppled the Soviet-backed regime of former Ethiopian leader Mengistu Haile Mariam, has long been popular with donors for his record of delivering growth. Ethiopia’s economy has been growing at an estimated 9 percent per year for almost a decade.
However, he is also viewed by many as a dictator who has stifled democracy and used draconian methods to silence dissent. The Committee to Protect Journalists, says the government ordered newspaper Feteh to block 30,000 copies reporting on Meles’ absence.