Dead until proven alive
By Mesfin Negash
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.
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.