Unpacking the rumor dynamics about the whereabouts of Meles Zenawi

Prime Minster Meles Zenawi has always been a man of mysteries and at this time he kept being conspicuously a mystery for Ethiopians as he has not been seen in public since the last G20-Meeting. His disappearance has touched off a blaze of rumors on twitter and Facebook. Meanwhile Ethiopia’s pitiable media which is forced to operate under thorny anti-terrorism charges is filled with contradictory accounts, with some saying Meles Zenawi, is on the mend and will be back soon, while others say he lies in a hospital in somewhere in Europe. International media say they don’t know what to believe but already started to write his legacy and still others started to report concerns that Ethiopia and Horn could tumble down into chaos if the mystery of the whereabouts of Prime Minster Meles Zenawi is not solved soon. To understand the dynamics of flurry of rumors Ethiopians are experiencing, it is imperative to take on Ethiopia’s government dominated media and ruling party’s habit of media management and its internal components

Government Media

As it is true in many undemocratic systems, the most notable feature of Ethiopia‘s state media institutions is their relative lack of credibility compared to the informal institutions in this case is social media such as facebook and twitter. Neither news nor feature programs are generated or transmitted predominantly through the state’s formal media institutions particularly by the infamous Ethiopian State Television. The power of Ethiopia’s state media to quash rumors far less than it appears on its façade, and they are broadly obedient to the interests of the regime, particularly the executives. The recent presser did not help that much to clear confusion about the whereabouts of Prime Minster Meles Zenawi.


Internal palace-Arat-Killo – politics are the source of continual debate and rumor within Ethiopian digital public. Though these debates and rumors tend not to be based on verifiable evidence they are obviously are indications of rivalry. It has been extensively reported the Prime Minster Meles Zenawi’s ruling circle is intact and cohesive and operate within an extremely complex, and calculatedly opaque system but rivalry amongst themselves cannot be entirely ignored. For example during his high time Prime Minster Meles Zenawi allegedly prevented members of the TPLF elite specifically Arkeb Ekubay, from appearing in the public. The awash of rumors and claims which ranges from the death of the Prime Minster himself to Junedi Saddo’s involvement in a car accident might be a signal of internal power rivalries. With all news claims attributed insiders or trusted sources cannot be all wrong unless officials who are rumored to be involved in the matter come out and falsify rumors in undisputable fashion. But officials cannot do that since they are caught up in an ill-fated competition of bargaining for a better position. Therefore their likely alternative is to seep out entirely wrong or information with slight fact in it given that sharing information on public is dangerous. Obviously secrecy is an asset in the EPRDF system which Bereket Simon himself, Government Minster for Communication Affairs, admitted in a recent presser that secrecy is decade’s long organizational culture of the ruling party.

The Rise of Facebook and Twitter as Alternative Public Space

Facebook is the most widespread social networking media in Ethiopia but its level of influence as alternative citizen media at countrywide level is yet to grow at full swing and greatly depending on the regime’s response to its tiny influence to date. For the last three weeks however Facebook and Twitter broke sensitive health stories of Prime Mister Meles Zenawi that not only made it to the pages of a newspaper but that also caused federal government to react officially and ban one of the newspapers –Feteh- of last Friday’s edition.

The Influence of Ethiopian Diaspora

The Ethiopian Diasporas have more influence in Ethiopian political information than people living in Addis Ababa. Critics might have put blame on diaspora media as hostile and highly polarized entities but on the case of Prime Minster Meles Zenawi’s health the plethora of exilic online citizen journalists increasingly seem to be building their legitimacy on the strength of their capacity to undermine the trustworthiness of journalists in Ethiopia both government and independent journalists.

Whatever the outcome of these rumors, it is clear that the Ethiopia’s independent media optimism depends on the new media as struggle of the traditional media will continue far beyond Prime Minster Meles Zenawi and his regime. It seems Meles himself understand this fact and created a twitter account to engage with the digital community.

The following tweet analysis of Prime Minster Meles Zenawi is found with a written permission from twiplomacy an organization which analyze world leaders tweet culture.

His tweets have recently become more popular with each of his last four tweets being re-tweeted 10-16 times. However, the Prime Minster has only posted on Twitter a total of 56 times. There are many opinions of Zenawi’s leadership but nevertheless his tweets seem very personal and engaging. “I wanted to upload photos of this moments day but the twitter app on this iPhone is not letting me do it, maybe its the network” (later that day he managed to upload the photos). Meles Zenawi is highly conversational with 37% of his tweets being @replies and mentions other Twitter users in every single tweet. There was a spike in tweets around Ginbot Day on 28 May 2011. The Prime Minister frequently uses the hashtag #Ethiopia, however he only tweeted three times in 2012; the last post being a re-tweet of Bill Gates on 14 May 2012.

Tweet analytics (as of 1 July 2012)

Tweets: 56
Following: 7
Followers: 13,699
Joined Twitter: 04/30/2009
Language: English
Status: Active
Tweets/day: 0.05
% Retweets: 4%
Mentions/Tweet: 1.11
Replies/Tweet: 37%
% Tweets retweeted: 56%
Total of retweets: 95
Most mentioned
@MelesZenawi (10), @Natberh (7), @EPRDF (6), @oromosalafi (6), @tekeste (5).

First tweet