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Ethiopian leader's absence grips nation, fuels speculation

By Faith Karimi, CNN
August 16, 2012 -- Updated 0931 GMT (1731 HKT)
Meles Zenawi, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, is considered a strong force in the frequently volatile horn of Africa. (File)
Meles Zenawi, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, is considered a strong force in the frequently volatile horn of Africa. (File)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has not appeared in public since June
  • A government spokesman says he is recovering after undergoing treatment
  • The spokesman declines to specify his location or the nature of his illness
  • Rumors swirl as the opposition claims that he is dead

(CNN) -- Ethiopia's prime minister is "recovering well," a spokesman said Wednesday, amid frenzied speculation about the health of the usually visible leader, who has not appeared in public for two months.

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, 57, came to power two decades ago and is considered a strong force in the frequently volatile horn of Africa.

He has not appeared in public since June, and the secretive nation has released little information about his whereabouts, prompting rumors and opposition claims that he is dead or facing a life-threatening illness.

After weeks of speculation, the government held a news conference last month and announced he got treatment for an unspecified illness.

Zenawi is "recovering well, resting and performing his duties as prime minister and head of state," government spokesman Bereket Simon reiterated Wednesday. He declined to give exact details on Zenawi's whereabouts or the nature of his illness.

His absence has been a hot topic in the nation, with bloggers launching a counter of the number of days he's been missing. Citizens have taken to social media to discuss his whereabouts and exchange conspiracy theories.

Searches for Zenawi are at their highest since 2004, according to Google trends.

"Ethiopians are a bit confused," said Endalk Hailemichael, 30, of Addis Ababa. "In Ethiopia, there are traditions of secrecy and hiding the whereabouts of leaders. People are afraid, there is a lot of uncertainty looming. A lot of rumors and unclear information going on."

Hailemichael said the disappearance has sparked a lot of questions, including who would succeed him in case of a power vacuum. But most people are discussing it with fear of repercussions, he said.

Combating threats in Somalia

CNN reached several people in the nation who expressed their concerns about his whereabouts, but did not want to be quoted for fear of retribution.

"People are afraid to talk about it. This is a police state," Hailemichael said. "They are talking about it, but they are looking over their shoulders. In bars, in taxis, coffee shops, that's all people are talking about. But they are afraid."

His absence was more evident last month when Ethiopia hosted an African Union summit in its capital of Addis Ababa. Zenawi, a key player in talks on the tensions between Sudan and its rival neighbor South Sudan, did not attend.

"Some people are worried, some people are crying," said Jomanex Kassaye, 30, who lives near Addis Ababa. "While some people are worried about the instability that might occur ... others are happy that he may be gone."

Kassaye said, while he is not a fan of the leader, he wants him to leave through a democratic process.

"I need him to go because there is no democracy, no freedom of speech, no food, no justice, no accountability," he said. "But not like this. If he leaves like this, we will have another dictator who will take over power and stay for too long."

Ethiopia, which is a key Western ally often lauded for effective use of aid money, is surrounded by unstable nations such as Somalia and Sudan. Zenawi has been credited with working toward peace and security in the region.

The Ethiopian army has sent peacekeepers to battle Islamic extremist group Al-Shabaab in Somalia. More recently, the prime minister was working to broker a peace deal in the negotiations between Sudan and South Sudan, which split last year but still have unresolved issues.

In an attempt to quash the rumors, the government censored a newspaper that tried to report information about his health, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

"This weekend, the government ordered the state-run printing company not to produce the latest edition of the weekly Feteh, which was to have carried front-page coverage of Zenawi's condition," the media advocacy group said on its website.

Zenawi, a former guerrilla leader, is part of a group that toppled dictator Haile Mengustu Mariam in 1991. The shrewd politician is credited with economic progress and maintaining peace in the nation surrounded by volatile countries.

However, human rights groups have accused his government of a heavy hand and a series of abuses, including limiting press freedoms and cracking down on opposition political parties.

Last year, Ethiopia found two Swedish journalists guilty of supporting terrorism and sentenced them to 11 years.

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