The cause of Meles Zenawi’s death and its import

By Selam Beyene

In the absence of a legitimate autopsy report, a death certificate or a credible official statement relating to the reason behind the hospitalization and eventual death of the former ruler of one of the most populous countries in Africa, there are compelling medical and circumstantial arguments to suggest that the episode of May 18, 2012, in which the valiant Abebe Gellaw confronted Zenawi, might have played a major role in accelerating the demise of the dictator.

Prior to August 21, 2012, when the TPLF cadres that are currently terrorizing the country announced his death, Zenawi had not been seen in public for several weeks, and there had only been conflicting reports about his conditions or whereabouts issued by the Woyanne propaganda machinery.

Nonetheless, there were several pieces of circumstantial evidence that indicated the deteriorating condition of Zenawi’s health in the aftermath of the May18th encounter with Abebe Gellaw. Most notably, immediately after the confrontation, Zenawi reportedly failed to attend a function at the Ethiopian Embassy in Washington, D.C., that was organized to express gratitude to his followers in the Diaspora. A few weeks later, he was seen as a ghost-like creature during his meeting with Chinese officials at the G20 summit in Los Cabos, Mexico. The final confirmation of his ailment later came when he failed to attend an African Union summit in Addis Ababa in July.

While there is no conclusive medical evidence to indicate that shock can actually kill a person, there is ample literature to surmise that it can impact the cardiovascular system, and thereby exacerbate a deteriorating or compromised condition leading to death.

In the medical literature, fear and stress are known to cause substantial biochemical conflicts between the sympathetic and parasympathetic responses when a person is faced with an imminent danger, the so-called fight-or-flight phenomenon. In particular, shock, as an extreme stress reaction, ensues when the stress level is so high that the endocrine and nervous systems are unable to cope with the circumstance. People who have underlying health problems may, therefore, experience fatalities as a result of the exacerbation of these conditions.

In their book, Gleitman et al. (2004)[1] report that, in the face of extreme stress, catecholamine hormones, such as adrenaline, trigger physical reactions, including acceleration of heart and lung action, constriction of blood vessels, and shaking. For someone with cardiovascular problems, a huge release of catecholamines can lead to instant or eventual death.

Some of the above events were, of course, observed in Zenawi’s reaction to the unexpected challenge by Gellaw. In one of his weekly commentaries, Alemayehu G. Mariam poetically captured the moment as follows:

“…. For seven seconds, the mighty Zenawi zoned out into a catatonic trance like the patrons of opium dens. For a fleeting moment, he seemed almost comatose. His head was bowed, his back hunched, his chin drooped, his lips quivered and his eyes gazed vacantly at the floor just like the criminal defendant who got handed a life sentence or worse. A close-up video showed him breathing heavily, almost semi-hyperventilating. His pectoral muscles heaved spastically under his shirt. An imminent cardiac event?” [2]

For a dictator who, distrusting the people he ruled with an iron fist, had insulated himself with one of the most skilled and highly armed protective security details in the world; for a dictator who, out fear and insecurity, had never interacted or mingled with the people that he had so despised, mocked and disparaged during his two decades of tyranny; the sudden outburst of such dreaded phrases as “Meles Zenawi is a dictator!” in that world forum was a shocking experience that his frail body had not been accustomed to or able to withstand.

Although the secretive TPLF ruling party never revealed the general health condition of the dictator while he was in office, rumors did abound about his poor health resulting from a slapdash life-style, including smoking, drinking and other substance abuse – all risk factors for cardiovascular and oncological complications.

In view of the indirect association of death and shock in a compromised person, and given the poor state of Zenawi’s health prior to the event, it is not beyond the realm of possibilities to surmise that the May 18th confrontation might have contributed to his death.

If Gellaw’s heroic action had a role in the death of the dictator, then it would explain in part why the TPLF cadres kept the condition of the late dictator and the bona fide cause of his death a highly guarded secret. Manifestly, any suggestion that the event of May 18th contributed to the demise of the dictator would hearten others to follow suit and challenge the repressive rule of the TPLF. Most importantly, if there was the perspicacity that one person could contribute in a momentous way to bring down a vicious dictator, despite his ostensibly impenetrable security details, the millions of oppressed citizens would be emboldened and an organized mass uprising would be inevitable to end the monopoly enjoyed by the minority thugs on the nation’s political and military power structure and scarce resources.

The North Korean style funeral ceremony and the idolization of the deceased is also part of an overall orchestrated stratagem to demonstrate spurious invincibility and to thwart any semblance of vulnerability. The attempt to paint a larger-than-life picture of the deceased despot, and the much advertized claim that he was a respected leader in the world forum is, of course, at variance with the low esteem in which the despot was held by world leaders in private conversations. As revealed in the United States diplomatic cables leak, he was in fact a light weight in the eyes of diplomats and heads of states. Contrary to the myth propagated by his henchmen, in the opinion of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for example, he was an “economic illiterate”, while in the assessment of George W. Bush he was nothing more than “an errand boy”. What the TPLF cadres are doing in his death validates what Former US ambassador Donald Yamamoto observed when the dictator was alive: a “democratic deficit” example, and someone “begging to get world attention to have his ideologies acceptable.” [3]

The death of the dictator a short while after his encounter with Abebe Gellaw may serve both as a metaphor and as a template for the demise of tyranny in Ethiopia. Authoritarianism inherently is an aberration in human society, and hence a sick political system. So, as in the case of Zenawi, a major shock could unavoidably trigger the collapse of the system, as has been recently observed in the Middle East and other regions ruled by tyrants. This shock could come in the form of popular uprisings, concerted resistance by the people, organized lobbying by the Diaspora to cut the supply line of foreign aid, or internal fractures spearheaded by pro-democratic factions.

The only way out of this predicament for TPLF rulers is to recognize and respect the will of the people to live in freedom and liberty. In the short term, they should open up the political space and invite all opposition leaders for a genuine dialog to chart a framework for a democratic Ethiopia in which individual rights will be unconditionally respected, and all citizens will have equal opportunities in the pursuit of happiness and determination of the government of their choice.

If the TPLF insists in propagating the failed autocratic, ethnic-based and corrupt policies of the late dictator, then all freedom loving Ethiopians back home and in the Diaspora should rise in unity and give the aberrant system a shock from which it will never recover. It is a mathematical impossibility for a minority group to dream it would be able to perpetuate its repression over eighty million people for much longer.

It is time for the West to refrain from continuing to nurture the activities of a criminal regime and derailing the aspirations of the people to live in freedom and prosperity. In this regard, pro-democracy groups and individuals in the Diaspora have a historic role to play and influence donor nations and institutions.

* Henry Gleitman, Alan J. Fridlund and Daniel Reisberg (2004). Psychology (6 ed.). W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-97767-6.)

(Selam Beyene,PhD, can be reached at [email protected])