Ethiopia: How Long Should Azeb Mesfin Stay in the Palace?

By IndepthAfrica
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Oct 19th, 2012
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By Seble Teweldebirhan

Azeb MesfinAddis Ababa,( – This week, the former First Lady Azeb Mesfin was a topic of controversy in the country. The fact that after nearly two months of the death of her husband Meles Zenawi, she still lives in the National Palace and the new Prime Minister Hailemariam Deslagn and his family did not move to the designated residence of the country’s PM created a debate between two groups of the society. Especially after the weekly magazine Addis Guday on its last week issue made a cover story on her ‘refusal’ to leave the place, the topic got much attention from the public.


On the one side, after rumors reached the public saying Azeb was given notice to vacate the residence of the PM by the Cabinet Minister, many are questioning her motives to remain in the palace. In fact, protocol dictates that Hailemariam Deslagn and his family were supposed to move into the palace on the same day he was appointed as a PM by parliament. Since Azeb occupies the same place, that did not happen yet. Currently, Hailemariam Deslagne lives around Sar Bet, in Besrat Gebriel area, in a house where he was living before. The problem is, now that he is the PM, his presence in that area is creating a lot of traffic jam and security chaos for his neighbors and for those who happen to work or pass in that area.


It was reported that, in order to avoid this inconvenience for his neighbors and the residents, Hailemariam leaves his house early in the morning (mostly while it is still dark) and returns home after mid night. Therefore, some are starting to consider Hailemariam as a kind hearted person who might not have the courage to make tough decisions. The question some are raising is that “if he is not able to stand up for his rights and order Azeb to leave his future residence, can he really make other decisions that might sound unfair but still necessary for the national interest?”


However, others dismiss such assertion. “He is expected to be kind” Asrat, a journalist, said. “She is the wife of a leader whom he respected very much. It shouldn’t have to be politicized. As a friend and a close colleague of Meles Zenawi, he is expected to respect and care for his family and give them time to heal their loss and leave peacefully,” she added.


The magazine Addis Guday reported that Azeb was given three different houses to choose from and move out of the palace. The same report indicated she was not willing even to go and see the houses.


On the other hand, many are arguing that it is unfair, even pointless to make this an issue. Traditionally, in Ethiopia families who lost their loved once are allowed to grief for a long time. Especially for 80 days, it is considered as mourning season. In addition to that, for Azeb to leave a house she lived in for 21 years takes a lot longer than one might possibly imagine. Especially the properties of her late husband including his memorabilia, books, several of his precious possessions and other things might require time to be arranged and moved out of the house. Therefore, the debate on her stay in the palace, for some is way too early and even unnecessary.


Azeb is entitled for all the financial benefits, security and cars she use to have as a former First Lady. According to proclamation 653/2001 when the ministers including the prime minister complete their term in the office, they are entitled to all the salaries and extra benefits they used to get while in the office. If the right holder passed away, the benefits will directly transfer for his wife and his family. The benefits especially includes housing, cars, security, medical insurance, office, telephone and other things necessary for the required protocol.


The question that puzzles many is if Azeb Mesfin is trying to make a political statement by refusing to leave.


The former First lady has lots of mystifying images in the public. In fact, in addition to her status as the First Lady and the wife of the most influential political figure in the country, she has proved that she is a woman of audacity (regardless of whether it’s for good or otherwise) who is capable of standing on her own. Regardless of endless criticisms and rumors on her character and other activities, she often gets involved, there is no doubt that she is a woman who recognizes that there is no way she could live in the palace forever. Therefore, it might be unwise to interpret her stay in the palace as a refusal to leave. Some are even suggesting that it could easily be related to administrative or other reasons that might be connected to her grief for the loss of her husband.


“The case is different for Azeb because her husband died,” Abel, a political science graduate said. “She has to leave the palace not because she lost an election, but due to death of husband. If it was an election, they will have time to be prepared since there will be a gap between the announcement of the election result and transfer of power. This is common in many countries. However, her case is sudden and I say we should give her at least three months or so before making it a big deal,” he added.  


Still, Azeb Mesfin did not come out and defend her case. However, journalist Mimi Sebehatu, on her Zami FM Radio defended Azeb in a way that sounded like it came directly from the former First Lady. “It is not even our tradition to treat a widow this way,” she argued. “Our ‘Great Leader’ was so busy dealing with the problems of Ethiopia and failed to think the future of his family. He did not build a house of his own. That is the reason why his families are having a problem. In addition, we all know how hurtful it is to deal with the stuffs of family member who died. She might not even be in a position to see and arrange his things in the house.” she defended Azeb with an emotional sound that might put her neutrality as a journalist in a big question mark.


All in all, the opinion of many is that it is reasonable to assume that it is still early for Azeb, considering the traditionally prolonged mourning season of Ethiopians and the extent of her loss, to deal with moving out issues. However, in this regard there are suggestions that her interest is not the only thing that counts. The inconvenience created is affecting the residents, the security forces who might need extra effort to protect the PM in the area full of houses and may be the PM himself who needs to change his office hours differently. Therefore, out of defending her integrity and looking out for the best interests of the government, many expressed their expectation to that she will leave the palace soon. 


 Seble Teweldebirhan is Addis Ababa based Reporter for

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