Professor Mesfin Wolde Mariam, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi
September 6, 2006
[Pagume 1, 1998 (Eth. Cal)]
The recent stealing of democratic elections (May 2005), the murder of hundreds of innocent civilians and the incarceration of the top leadership of the alternative parties as well as scores of journalists by the TPLF (alias EPRDF) regime in Ethiopia prompts the profile featured in this brief essay.
Professor Mesfin and PM Meles are two individuals who have made their respective marks on Ethiopia and Ethiopians. Although the temporal context is not a key issue here, Professor Mesfin has been a teacher for more than half a century. PM Meles has been an armed tribal guerrilla fighter and despot in Ethiopia for the past twenty years. What is of interest here is the public persona and deeds of the two individuals with respect to Ethiopia and Ethiopians during their respective tenures. In the past decade and a half the two individuals have also crossed paths intermittently.
As these lines are being written in 2006, PM Meles has placed the 75+year-old senior Professor Mesfin and scores of his colleagues plus a number of journalists, in the most decrepit prison in Addis Ababa and thrown away the key as of November 2005. Eerily reminiscent of the tragic demise of martyred Professor Asrat Weldeyes, another victim of PM Meles, Professor Mesfin is gravely ill and shuttles between jail and hospital—for now. Meanwhile, PMM goes about his sadistic merry way from day to day flashing his signature sardonic sadist grin as if everything is normal in Ethiopia. He probably also mutters his own misinterpretation of the Tina Turner refrain “What’s love got to do with IT” i.e., stealing the last election and systematically assassinating, incarcerating, repressing, torturing, exploiting, impoverishing Ethiopians at large. The fundamental struggles between Professor Mesfin and others like him versus PM Meles and his ilks revolve around the identity, integrity and viability of Ethiopia. The intertwined questions that loom large and cry out for answers relative to these issues are:
- “Do the two individuals share the same notion of Ethiopia and the same visions for its future?”
- “What are the respective deeds of the two vis-à-vis Ethiopia?”
- “How and why is the current relationship between the two that of predator and prey?”
The best way to answer these burning questions is to profile or highlight the public persona and deeds of the two individuals.
Professor Mesfin Woldemariam and Ethiopia
- Mesfin Woldemariam studied at Teferi Mekonnen School in Addis Ababa and completed higher education in Punjab University in India where he received his B.A. followed by an MA from Clark University in Massachusetts, USA in 1957.
- Upon his return back to Ethiopia he started teaching geography at the University College of Addis Ababa. Young Mesfin was a disciplined, dedicated and a no-nonsense teacher. His professionalism was respected and appreciated by his students. He was also a man of letters who wrote poetry and kept up with Ethiopian history, culture and literature.
- The late 50’s and early 60’s were a time of political turbulence in Ethiopia and the University was beginning to be swept by the winds of change. Sure enough, while the Emperor was on a state visit to Brazil in December 1960, a coup d’etat was attempted by the Emperor’s own crack Imperial Bodyguard. University students’ support was solicited by the coup leaders and attained. Lecturer Mesfin joined the student demonstration in the streets of Addis Ababa, and he made sure that the students would not be caught in crossfire between the Bodyguard troops and the Army, which was loyal to the Emperor. This was perhaps Mesfin Woldemariam’s first overt political act. In the event, the Emperor returned to quash the rebellion with some logistical support by the American government, which, at the time, had Treaties with Ethiopia on Mutual Defense Assistance and Utilization of Kagnew Communications Base near Asmera, Eritrea, since 1953.
- But the genie was out of the bottle and although the coup leaders were liquidated, young Ethiopians in the University and in high schools joined the struggle to bring about peaceful change in Ethiopia including an end to feudalism, curtailing the absolutist power of the Emperor, land to the tiller and freedom of expression. Mesfin remained tuned to political developments without espousing extreme positions or involvement in efforts calling for armed struggle to overthrow the government. Student movement leaders loved teachers who followed their lead, no matter what. But it was clear from the get-go that citizen Mesfin was an independent thinker with strong convictions and knew a lot more about Ethiopia than most. A guiding principle of action and association for him was ‘better to be right than to be popular’ when presented with such choice. He did not seek to lead; neither would he be led into anything that he personally did not believe to be right for Ethiopia. As we shall see, this stance was to be tested in his public lifetime again and again. It determined and defined his relations with his students, colleagues, the rulers and his fellow citizens during the Emperor’s tenure as well as the Derg period and the current TPLF regime in Ethiopia.That said, Mesfin made his mark by continuing to discharge his obligations and responsibilities on behalf of Ethiopia at different times and circumstances, up to and including the present.
- In the early 1970’s more and more faculty members were becoming visible critics of the Ethiopian administration’s policies and shortcomings in conferences and in classrooms. The cabinet of Mr. Aklilou Habtewold decided to do something novel to counter this bourgeoning phenomenon. So, it was announced one bright morning that three faculty members of Haile Sellassie University have been “appointed” to administrative posts outside the University. Two of them were told to be Mayor of Gonder and Educational Attache in Moscow. The third “appointment” was that of Professor Mesfin Woldemariam to become governor of Gimbi subprovince in Wellega. The other two “appointees’ got themselves ready to take up their posts, but Professor Mesfin demurred. Among other things, he raised the question as to whether the Emperor was really informed of these “appointments” or was that an act of vendetta by the Prime Minister’s office to intimidate outspoken academics. Word spread that the government’s intentions were to give opportunities for the academics to show others how things should be done. Professor Mesfin argued that if, for example, while flying he sustains too much turbulence and asks the flight attendant what is the matter with the plane, the answer he would expect is not "why don’t you go to the cockpit and show us how to fly.” He was told to take up his post or face “legal” consequences. He insisted that he and his colleagues be granted an audience with the Emperor and hear from him directly. When he continued to refuse to go to Gimbi, he was arrested promptly and jailed in the Third Police Station of Addis Ababa. After a few days there he was released. He managed to have his audience with the Emperor who assured him that he had approved the appointments because he agreed with the way it was rationalized. He thanked the Emperor and indicated that he would take up the appointment. Meanwhile, too much time had been lost and Gimbi was without a governor for far too long. The folk there had lost their appetite for the special appointee from the national University.
- It is to be recalled that one of the episodes that precipitated the 1974 revolution that overthrew Emperor Haile Sellassie was the famine in Wello and adjoining Provinces. In 1973 Professor Mesfin had quietly gone north on the Asmera road and observed very many hungry exhausted and barely clothed people from Wello on their way to Addis Ababa to appeal to the government to do something about the terrible situation back home. Many had died along the trip and the police stopped the survivors at Kotebe on the outskirts of Addis. He returned and reported the tragic and traumatic situation to the University Teachers Association of which he was an Executive member and his colleagues immediately joined in by sending more fact-finding teams. In very short order Mesfin prepared a photo and tape record exhibit in the premises of the University under the title of “Drought and its Consequences.” This was a pivotal moment that accelerated the social revolution that erupted in Ethiopia. University students not only came out to demonstrate against the government, but they also let it be known that they would not return to classes in the midst of such horrendous famine in the country. The rest is history.
- After the demise of the monarchy, the military group, better known as the Derg had quickly rounded up and jailed Prime Minister Aklilou and virtually all his Cabinet members as well as high ranking officials and military brass. The Derg then established an Inquiry Commission in 1974 to determine criminal culpability with regard to the Wello famine. The 15-member Commission composed of military and civilian members including Professor Mesfin Welde Mariam. In July, the Commission convened and elected Professor Mesfin as chairman. He discharged his obligations in the committee in a relatively balanced and responsible manner. The proceedings of the Commission were aired on radio for a while and one sensed how highly politicized and volatile they were. The report of the Commission was subsequently submitted to the Derg in October 1974. It is not exactly clear what or how much, if any, the Derg relied on the Commission report to charge the members of the defunct government. But, political events moved too fast and due process of law was not a high priority with the Derg. Subsequently, in November of the same year the Derg summarily executed 60 political prisoners. Needless to say, some family members of the executed prisoners and others have lingering feelings of resentment regarding some or all the members of the Commission for the loss of loved ones or others whom they reckon were innocent.
- For the most part, Professor Mesfin was concentrating on his academic work in the post-1974 period. His promotion to full Professor was past due for some time. But after the revolution more and more cadres who began assuming positions of power and influence in the University were not Mesfin-friendly. As a result bureaucratic methods were used to prolong decisions on his promotion. But he did not protest or demand that it be expedited. Instead he went about teaching, researching, international conferencing and publishing scores of articles and several books in political geography, rural vulnerability to famine, Northeast Africa, an Amharic poetry book and also preparing numerous papers for international conferences. When the formal investiture of his Full Professorship was finally, and ever so belatedly announced, he did not even bother to attend the celebratory occasion. From time to time, Professor Mesfin also served in Study Committees on subjects such as the Ogaden Somali problem in Southeast Ethiopia and local self-government in Ethiopia as well as in University sub-committees. Whenever the subject presented itself, Professor Mesfin openly challenged Marxist notions and premises or their presumed interpretations in Study groups he participated in. He possesses superior debating skills, and not too many people who know him are eager to take him on.
- Several issues evolved in the late 80’s at Addis Ababa University that were too important for Professor Mesfin to ignore. A motley of politically potent group of academics and administration executives got together and came up with very left-wing radical proposals. One was to proscribe academic freedom on views not consistent with prevailing Marxist outlook. Another was on truncating college education to a three-year program and closing a number of Social Science Faculty departments and streamlining Social Science curriculum to comport to Marxist ideology instead of ‘decadent bourgeois’ ideology. A related policy change was to relegate graduates with 3.5 to 4.0 GPA’s from good private schools like St. Joseph’s and Nazareth schools to vocational training while admitting students with much lower grades, especially from the countryside to the University. These outlandish measures were duly railroaded through the University channels and declared operational and in fact University records will show that one batch of students graduated in three years at the time. Professor Mesfin regarded these developments as unsalutary for the country and for the University and the ill-advised decisions have to be challenged and reversed. He drafted well-argued manifestoes on each of the issues at hand and circulated copies of his theses by hand. He also submitted his views to the local papers. Very quickly, the public joined the battle. Professor Mesfin was no longer just a majority of one; he had struck a chord of solidarity with many Ethiopians, especially outside the University. Of particular interest was the quiet glee and gratitude for Professor Mesfin’s intervention on the part of many Derg members whose children were attending the very private schools that were targetted. The University clique which was beginning to celebrate its victory, cried foul. The culprits charged that as a member of the University, Professor Mesfin should have aired his views in University fora instead of forging direct contact with the public. Realizing that they were propagating a losing cause, they tried to make Professor Mesfin’s life and work in the University as unbearable as possible, including pressures on him to retire, evicting him from his office to a temporary (until he retires and leaves the campus) locale not conducive for productive work. At the end of the day, however, his challenge was successful on nearly all the points at issue.
- And now we come to a new political calendar of events as of 1991 when Professor Mesfin’s life and deeds crisscross and overlap with that of PM Meles. Professor Mesfin foresaw the possibility of a bloodbath in the armed struggle between the retreating Derg soldiers and the EPLF/TPLF rebels advancing to retain or to wrest power and control Addis Ababa. In an effort to forestall such tragedy befalling the Ethiopian people, he took the initiative to draft a peace plan in April 1991 to be submitted to both camps for their consideration. As it happens Addis Ababa was hosting the Eleventh International Conference of Ethiopian Studies coinciding also with PDRE National Shengo chaired by Col. Mengistu Hailemariam. In order to get some international/academic support, he presented his peace plan to the International Conference that endorsed it. A Committee for Peace and Reconciliation in Ethiopia was formed consisting of 11 members who went right to work and issued some modalities on how the plan for Peace and Reconciliation was envisaged to operate. A council of elders representing Ethiopia at large was to be elected which in turn would set up a ‘trusteeship government’ that would ensure a smooth and bloodless transition. The council and the Trusteeship body will also secure the sovereignty of Ethiopia and their democratic rights of open debate, draft a constitution and oversee an election process to constitute an elected government. Having done that, both the Council and Trustees will dissolve. The Peace Plan was submitted to both combatants and although the TPLF’s response was mute, the Derg high brass was livid. At the Shengo, Col. Mengistu asked how such proposals are made and expect him to implement it. In paraphrase form he asked: Who qualified Mesfin to become a Professor, anyway? After all, he himself and his comrades too have gone up and down in the country and done research—although not called Professors. Some others also had some harsh words for Professor Mesfin. However, Dr. Hailu Araya, a courageous Ethiopian with integrity who today also happens to share the same jail cells with Professor Mesfin in Kaliti, rose up to respond to Col. Mengistu. He took exception to the disparaging remarks about Professor Mesfin, a fine Ethiopian academic with long-term service to his country who does not deserve aspersions on his academic standing. He told Col. Mengistu that it was not up to him to question the professorial qualifications of Professor Mesfin. In fact, a more sober review of the proposal might help save Ethiopia from the coming deluge. Here, once again Professor Mesfin put his life, reputation and status on the line in the pursuit of what he deemed good for the cause of peace in Ethiopia.
- Although Col. Mengistu shunned Professor Mesfin’s peace proposal in Addis and shunted out of the capital to Harare, Zimbabwe under shady circumstances, “Peace Talks” were just around the global corner in London in late May 1991. This time the sponsor and controller of the agenda was the USA with carrot and stick. The new 1991 political calendar of events usher a period in which Professor Mesfin’s life and deeds crisscross and overlap with that of PM Meles. The first time the two personalities met in person and even carried on some group conversation on the current situation in Ethiopia was in London during the last week of May of 1991. Along with six other Ethiopians Professor Mesfin shows up in London to observe or monitor the “Peace Talks” presumably between the Ethiopian government--or what was left of it by then—on the one hand, and the rebel secessionist movements including OLF, TPLF and EPLF on the other under the chairmanship of Mr. Herman Cohen, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, USA. Thanks to a set of curious but deft moves, the Ethiopian Government, which was already in London for the Talks was sidelined while Mr. Cohen facilitated his “Peace Talks” among the rebel movements who were not at war against one another. This is not the place to go into this phenomenon in any depth as our focus is on Professor Mesfin Weldemariam’s public persona and deeds vis-à-vis Ethiopia. For Professor Mesfin this was an opportune moment to size up in person the two imminent rulers in Ethiopia, namely Mr. Issayas Afeworki and Mr. Meles (Legese) Zenawi. One of those who participated in discussions in London notes that Mr. Meles was smooth but devious in responding to some questions regarding TPLF’s intentions once in power in Addis Ababa. By contrast his twin from Asmera, Mr. Issayas was frigid and abrasive as he made it clear that he was not humored by Professor Mesfin’s call for peace and that the EPLF does not have to answer to any Ethiopians or others on Eritrean matters.
- The next time Professor Mesfin and PM Meles crossed paths was in Addis shortly after the latter had perched himself on the seat of absolute power in Ethiopia. He was relaxed enough to appear on a TV talk show mixing it up with academics including Professor Mesfin. In the course of the free for all palaver, Professor Mesfin said something astute and prophetic. To paraphrase him, he stated that he is aware of the oft-repeated slogan by the Chinese leader Mao Tse Tung: “Power comes out of the barrel of the gun.” "Be that as it may", said Professor Mesfin, "what is of grave concern to him is the danger of self-delusion in believing and behaving that knowledge and wisdom come out of the barrel of the gun as well." He had detected this syndrome in the Derg’s behavior and hoped that the current rulers will not perpetuate it. The last 15 years have amply demonstrated how prophetic Professor Mesfin was in 1991 on guns being the fountain of “knowledge” and its deadly consequences on the Ethiopian people.
- In October 1991 Professor Mesfin, with encouragement and support from like minded folks, formed the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO), the first such organization of its kind in the country’s history. Its objectives were to promote people’s sovereign democratic rights, rule of law and human rights and freedoms consistent within Universal Declarations, International Laws and Treaties. EHRCO, which he headed for nearly a decade initially, became virtually his full time work. He also on occasion did lecture tours in universities in the United States and elsewhere and continued his research and publications on various subjects. Professor Mesfin coasted in this manner for nearly a decade from 1991 to 2001. The Official Reports of EHRCO are detailed, corroborated, specialized and invaluable documentations of the state of human rights and rule of law in Ethiopia temporally and spatially. In a very short time Professor Mesfin, his colleagues and the dedicated cadre of mostly volunteer workers had created an incredible network of monitors and messaging systems to produce the kind of reports they issued. EHRCO reports were readily read and used by other Human Rights Organizations including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and on occasion, the US State Department as well as European Human Rights Monitoring bodies. Without a doubt Professor Mesfin has made a momentous and historic contribution to the cause of Human Rights at large and raising the consciousness of Ethiopians on their rights, privileges and responsibilities as citizens. This is the kind of peaceful revolution worthy of nomination for the Nobel Prize for Peace. Whatever happens, EHRCO will remain a monument to his name. It is up to succeeding generations to carry the torch that he has held high for so long.
- The crocodile jaws of the ruling junta began to train on Professor Mesfin and Dr. Berhanu Nega in April 2001 when they were arrested on trumped up charges of inciting University students to protest infringements on academic freedom. They were later released on bail but their case remains in the books and they have neither been charged nor exonerated on those charges since 2001. It should also be noted that while Professor Mesfin has always had the option and opportunities of taking residence abroad, he made a conscious decision not to do that, even to save himself from the kinds og ignominy he is subjected to by the brutal regime in Ethiopia.
- So far as is known Professor Mesfin had not joined a political party since the 1960’s. In 2004 Professor Mesfin changed that stance. In view of the forthcoming “election” in Ethiopia he co-founded what eventually became a party named Rainbow Ethiopia-Movement for Social Justice in Ethiopia. For many who have known him and followed his life with interest, this decision is significant. It is fairly safe to say that Professor Mesfin has no political ambition to be Prime Minister, although he is more qualified than most if he wanted to. He knows very well the ruthless nature of the ruling junta and how it murdered in slow motion his colleague, Professor Asrat Weldeyes. All this notwithstanding Professor Mesfin has been progressively committing himself to non-violence. Perhaps a congruence of several factors can explain his decision. Through his work in EHRCO he witnessed more than ever the depth and breadth of the brutality, exploitation, repression and impoverishment of the masses in Ethiopia and the need to do something about it. In a 2004 interview in an Amharic magazine (for over a year now virtually all non-regime papers and magazines have been banned) Professor Mesfin said: “Brutality (geff in Amharic) continues to persist so long as people continue to bear it.” Under the circumstances, enough is enough and a sustained peaceful resistance is needed to withstand ongoing brutality. Likewise, he must have determined that the vehicle for such a struggle can be the forthcoming election, so long as it is free and fair. Another reason may be coming in contact with capable, dedicated and energetic and reliable younger Ethiopians to work with. On the eve of the forthcoming May 2005 election the Rainbow party merged with several others to form the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD).
- The May 2005 election was billed as the most democratic in Ethiopian history and CUD was confident that if the process could be kept clean from campaigning through voting and ballot counting, the incumbent regime would lose and the Ethiopian people will reclaim their sovereignty. When CUD called for a show of solidarity in Addis Ababa one week before the election more than three million people filled the city. Although he himself declined to stand as a candidate for election, Professor Mesfin must have been satiated and grateful that democracy had at last arrived on Ethiopia's ancient soil. The CUD swept all the electoral constituencies in Addis Ababa trouncing TPLF (alias EPRDF) in a city it had controlled lock, dock and barrell for the past 15 years. This was a harbinger of things to come elsewhere. We cannot at this time go into the pros and cons of how what was a democratic election up to Election Day, was hijacked by the TPLF junta. The subsequent illegal incarceration of Professor Mesfin and other political figures is part of the cover-up of the stealing of the election by the ruling regime.
- Regardless of twists and turns of political winds, his footprints were visible and consequential on occasions. Unfailing constants in Professor Mesfin Weldemariam’s life are his exemplary teaching, his continued research, his prolific bilingual (in Amharic and English) writings and his establishment of EHRCO. He has had the richest working—as distinguished from showcase—library among his peers. He has published more books and articles on geography and a variety of subjects, including politics, hunger, current affairs and related subjects than his colleagues. Professor Mesfin is a veritable icon whose entire life has been one of service. Although his physical demeanor may appear to be intimidating to some, he is a gentle giant who has been increasingly dedicated to non-violence. When one countenances Professor Mesfin’s persona one is reminded of what the boxer Floyd Patterson once said, “it takes any man to fight; it takes a real man not to.” Mesfin Woldemariam is that kind of man. It is a travesty and the height of arrogance to accuse Professor Mesfin and the other prisoners of conscience languishing in Kaliti of “treason, genocide, crimes against humanity, inciting riots, etc…for nearly a year. Predator PM Meles has made these outstanding and worthy Ethiopians his prey. In fact, he has held the whole nation hostage.
This writer has focused on Professor Mesfin because he has known and interacted with him on and off since the 1950’s. In the interest of full disclosure it should also be stated that Professor Mesfin and this writer have had sometimes serious differences over the years, but have retained their mutual respect. The profile has been sketched largely from memory. It is not meant to ignore all the other prisoners of conscience with him in Kaliti. The injustice meted out to him has been to all the others also, and the call for the immediate and unconditional release applies to all. A profile such as this one should be written about each one by others as well.
Still, this writer is of the view that a little bit of Professor Mesfin is in all of his fellow prisoners and Professor Mesfin represents a little bit of everyone in that jail.
The next part of the essay will feature PM Meles and Ethiopia.
September 6, 2006.
Professor Negussay teaches at UCLA. His recent books are Ethiopia & the United States, the Season of Courtship, Volume 1 and In Seacrch of the DNA of the Ethiopia/Eritrean Problem.
Copyright © 2006. Negussay Ayele / MediaETHIOPIA.
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