September 30, 2020

Remembering Professor Mesfin Woldemariam: author, academician, activist, politician and human rights defender

Obituary

Professor Mesfin Woldemariam’s engagement in Ethiopian politics is rarely interregimic as only a…

Professor Mesfin Woldemariam’s engagement in Ethiopian politics is rarely interregimic as only a few have featured strong and controversial careers spanning from the Emperor’s time to the current administration of Dr. Abiy Ahmed. Advocacy, academia, human rights, authorship and strong engagements in the political discourse of the country have therefore made Professor a recognized name in many Ethiopian households. Picking and choosing what to say about the renowned public figure is surely challenging due to the immense contribution he has made to Ethiopia and the Ethiopian community in different regimes and socio-political circumstances. 

“His ideals and fights were not with a specific government. He is not against the oppressor. He was always against oppression and injustice.”  said a spectator that has followed the professors work for decades. 

The prominent academician, politician and human rights defender Professor Mesfin Woldemariam passed away at the age of 90, on September 29, 2020. The professor had been battling the coronavirus in St. Paul Hospital before succumbing to the novel pandemic, yesterday night. Professor Mesfin Woldemariam was born on April 23, 1930 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. 

The story of the professor started in Addis Ababa around the area commonly known as Sidist Kilo. The professor says he was five years old during the Italian occupation. He attended the renowned Teferi Mekonen and General Winget Schools in Addis Ababa before traveling to India to undertake his undergraduate studies earning his BA in Philosophy in Punjab, India. 

The late professor also attended the University of Clark earning his MA from the institution located in Massachusetts, USA. According to a retrieved publication on Clark University Website in 2003 the professor was asked to remain at Clarke University but refused by saying “I had so much that I wanted to transfer there [Ethiopia], I was impatient.” The professor was also a student of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church receiving his ordination as a deacon of the church in 1945. 

The professor's journey in the defence of civic rights started during his time in the United States. He was strongly affected by the civil rights movement of the black community during the period. On multiple occasions the professor challenged the oppressive rules and regulations against the black community. The professor returned to Ethiopia with this important exposure to the defence of rights and how to go about it.

Upon returning to Ethiopia, the professor joined the Mapping and Geography Institute. But he later transferred to the Addis Ababa University College because of his passion for academia. The university is where it all started for the controversial public figure. Among the highlights of the professor's years in the university during the emperor’s reign is his involvement in the student parade that supported the ousting of the Emperor by a faction of the Kibur Zebegna in 1960 during which the professor was seen in the streets with his students. 

In the 1960s and 70s, the university space was one of the key political spaces of the country. There is no better example to depict this than the late professor, Professor Mesfin Woldemariam. During the famine in both Tigray and Wollo, the professor played a key role in unmasking the neglect of the emperor and the provincial leaders of the country. During the Tigray famine, the professor traveled to Adigrat to collect information and shared such information with the Emperor upon his return to salvage support for the people in crisis in the region. 

However, the manner in which he exposed the Wollo draught showcased the professor’s grasp of advocacy and activism. At the time the professor assembled a team consisting of Getachew Haile, Abrham Demoz and others and traveled to the regions that were affected. The team took pictures and voice recordings depicting the harsh conditions created by the drought and famine in the Wollo region of Ethiopia at the time. Upon returning to Addis, the professor organized an exhibition in his office showcasing the pictures and voice recordings from his trip to Wollo. The next day the university students rioted. International support was gained, in a time where one territory was vastly far away from another. 

In the same year, the professor in partnership with Professor Bereket Habte Selassie started negotiations with workers from the  Wenji Sugar Factory, the Railway agency and the then Fiber Factory to secretly form the Ethiopian Labour Union. However, because Professor Bereket outed the secret plan to the Emperor, the professor’s plan did not see the light of day. On top of that, the professor was exiled to lead the Gimira Awraja. He returned shortly before being exiled again to head the Gimbi Awraja after speaking at a student conference held in the Africa Hall in 1972 where he said “Ethiopia does not have a government. Ethiopia has a share company.” Despite refusing to go, the professor accepted the exile after being detained for not accepting the Emperor’s decree. 

Then came the Derg. In the council that was created to pass judgements on high officials within the Emperor’s administration, the professor was selected to be the chairperson of the council. There exists a mixed narration of the role the professor played during his chairmanship of the council. While some believe he famously told the military government “መሳርያው በእጃችሁ ነው። ምን ትጠብቃላቹ?” which is used by the critics of the professor that claim he passed the judgement leading to the killing of the 60 high level officials of the Emperor by the Derg Regime.

The professor vocally denies these allegations claiming that it was a decision taken by the military government independent from the council. The council’s independence was in question as the transitional military junta wanted to involve in the discourse surrounding the high level imperial officials. This led the military government to pass the decision to execute the 60 officials independent of council’s knowledge. 

Near the end of the seventeen year Derg’s reign, the professor received his professorship after which he retired from academia. His political career, however, would continue throughout the EPRDF regime as well as the recent introduction of the Abiy administration.

The professor was part of the meeting between late Ethiopian Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi and current Eritrean President, Isayas Afewerki in London at the helm of the creation of the Ethiopian federation where he voiced concerns of erecting a federation based on ethnic identity to the future leaders of the two east African nations.

Shortly after the EPRDF took office, the professor created the Ethiopian Human Rights Council in 1984 marking one of the key contributions of the professor to Ethiopian politics and human rights discourse. The professor led the integral institution until 1995. “It was a unique and immensely important organization that professor Mesfin created..” said human rights lawyer serving board member of the council Amha Mekonen. 

Amha believes there is no human rights organization that has consistently contributed to the Ethiopian human rights discourse than the council. “Many people have paid hefty prices in the journey of the EHR Council including but not limited to the killing of Asefa Maru who was a serving member of the executive committee of the council.” said Amha recalling the immense relevance of the council to Ethiopian politics and human rights discourse. 

“The EPRDF was a military junta rebel group when it reached Addis Ababa. As such it had minimal appreciation for human rights principles. This led to the abuse of human rights in the first moments after the EPRDF assumed power.” said Amha, remembering the necessary political conditions that led to the formation of the council. “Professor Mesfin sought to fill this gap and guarantee the respect of human rights in the country.” Amha added echoing the important role played by the professor in the formation of the council. Amha concluded his remark on the work of the professor and the council by saying “It has achieved the above goal it was created to achieve. The impact is unmatched.” 

Professor Mesfin later turned his attention towards politics. In 2001, the professor formed the “Kestedemena” party in collaboration with Dr. Birhanu Nega and Dr. Shimelis Tekletsadik. The plan behind forming the new party was to bring together opposition parties and compete in a relatively equal footing with the strong EPRDF in the 2005 elections. The initiative then grew to form one of the most strong proponents of the EPRDF in its three decades in power, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy(CUD) (better known as the Kinijit). However, as the election approached due to internal quarrels, the professor left the party before the 2005 elections kicked off.

Despite this decision to not participate in the 2005 elections, however, Professor Mesfin was arrested in relation to the 2005 elections and the riots that followed the results which were contested by the CUD for being a rigged election. The professor was sentenced to life in prison by the EPRDF regime before being released after two years.

The struggle continued with the formation of Unity for Democracy and Justice Party(UDJ) with current chair of the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia, Birtukan Mideksa. He left the party shortly because of internal disagreements amongst its members. This concluded the political career of the professor in a political party setting as Professor Mesfin did not return to formal party based politics after that. 

This, however, was not the end of the political career and influence of the professor. He  continued to release books and articles around the political and socio-economic status of the country as well preserving an active social media presence throughout his career until his death on the evening of September 29, 2020. “He was still active despite his old age.” said an anonymes commentator who closely followed the professor’s work until his death. The professor engaged with the younger generation using social media platforms despite his age as can be attested by his posts that he consistently shared until his death, yesterday. 

Professor Mesfin Woldemariam has written several books and several articles that have received immense recognition locally as well as globally. Some of his most controversial writings include አገቱኒ (Agetuni) - which was an autobiography of the professor, and መክሸፍ እንደ ኢትዮጵያ (Mekshef ende Ethiopia) which contests the validity of recording of Ethiopian history.

The charismatic public figure has received the Heinz R. Pagels Award in 2006 and a lifetime achievement award from the Democracy for Ethiopia Support Group in Australia in 2014. He also received the Ethiopian Human Rights Defenders Award in 2019 from the Defend Defenders organization upon which he reportedly said “There's no better acknowledgement of one’s efforts, than the one from close friends” after receiving the award. 

Professor Mesfin Woldemariam's was laid to rest at the Membere Tsebaot Holy Trinity Church on October 6, 2020 in the presence of his family, collegues and admirers as well as government officials including Deputy Mayor of Addis Ababa Adanech Abiebie, Minister of Education Dr. Getahun Mekuria, Minister of Culture and Tourism Dr. Hirut Kassaw as well as religious and political personalities in the country.

The professor is survived by two daughters, a son and four grandchildren.

This article was updated on October 7, 2020 so as to include the memorial of the professor.