There is no doubt about it; Ethiopia has lost its foremost and most reputed champion of human rights. Professor Mesfin Wolde Mariam was a champion of human rights par excellence, a man who strictly lived what he preached and introduced a new standard of human rights protection in the country. This has been seconded by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in his message of condolences to the family and people of Ethiopia in general. A man who believed in the principle that only ideas must be the determinants in any political debates or controversies, dismissing any option of violence. Freedom of thought and expression were the trademarks of the late Professor Mesfin who tireless preached these principles to anyone who headed the country’s establishment.
Ever since his acquaintance and inspiration by India’s Mahatma Ghandi’s philosophy of non violence in protests during his higher education mission in India, Professor Mesfin has always preached non violent means to challenge any constituted power that he thought was not respecting the rights of citizens. In an extensive interview he once gave to Meaza Biru of Sheger Radio some years ago, he outlined the major chapters of his life in what resulted to be a revealing account including his personal life.
Professor Mesfin has always been reputed for his controversial stance on many topics including historical records of the country he thought were not properly addressed.
He was an uncompromising and ardent believer in freedom and contrary to any form of totalitarian or absolute tendencies in exercising any form of power. That was why he has always been at the centre of the attention of people in power beginning his high school days at the famous Tafari Makonnen School. He never got intimidated by his critics who were often fond of accusing him of never engaging himself in responsible positions in government but instead limited himself to the more comfortable world of criticism. Despite such remarks however Professor Mesfin has continued with his sharp criticism of what he thought went wrong in the country without fear. He was admired by millions for his coherence and bravery in challenging people of authority including successive heads of state and government. And for that he has been awarded several recognitions among human rights groups and organisations of citizens.
Since his days at the Tafari Mekonnen more than sixty years ago, Professor Mesfin has always been a vanguard advocate of human rights battling at times single handedly, at times constituting organisations, against all forms of breaches. He has traveled throughout Ethiopia inch by inch probably more than any other soul in the country while he carried out extensive and protracted research of various kinds in his specialization as geography professor. He was a first hand witness of the various famine stories of the country and was convinced that it was the system that should be held accountable for any failures that cost lives. He firmly condemned the kind of lavish life politicians and leaders conducted while their subjects suffered of subhuman poverty. This was a human rights issue for Professor Mesfin and he never shied from declaring it openly and loudly. In doing so he exposed himself to dangers, but he was never cowed by threats. Indeed for many, he was the ‘conscious of the nation’. He often described himself as an angry citizen and wanted the best for his country.
His study papers have become authorities used for reference in any academic exercises and for decades has been an active lecturer at the then Haile Selassie I University and later on AAU until he was made to retire despite his intact intellectual and physical capacities.
In the past several decades he has always been active in the political field expressing his thoughts and reflections on any national issue he thought crucial. He was most reputedly behind the formation of the famous Kinijit Party a coalition of four parties called Coalition for Unity and Democracy during the pre-2005 election period. But he was never willing to have or exercise power. He always argued that he preferred to be at the sidelines and act as a ‘watch dog of human rights abuses’ or power abuses. He was active commenting, advising and when necessary condemning in the strongest terms whatever ideas he thought were harmful to the Ethiopian people. He was widely considered as the principal advocate of the nation.
Professor Mesfin’s principled life has made him a target of all those who wanted to use power the way they felt convenient for their agenda. He however never desisted from vehemently condemning and denouncing, risking his security and even life. In fact, he was thrown to jail several times the latest of which was during the aftermath of the 2005 elections when his party refused to acknowledge the victory of EPRDF in an election he thought was robbed. issues was considered the right standard. He insisted that an enslaved population can never come out of poverty and destitution. He thus firmly advocated for free elections and strong and independent democratic institutions. Mesfin argued that short of that nothing would be fine for Ethiopians. He continued to oppose and criticize regimes beginning from the imperial times up to the current one.
He established the Ethiopian Human Rights Council which was considered a thorn in the flanks of the EPRDF government after it took power deposing the military dictatorship. And this body continuously proceeded in exposing widespread human rights violations in the country asking the authorities to take corrective measures. Moreover, he was a vehement and prominent critic of the EPRDF’s policies on a number of issues accusing them of corruption, misuse of power and nepotism that divided the country. He always thought that Ethiopia and Eritrea were one nation and that trying to divide the country along ethnic or other differences was dangerous for the integrity of the country.
Professor Mesfin Wolde Mariam has produced generations of academics in the country and was always on the side of the oppressed and disadvantaged. He never fancied personal wealth and in fact has always lived in a small and mediocre apartment in the centre of Addis without any property of his own. He led a hermetic life devoid of luxuries or excesses researching constantly and uninterruptedly for decades, always taking part in active political discourse, using blogs and magazines, where he expressed his reflections.
Professor Mesfin has extensively written about history, geography economics and politics and has left immense legacy for the current and future generations. He was revered among his students and always had his doors open for any sort of consultation; and across generations taught them to be servants of the poor Ethiopian people and not be engaged in plundering it.
He was once dismissed by the Emperor when he declined to submit to the emperor’s suggestions which for him were not based on scientific data. The close aids of the Emperor advised him to give a positive answer to the suppositions or demands of the monarch. But Professor Mesfin was no sycophant and his answer was that there was no readymade answer for the Emperor’s question. This was considered as irreverent and sparked the rage of the monarch.
The integrity with which Professor Mesfin faced any leader be it the Emperor or Colonel Mengistu or even the subsequent leaders of Ethiopia including Meles, Haile Mariam and Dr Abiy has always been consistent and coherent. He never backed from criticism of what he thought were ‘misdeeds’. This is the trademark of Professor Mesfin: categorical, inflexible and consistent. And he paid every sacrifice necessary to stand to his principles.
This is the supreme quality of the professor, a true Ethiopian nationalist optimist that it can be a great country only if people are allowed to live in freedom. He argued that an enslaved population can never succeed to do anything useful. He also argued poverty can soundly be defeated only through freedom because humans are born free and need to live freely, not chained by political opportunists and traders.
Professor Mesfin thus rejected all forms of oppression of peoples and all forms of violations of human rights. And he lived to denounce these breaches until the final days of his long and blessed life, a life to celebrate for all champions of freedom and democracy, equality and justice.
That was what Professor Mesfin Wolde Mariam lived for and that is what he will best be remembered for.
Indeed Ethiopia has lost one of its most precious sons and while we all mourn the death of the Professor, we will always cherish his example and follow his thoughts in fighting for the respect of human rights and the control and exercise of power through legal means only.