Thursday, August 31, 2006

To Mesfin Woldemariam: the single most important Ethiopian academic and intellectual of our time

Tomoka Coffeehouse, ten minutes walk from Piassa, is no Café Griensteidl. It is hardly well-furnished and spacious. There are no billiard tables or chess sets. Marble-topped tables usually strewn with newspapers plunk inches away from each other barely allowing a space to stand up and sip the small cup of coffee served on a steel tray. Yet Tomoka has an intriguing feel of a 19th century Viennesian coffeehouse. Its tables are as much a platform for ideas as coffee. It is where brilliant youth with precocious talents for analytical thinking and reasoning grapple with philosophy, politics and economics.
Professor Mesfin Woldemariam used to have, like Emmanuel Kant, a routine morning walk to Tomoka where he would be surrounded by the smart and fiercely combative young intellectuals, who weren't even born when his seminal works on famine and food security were published, and argue about everything on earth, from post-modernism and Derrida to Tomism . The spirit of Tomoka is Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto ; nothing human is alien to me. No debate, however, is without an Ethiopian reference. Professor Mesfin always raised the possibilities of the construction of a self one can be proud of; and where discussions on personal identity in the Ethiopian context lead is predictable: a heated exchange on ethnic politics. Mesfin was not an "in most things unity" Augustinian. As a universalist with a passion for individual rights, he wasn't an intellectual to make a call to arms in defense of ethnic politics of whatever kind. But in his young companions, he didn't look for conformity to his views. Instead he wanted to see the honesty of their views and the consistency of their logic. He, sometimes, pushed the perverse sides of the argument, brought up ideas totally contrary to his and defended them with the zeal of a devil's advocate. In that professor Mesfin's method appeared like the Socrates method on its head.
Of course, at the end of the debates Mesfin wanted to get as many youth to share his passion for individual rights and non-violence. It is these two positions that make him a gadfly in Ethiopian politics post 1970s which has been dominated by the revolutionary generation which grew up idolizing Che Guevara than Ghandi; Marx than Mill. He was vilified by the violent student protestors of early 1970s who counted their legendary teacher among them but felt betrayed when he rejected their "Fano Tesemara", a violent revolutionary slogan. Mengistu hated his steadfast liberalism, calling him a CIA agent. The TPLF who weren't used to the rigorous academism and intellectualism of the Mesfins demonized him when he dissected their half-baked Marxism and ethnic politics and laid it to its bare bones. Beyond academics, his staunch defense of human rights led him to create the Ethiopian Human Rights Council, procreating and initiating people to rites of the defense of liberty and equality. Where death was culture, he argued for the abolition of death penalty. Where government was supposed to be untouchable, he exposed with rigorous research the government's willful and wanton violations of human rights.
The influence of great dissenters will be felt when their ideas and views sip through the layers of time and reach the subsequent generations. Professor Mesfin has among other things saved the principles of non-violent struggle and the defense of individual rights from extinction in Ethiopia with an exemplary, frank and patient devotion. The youth in Tomoka and elsewhere are making it mainstream. Idea lives beyond the incarceration and death of its holder.


Anonymous said...


Thank you for the wonderful article, not only about this special person, Prof. Mesfin, but also the kind of interaction he had with his University students in the 70s of Ethiopia.There is truth in your last paragraph, and it is very tauching, and brings awareness in the immortality of some great mortals.

May he stay in safety and strength.
I think you will make a good biographer on his life. There is a suggestion by some people to nominate him for Nobel Peace Price.

Anonymous said...

Prof. Mesfin is a great man of vision who stood firm on his ideals. He survived brutal regimes because the brutes knew that he was a peaceful activist who used pens and logic to convince them. The three dwarf leaders of Ethiopia: Haile Selassie, Mengistu and Meles did not kill him, because he did not threaten their power with guns and bullet. His power has been his wisdom and his quest for individual freedom. I hope he is writing his autobiography in Kaliti.

Anonymous said...

I was one of his student at Addis Abeba university in the late 70's and early 80's. I remember how he was telling us about individual liberty and freedom, the violation of human rights by the then Military regime and marxist groups. He always say that marxism is anti-human rights,and it promotes dictatorship.He was advocating that the history of Ethiopia is a history of war and violent power struggle, and our generation has the duty to change this attitude to a peaceful and non-violent struggle to bring democracy and promote development. I was astonsihed at that time how dare this dwarf man but with giant idea talkes like this in the middle of spies and cadres, and left wing sympathizers of TPLF EPLf and EPRP who operates underground in the campus and military allied marxist group among them MESON. I know they hate him for his strong belief even during the Emperor time. His textbook on Ethiopian Geography for high school and college students, his scholastic writings on the problem facing Ethiopia regarding famine, war and resource management, above all his advocate for human rights and individual freedom are the greatest contribution he made for Ethiopia. He is the greatest teacher, father, advocate of the poor and intellect. Melese hate him on two grounds 1) he absolutely refutes the marxist based ethnic politics and tyrnical regime 2) He is the advocate of individual freedom and liberal democracy, a moral leader and a father.
May God bless him for the sacrifices he is paying...This principled man and intellectual is always a winner..

Gobena Aba Defar

Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

what would i say about gash mesfin....
i wish i could talk to him one day
till then " gash mesfin ethiopiawineten yebelete endewedew siladerekejn ameseginalew" dear zagol can you make this message rich to gash mesfin

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

This man's ideas based on strong belief in rights of the individual citizen have stood the test of time. This makes him one of our greatest minds.

I hope he will live on to see the fruits of his struggle which spans more than 4 decades.

Prof: we are proud to be your compatriots.

Anonymous said...

I owe Professor Mesfin a great respect. He is among very few people in the world who has MORAL AUTHORITY over others, authority which makes one to follow him or to listen to him or to do what he orders ... out of complete willingness, and not for a reward or not through coercion. I am his admirer and I wish him long life and full health. May the love and protection of our Lord always be with him! Amen.


Anonymous said...

There we go! The truth we had to face. The man is a giant of some sort. The sort many of us detasted for long but faced it towards the end of our youth. Prof. Mesfin stood by what he envisioned for Ethiopia: INDIVIDUAL LIBERTY. We failed to understand it for quite a long time. We all wanted something that moves the rocks, in stead. We moved the kingdom of Ethiopia and trashed it away by the popular revolutionary power; that was nothing but an anarchiism, in retrospect. The military grip to power was the result and it became the worst dictator of modern history. We again moved that strong military ruler and it was in ruins in just two years. However, we never realised that popular movements do not bring about peace and prosperity to our beloved country.

On the contrary, we find Mesfin Woldemariam who stood by his firm beliefs and still advocates liberty of the individual pramarily rather than moving stones around. He firmly believed that the future of Ethiopia is in the liberty of the individual. He did teach us a lesson. I think I learned my lessons from him now as ever and I have no other course to take than pushing it through to see that we Ethiopians see to it that liberty gets into our bloods and strains.

Gashe Mesfin, thank you for standing by for us. May God bless you for what you were trying to teach for long. You endured all the hardships for us. You kept on believing in us even when we refused to take up the our own responsibilities. Gashe Mesfin, we are finally with you. You must be proud of us, now. We are on our own and we wanted freedom and liberty for ourselves and for each and every one of us.

Blessings to you,

Anonymous said...

Come on people!!!!!! Are we saying that this man who uttered not a single word of protest during the tyrannical derg regime's 17 years of barbaric and murderous reign of terror, a man of conscience and the( actually thee) champion of individual liberty??? I am so confused. Mesfin Woldemariam, characterized by the one Mengistu (butcher of Addis), as "Meseri(the amharic pejorative denoting one who harms from the inside" sat with his 1970s bravado, glasses and wide shirt collars and all as the prominent member of the then Investigational Committee of the Derg (some say formed by Emperor Haile Selassie's regime itself) to find out the wrong doings of some 60 plus top Ethiopian ministers and officials of the time. The man silently endorsed the extra judicial killings and brutal massacre of Ethiopia's irreplaceable historical figures and dedicated public servants. In fact none other than Mengistu mentions how Mesfin shared the stories of the Spanish Revolution and the wiping out of the Spanish Aristocracy by "revolutionaries" (definitely the readings of a lefitst leaning, social experimenter rather than the imagination and discovery of an uneducated low class officer embodied in Mengistu).

No human being with an ounce of dignity can look up to this dubious and shameful opportunist Mesfin Woldemariam who has crownedhimself Professor (some say it was Mengistu who gave him the title). The man has not opposed the Derg regime, has not protested the death, destruction and exodus en masse of millions of Ethiopians throught the Derg era. In a twist of fate and irony, this once day to day bedfellow of Derg psycopaths and sociopaths, a sycophant of the now deposed Mengistu has dicovered God in the dungeons of Kalit prison from where he may at last be repenting for the crimes,betrayal and displacement he has caused against true and patriotic Ethiopians under his supposed tutoring or lack thereof of his ousted antisocial Derg anarachists and assassins of the Ethiopian people.

Anonymous said...

Not a single criticism of the man makes it an invalid menu for discussion. The facts are clear as what Mesfin has done and is hiding from Ethiopians. If my comments won't surface at all,it is understandable, but won't change the fact that Mesfin is a dishonorable man, and an unworthy Ethiopian.