Thursday , January 27 2022
Home / Perspective / Book Review: WORDS THAT GOVERN



BooK:                     Words that Govern and Other Essays in Law and Politics
Author:                  Bereket Habte Selassie
Price:                     $24.95
Pages:                    256
Year:                       2018
Publisher:              Red Sea Press

WORDS That GOVERN is written to the budding young democratic prince—a citizen who has to govern him/herself under the revolutionary and yet old idea of self-government—by a scholar-practitioner, who was, in his long and rich career, fully engaged in the subject. In a career that spanned six decades, Dr. Bereket Habte Selassie had the opportunity to work on, mull over and write about the most important perennial issues that have consumed the best minds in the history of mankind. They are perennial because each and every generation has to deal with them, and Eritreans are no different. Words encapsulate our highest ideas and aspirations and it is with words that we best express our humanity and govern ourselves. Freedom of opinion and the right to freely express them are the two intertwined pillars of a free society.

Public conversations—debates, dialogues, diatribes, and discourses—must thrive and continue to thrive if liberty is to live in perpetuity and tyranny is to be kept at bay. Liberty is the responsibility to self-rule without any undue constraints and interferences. It is the condition that ensures, in the words of Lincoln, that “the government by the people, from the people and to the people” does not perish from the earth. Liberty requires an informed and educated citizenry. An educated citizen is easy to govern and hard to enslave. No wonder that tyrants are invariably anti-education and are often-times ill-educated themselves. Look no farther; Isaias Afwerki is the embodiment of this malaise. Of the top ten least educated presidents in Africa, Isaias Afwerki ranks number eight. Eritrea, under Isaias Afwerki’s colossus mismanagement, ineptness, and mediocrity, has become a pariah and a poster-child of what is wrong with Africa: a place of ignorance, poverty, under-development, indebtedness, war, conflicts, and stagnation.

Stability and peace, the author argues, are essential to nation and state-building. The genius of any political life is the recognition that nothing is permanently locked, and is, thus, subject to be cautiously amended and appended by each and every generation. Every political document suffers from the faults of omission and commission. “When a nation is engaged in making or amending a constitution, the expectation is for such parochial, constituency interests to be submerged beneath a higher national agenda,” (pg. 23) but, in the final analysis, it has to reflect the agenda of the powers that be. To make it work, it will require patience, commitment and fortitude from all concerned parties.

The doors of self-governance are open and change all the time because they are inherently imperfect and need to be improved upon. But as long as people live another day to fight and there are mechanisms for redressing societal grievances, there is no need to rock the boat. This is the basis of modern constitutional engineering, and certainly, the basis of Eritrea’s ratified constitution, whose principal author and chair of its Constitutional Commission was Dr. Bereket Habte Selassie. Constitutional engineering has become, “the principal method of achieving democracy” (pg. 2) in Africa and elsewhere.

On many occasions, I have heard Dr. Bereket quote Benjamin Franklin who at the end of the Constitutional Convention in 1787 was asked by Mrs. Powel of Philadelphia, “Well, doctor, what have we got, a republic or monarchy?” and Ben Franklin retorted, “A Republic if you can keep it.” The implication is that Dr. Bereket Habte Selassie and his Constitutional Commission have given us a constitution if we, the citizens of Eritrea, can just keep it.

By refusing to implement the “popularly drafted and ratified constitution,” Isaias Afwerki has sentenced it to still-birth. But as long as the fight for liberty is on, the constitution will enjoy currency—it is an integral piece of the most optimal solution. “The general consensus now is that the ratified constitution can serve as a crucial weapon in the struggle for democratic change and that it can be amended to accommodate the demands for any necessary change.” (pg. 199) The implementation of the constitution is a win for liberty and a loss for the tyranny.

The ratified constitution is a friend to those fighting for liberty and an anathema to Isaias and his coterie of Stepford minions. Despite its lack of implementation, the constitution is “a potent and morally compelling force.”

Democracy is the best way to institutionalize liberty. The democratic prince must, therefore, possess certain virtues among which the most important is the eternal vigilance to cherish, preserve and protect liberty. In the Discourse, Machiavelli points out “that no institution can be long preserved, but by the frequent recurrence to those maxims on which it was founded.” WORDS THAT GOVERN echoes similar sentiments.

The problem with Africa, as President Kennedy would say, is that “liberty without learning is always in peril and learning without liberty is always in vain.” There was something fundamentally flawed with the democratic experimentation in Africa. None of them were home-grown. Learning implies adaptation and internalization and there was none of that. Africa was not the architect of its own learning.

In the preface to his famous book, THE PRINCE, Machiavelli urged Lorenzo De’ Medici to accept his humble gift in which he has ventured “to discourse and lay down rules concerning the government of Princes.” His authority rested on his practical experience and study. “For as those who make maps of countries place themselves low down in the plains to study the character of mountains and elevated lands, and place themselves high up on the mountains to get a better view of the plains, so in like manner to understand the People a man should be a Prince, and to have a clear notion of Princes he should belong to the People.”

Dr. Bereket Habte Selassie has seen the political landscape of Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Africa from the top of the mountain and from the bottom of the valley. He has seen it all: the hope and despair, the ebbs and flows, the boom and bust of nation-building and political and economic development. He has had a front-row seat at the so many revolutions which were inspired by the loftiest and noblest of ideas only to end up joining a long list of Africa’s unfulfilled aspirations. In his experience, he has come to believe “that, far from being mutually exclusive, the two aspects—the academic and the practical—are mutually enriching.” (pg. 136)

The long winter of despair and disappointment has not yet prevented hope and optimism from springing eternal in this hopelessly romantic revolutionary and pan-Africanist, who still, in his sunset years, proudly sings praises to the ideas of human dignity, liberty, rule of law, peace, democracy, self-determination, and social justice. The more things have changed, the more they have remained the same, but this pessimistic observation of the intellect only serve to correct the Panglossian optimism of the many and it is vital and necessary.

The failure of implementation, as the book repeatedly demonstrates, does not negate the saliency of these ideas to Africa and humanity in general. “A deviation from the path does not diminish the value of the path, nor the goal at the end of it.” (pg. 4) He approaches the failures and disappointments with empathy and understanding for he is intimately aware that many good people had labored under the burdens of history, oppression and enormous internal and external challenges, which made success an elusive prospect.

Although he understands that failure might have been inevitable, he does not condone crimes committed in the process: they were categorically inexcusable. The “leaders have become a cabal of self-perpetuating oligarchy, playing Russian roulette with its fortune and the lives of its people.” (pg.171) “What should be done to leaders who are the cause of much tragedy and human suffering? And what is the role of ideas and institutions, both modern and traditional, which enable such leaders to commit acts of horror?” (pg.62)

Morality and God loom large in his outlook and love, mercy, forgiveness, compassion, and understanding become instrumental in healing wounded nations and reconciling divided societies. There is no justice without mercy, no understanding without empathy, no comity without compassion and no reconciliation without forgiveness. “An orgy of blame game may satisfy some egos but…far from helping to heal a wounded nation, it will do irreparable damage.” (pg. 172) Flexing muscles make us strong and relaxing them better. The key is to recognize that “Every tragedy contains a Potential for Redemption.” (pg. 76)

In this small, intelligent and graceful volume, Dr. Bereket Habte Selassie, bequeaths his life-learned lessons to the modern and emerging democratic prince, but not in a fashion that smacks self-aggrandizing. Anyone who knows the author up close and personal could testify that he is nothing but humble and in Bereketesque manner, WORDS THAT GOVERN is saying that “a dwarf sometimes may see that which a giant looks over.” Throughout his career, he has learned from people of all walks of life and believes, like Galileo Galilei, that no man is too ignorant not to learn from.

WORDS THAT GOVERN is a book that would make one rediscover and savor the importance of old ideas such as wisdom, prudence and statesmanship. The book is a collection of essays—instant classics—told with a modern flavor. The topics range from Democracy and Peace in the age Globalization, Aspects of Language, Law, and Politics, Making Sense of National Boundaries, Crime and Punishment, Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, Self-Determination, Unity for the Greater Good, When the Protector Becomes Predator, and Religion and Nationalism.

WORDS THAT GOVERN asserts that the “mark of mature statesmanship is to seek a solution satisfactory to both sides,” (pg. 155) and that “moral and normative principles do not always prevail over power politics,” but it helps to know that politics is “part serious and part theatre.” In the words of the 19th British statesman Benjamin Disraeli, “It is with words that we govern men,” and hence the title of the book under review.

Wisdom matters and in a moment of ambiguity, the democratic prince should always raise the proverbial question of how hedgehogs make love and the answer will invariably be: very carefully.

To purchase the book, click here: Words That Govern or

Semere T. Habtemariam is the author of “Reflections of the History of the Abyssinian Orthodox Tewahdo Church” and “Hearts Like Birds.” He can be reached at

About Semere T Habtemariam

Semere T Habtemariam is an author and a columnist at Awate. He holds a BA in Government and Politics and a MA in Public Affairs from the University of Texas at Dallas. He lives in Dallas, Texas. His two books are: Reflections-History-Abyssinian-Orthodox-Tewahdo and Hearts-Like-Birds.

Check Also

SmeTr Hamassien: Objective and Struggle

Book Review by Semere T Habtemariam Title: SmeTr Hamassien: Objective and Struggle (ስመጥር ሓማሴን፥ ዕላማን …

  • Donald King

    “The book is a collection of essays,—instant classics—told with a modern flavor” – As an essay writer from want to say: this book a good example of Bereket Habte Selassie works. I like it a lot.

  • MS

    Selam Semere T. Habtemariam
    Thanks for the unique contributions you have been making. A great author produces a great book, and that great book needs a great reviewer to get introduced to the public. You have been knocking on our doors, motivating us to read. And for that, you deserve a big “thank you.” I wish Dr. Bereket more of productive years.

  • Ismail AA

    Dear all,

    Semere T. Habemariam has returned back to this forum with a review of a new book by Professor Berekhet Habteselasie – an accomplished living (may he live longer) Eritrean jurist, political activist and man of letters. As book review writers, Semere and Burhan Ali make up a formidable duo that grace this forum with informed reviews. In this piece, too, Semere’s erudition, command of substance and style of transmission finely combine to give the reader sweet flavor.

    As I had state in comment to another book review, it’s not easy for a reader to formulate opinion before reading it and properly pondering on matters the author handled in the book. Hence an advance apology is appropriate in case possible faulty assessments and notions may occur in what I indent to scribble hereunder with focus on the paragraphs that interest me as person, namely pertaining to the constitution.

    First, let me take risk and surmise that probably nothing might be more important to Professor Berekhet than the issue of his legacy after a long career with enormous achievemets as jurist, politician and author. Among his many works the constitution he had helped to write might be by far a most crucial matter to him and his legacy because its fate shall determine continuity of his memory among Eritrea’s posterity from generation to generation. Thus, I am one of those who wonder what the professor’s thoughts on this matter might be.

    Now, the reviewer has summed up the significance of Professor Berekhet’s relation to the constitution by comparing it to Benjamin Franklin present of a republic that both the Eritreans and the USA citizens should keep. But the question is, while in the 1787 USA Convention the Americans enjoyed consensus, did the Eritrean stakeholders had chance to relish the same in the run up to the stated ratification of the constitution in 1997? Did not Professor Berekhet and his team suffer assault unleashed from the then ever cognizant authorities and rendered the document to “reflect the agenda of the powers [they were and still are]”? Endorsing the professor’s cardinal conviction that a lively political-legal document cannot be expected to be immune to “omissions and commissions”, has not professor Berekhet been convinced yet that volumes of water has flown under the bridge since 1997, and it is time for him to say the much awaited word, and use his high moral and intellectual authority to spell out in crystal clear manner his testimoy by laying down the “omissions and commissions” that may help to guarantee the survival of the constitution during and after the departure of regime?

    In my humble view, the odds that are facing the constitution can be stated in three categories: the regime that had sponsored it and later dumped it along its supporters, the bona fide sceptics and those who felt excluded by the regime, and thereby the commission, and the former supporters-turned freedom seekers who are the most forceful proponents of the constitution. Each for separate and contradictory reasons, the first two categories agree on the fate of the constitution that it has run out of steam, And, such a scenario the third category is disadvantaged. making the Semere’s statement on consensus very weak if not misplaced.

    The solution could, therefore, be creating bridge between the bona fide sceptics and the third category. This may be perhaps facilitated by Professor Berekhet’s clear statement about the omissions and commissions that had been caused by the authorities (regime). This may allay the concerned of the excluded and consensus could anchor on what the Professor would state, and build on it. Once that bridge would be erected, there could be possiblility of making the constitution rally and unifying forces against the regime.

    As a man who had seen, among other things, Eritrea’s affairs from top of the mountain and bottom of the valley, as Semere had stated, Professor Berekhet knows what Eritrea’s national unity requires and its cruciality to guarantee its future as a state viable for building it to provide prosperity and happiness of its citizens. Perhaps, what I am asking the Professor to do would be a last gift to souls and spirits of our martyrs, to the permanently injured veterans, aging and dying freedom fighters and above all his sons and daughters who deserve to be given reason to remember him and his work.

    • Kokhob Selam

      Nice Ismail,

      A man full of wisdom. Balanced and well behaved man of our current ..


    • Amanuel Hidrat

      Selam Ismailo,

      You are damn good to express your view in such eloquently and humbly. I started to jotted out my qualms and grievances on the authors wisdom pertinent to the constitutional document. I stopped it, because your comment elegantly expressed my dissatisfaction on the costutional document, for which I wrote several articles about the the flaws of the document (a) on the nature of its process (b) on the nature of government it envisioned (c) on the failure to address the grievances of minorities on how they get equitable sharing in the political and economic life of our people (d) on the issue of national language (e) on the issue of land and private properties. Thank you Ismailo for expressing my grievance to the good doctor and his colleagues.


      • Ismail AA

        Dear Aman H.,

        Thank you for your compliment. I was one of those who learned a lot from your writings on the issue. Much has been written and discussed about the document by professionals as well as amateurs like myself.

        That is why I tried to suggest to Professor Berekhet that the issue was sufficiently debated not for the sake of expressing mere opinions, but for common concern because the matter is fundamentally important to our future as citizens of a nation very much preoccupied by costly struggles in both hot and cold wars to construct a state capable of providing harmonious existence to its citizens.

        I believe that the professor has a role to play in re-visiting the work he had guided and contribute may be by way of issuing a historic testimony discerning the flaws and omissions that could help in unifying the divided opinions on the constitution so that ranks among the justice seekers could be closed against the regime.

        • Amanuel Hidrat

          Merhaba Ismailo,

          You are not amateur Ismailo. You have been a political actor for decades since you joined the Eritrean struggle, and as such in the foreign office to promote the Eritrean cause. Second a “constitution” is a “political” document before it becomes a “politico-legalese” document. By that it means you have a big role In scrutinizing the document politically. Stop this underestimating yourself. We know them all the members of the commission.

          Now, back to the issue: I like your approach in formulating your questions when you asked the good doctor to spell out the “Omission and commission” in the document. I wish the good doctor, for the sake of his legacy could do it. I am sure he knows all the omissions in the process and the omissions in the content of the document,

          However, the good doctor has hinted about the changes that are required in it in different occasions (a) the issue of language (b) the issue of land (c) the need of devolvements of powers from the center to the peripheries. We shall see how sincere he is about it.

          Lastly, my gut tells me that the document was drafted for single party rule. Ismailo, you know as I know that “all parties are organizations, but all organizations are not parties.” The document did not spell it out that Eritreans can organize in to parties. Second, disallowing the participation of the other existing organization at that time, did also reconfirm to my suspicion. It was a flawed process, and from a flawed process you can only get a flawed document. Though the good doctor could not admit that Issayas and his colleagues had heavy hand behind the curtain, the outcome was dictated by the organization. Third, keep in mind that the charter of the organization was the basis in drafting the document . In short when I asked him as to what was the basis of the draft: “ካብ ገለ ፖርትታት ናይ ፈረንሳ ዝረኸብናዮ ምኽርታትን ካብ ተሞክሮ ውድብናን ተመርኩስና ኢና ገይርናዮ እኮ ተባሂልና ኢና:: “


          • Ismail AA

            Dear Aman,

            Thanks you for refreshing us on the key points the constitution lacked on levels of procedure, representation and addressing controversial matters national unity for state building had crucially required. The making of the constitution and its writers were hostages of a one-man dominated organization that did everything possible to retain and consolidate political gains.

            The man at helm was keen to get what he wanted in the constitution for the rest of his life. We have seen though how the extensive powers the constitution allocated to him could not settle his ego and satiate his limitless craving for power – reason for dumping it. The very notion of ballot box and limitation of tenure became nightmares to him.

            After nearly 11 years since ratification, I assume Professor Berekhet had leaned a lot, and it is time for him to consider what is in his power and his high moral authority enables him to engage in caring reflection and to write his historic testimony for this generation and generations to come. I am sure, as many others do, the importance of this does not escape his attention ; his legacy needs it.

  • Ayneta

    Dear Semere:
    Thank you for your review.
    Now wait for the nay-sayers when hey roll up their shirt sleeves trying to denigrate the good doctor with their endless barrage of ill-founded accusations: ezi kedaE, ezi telam, ezi belaEi kilte……..Nitricc will be the least intelligent of them…..

  • Paulos

    Selam Semere,

    Certainly up high from the mountain and way down below from the valley. Professor B. Habteselassie is a man of letters as they say it in this part of the world who has seen it all and lived them through in tandem with his good fortune for being the right person, at the right time and at the right place. He has given us the Constitution, A Document with the highest authority in the land where rule-of-law not only to be supreme but The Document was supposed to seal cracks and as you put it in your superb review, to give sympathy and empathy a chance so that reason would prevail. But of course, Isaias killed “The Document” not because he is less learned in the company of the bottom ten, rather precisely because he is a psychopath with no conscience what so ever the continent has never seen.