Two of my worst fears are that one day we will wake up and discover we were ruled by a clinically insane person. Two Eritrean medical doctors who have known Isaias for a long time and have closely observed his behavior have already indicated that he suffers from some sort of mental illness. The fact that his younger brother and grandmother had suffered similar ailments has given more weight to this possibility.
To our greatest dismay, we might find out that Isaias was a victim like the rest of us; he was obeying a cruel master. It is, of course, our responsibility to remove a man who is not fit to rule—mental health is a prerequisite of the job and its lack of a cause for impeachment and removal. Upon either his inevitable death or removal, we will find ourselves crippled by doubt and perplexity. Asking “how could we miss the obvious?” is a very uncomforting and disturbing thought. We can forget about a much deserved moral victory; a pervasive sense of guilt will be our lot. El loco presidente will get our sympathy instead of our rightful condemnation.
My second fear is that we will have some people, who are now comfortably serving the regime, come forward to tell us that they had been in the opposition all along. I remember a story that my friend, Saleh Gadi told me; on his return to Eritrea in 1991 he discovered unproportionate number of former Dergue officials who claimed to have been EPLF’s secret members. In a conversation with Mohammed Said Bairh, Saleh Johar rhetorically mentioned why it took us thirty years if we had so many people working for us from the camp of the enemy.
In what follows below, my dear friend and brother, Paulos Tesfagiorgish will portray the late Seyoum as a man of “courage”,” integrity” and “gentleman through and through” who had passionately stood for the public good, particularly during his tenure as a member of the Constitutional Commission, as a high ranking Ethiopian government official and one who, in later years, was also opposed (privately) to the regime of Isaias Afwerki.
Silence in the face of evil is no courage; and no amount of rationalization would exonerate the few privileged Eritreans who have shirked their responsibility of looking out for the public good or, even worse, directly or indirectly collaborating with the regime. We all have the moral imperative to speak up and stand against evil once we become aware of it; and silence cannot be a choice. In implicit and explicit terms, the late Seyoum has indicated his disappointments with the regime of Isaias Afworki, but, as long as he failed to speak up; disassociate himself from the regime and, at least, wash his hands off, his silence is tantamount to condoning evil.
Is it a wonder that Dr. Berhe Habtegirogish, a man in a short list of Eritreans who have become the face of PFDJ in the Diaspora, is the one who wrote the brief review on the cover of the book? Second, Seyoum never regretted nor apologized for the anti-sewra Eritrea diplomatic missions he had led. Third, he held /attended the wedding of his son in Ethiopia in 1998 when Eritreans were facing the most unjust punishment ever inflicted on them for being Eritreans and Ethiopians of Eritrean origin by the country Seyoum proudly calls home. No self-respecting Eritrean, let alone of the caliber of Seyoum, would have showed up in Addis Ababa. Where was his sense of outrage and Eritrean pride! Or, is this the case of be’Al klte ansti new nejew kbl mote? Lost in between.
I applaud Seyoum Haregot for doing the right thing when Isaias asked him to chair the Constitutional Commission. He refused; seemed to know he was not worthy of the honor and had to recommend Dr. Bereket instead, a man who by political affiliation, record of service and expertise, should have been the natural choice. I wonder if this good deed was an aberration or Seyoum later suffered from what the Bible calls, “bad company ruins good morals.” (1 Corinthian 15:13)
In what matters to most Eritreans, Seyoum as an elder and intellectual had failed miserably—did not stand up for the rule of law, justice and human rights. He might have been virtuous in his private life but that is none of my concern.
“But if a righteous person turns from their righteousness and commits sin and does the same detestable things the wicked person does, will they live? None of the righteous things that person has done will be remembered. Because of the unfaithfulness they are guilty of and because of the sins they have committed, they will die.” Ezekiel 18:24.
The Other Side of the late Seyoum Haregot
By Paulos Tesfagiorgish
May 31, 2013
Hi Semere, my dear brother:
It has been long, again. A common friend sent me the review you posted about Dr. Seyoum’s book. I thought you were too harsh on the person although I like your ability to weave history and current situation and educate. You write very well. Allow me, however, to say something about Dr. Seyoum Haregot more as a person not as a book-writer.
Dr. Seyoum was a gentleman through and through: An Ethiopian gentleman; an Eritrean gentleman. He was indeed an Ethiopian. He was also an Eritrean. I have no doubt of both. Dr. Seyoum was a rising star in His Majesty’s (Emperor Haile Selassie I) bureaucracy as a young graduate ending up as one of the most senior bureaucrats in the system. I am sure he believed in much of what he did; otherwise, it would have been difficult, if not unthinkable, to climb so high in that ladder. I don’t think any Eritrean would have been able to go beyond that. But, at the same time, one cannot say Dr. Seyoum was not an Eritrean in his own way. He lived a double life, as many educated Eritreans of the time, perhaps also other Ethiopians of non-Amhara background. Dr. Seyoum was therefore more than an Ethiopian bureaucrat who served the Emperor well. Where we, the now Eritreans, not Ethiopian once in our recent history? Ethiopian colonialism was assimilationist unlike European colonialism. It made one an Ethiopian not a colonized Eritrean.
I met Dr. Seyoum as a senior student at Haile Selassie I University, and later as an employee of the Ministry of Land Reform and Administration, legal advice department, after my graduation. Because of my close relationship with his sister, Ethiopis, a fine lady on her own, I ran into Dr. Seyoum a few times in the early 1970s. Although I don’t remember having any meaningful conversation with him at the time – we were too young and he was too senior to us – he always repeated one thing to me: you (Eritreans) should focus on your studies quietly now, you will do politics later (nesikhatkum hiji siq ilkum temeharu, poletica keterkiblu ekhum). There was no doubt that he was talking to me and through me to us Eritreans; Dr. Seyoum believed that we would serve Eritrean politics better as educated individuals. He never berated me for being Eritrean or for supporting the struggle for Eritrean independence although he suspected, perhaps even knew, that most young Eritrean university students were engaged in underground support of the Eritrean struggle, including active sympathy. It couldn’t have been a secret to him at all.
I got close to Dr. Seyoum during the drafting of the Eritrean constitution as we both served, together with 8 others, as members of the Executive Committee, of the Constitution Commission. Differences of age and background had melted like snow by then, but, I still saw him as an older brother and respected him as one. I listened intently to his statements and argument as he spoke from long real life experiences, directly, without exaggeration and ego. That also meant that I could talk to him as an equal, an older brother and a friend, and this relationship continued until Seyoum passed away. To me it was a loss of an older brother, aya, and a friend.
Dr. Seyoum’s contribution in shaping the Eritrean constitution cannot and should not be minimized. He brought the weight of his extensive experiences in the Imperial bureaucracy and as a student of law to help produce a constitution that fit into the Eritrean reality. His warning from time to time to avoid unclear concepts, dubious phraseology, perceptions or ideas that were irrelevant and to re-state them differently, so as to avoid future problems and cause the constitution to be un-implementable was superb. He was also an excellent lawyer and legal drafter and he executed his role with honesty, integrity, principle and honor throughout the process. He never tried to read Issayas’ mind or PFDJ’s temperament, and never attempted to please them in any way. He also never succumbed to any argument that he thought was wrong, including PFDJ’s, during the entire period of the drafting process. To give a couple of illustrations; it was in the early stages of the drafting process that the establishment of the “Special Court” was announced suddenly. It was a shock to some in the Executive Committee and Dr. Seyoum was furious about it. We took it up as a discussion item in the Executive Committee meeting although we were aware that it was not part of our mandate to comment on or object to existing or new laws as they appeared. We persisted in our objection in any case; we called it law-less law, (anti-rule of law) and one that undermined the existing judicial system instead of building it. It was a bad omen as far as we were concerned, a move against the spirit of the constitution under drafting and future constitutional rule in Eritrea. Dr. Seyoum was one of the two who insisted that their objections be recorded, put in the minutes.
Another example, during one of the Executive Committee’s engagement with PFDJ top officials, it was made clear to us by Yemane Gebreab that PFDJ was not happy with the draft Chapter on Human Rights and with the articles contained in it. Yemane wanted us to shorten the Chapter and write the articles in more general terms. For them, the articles in the Chapter were too specific. On our side, we argued that eliminating some of the articles and writing the rest in general or in less precise terms would render the whole Chapter of Rights meaningless. As it was, we argued, the Chapter contained only the most fundamental articles written quite modestly. Other constitutions contain, we argued, a Chapter with extensive and elaborate Human Rights provisions, etc. Yemane would not listen to our explanations and sticking to his position resorted to what can be termed as intimidation or blackmail: he said they were telling us this because they knew what was better for the Eritrean people; “it is for the good of our people”. Dr. Seyoum retorted, quite unexpectedly, but not uncharacteristically, “Yemane, when Hitler started doing what he did, it was for the good of the German people, according to him”. That was the end of the argument – and the meeting. It was only Dr. Seyoum who could be as direct and daring under the circumstances.
While I am at it, let me say something about whether the “working draft” document, was originally a Tigrigna version or English and who translated what, although I don’t understand why one wants to make an issue of and take sole credit for. The working draft, the official one that was presented to the Executive Committee and used as a basis for discussion was Tigrigna. As we went along debating, we simultaneously made an English version (for some in the Executive Committee, if not for the majority, a legal document was better understood in English rather than in Tigrigna – let alone Arabic), or an English draft of what was agreed, and Dr. Seyoum took upon himself to work on the English version. In effect, Dr. Seyoum became the de facto translator into and drafter in English and it was accepted by the Executive Committee. The original Tigrigna, or working draft, was completely changed beyond recognition by the time the Executive Committee finished its task. It was truly a collective piece of work. No one can claim sole authorship. No one among the 8 (left of the 10 – two, with vast experiences in the Eritrean struggle, were too sick to continue serving in the Commission) members of the Executive Committee can honestly say he/she had more influence or more impact on the final draft. There were many considerations and many opinions that we took into account and they did not belong to any one of us in particular, but to all of us, to PFDJ, to all those who contributed during meetings and who made submissions in different ways. The stated aim was to exert utmost effort to produce a draft constitution that will serve the needs of Eritrea at present and the generations to come. We were guided by the spirit of the struggle, by the Charter of PFDJ, by the input our people made into, custom of our society, international norms… That is why it will not be right or honest of any one person among the members of the Executive Committee or the 50 members of the Council of the Constitution Commission to try to take sole credit for the outcome. The Preamble of the Eritrean Constitution can tell many stories.
It is also absolutely normal that a working document is provided; there are several examples, and there are many constitutions throughout the world to choose from and use as one. I don’t understand what the fuss was about, except perhaps a generational difference. For the selfless generation, and that is my history, the outcome of the victory of Eritrea was a product of major collective effort, much greater than the sum total of individual contributions. For many in the generation before, shining as an individual and amplifying the role of the self was acceptable, but it could sometimes be at the expense of others, even the collective. The struggle generation was different; it was a generation of sacrifice and martyrdom, of undermining ones heroic deeds, of giving credit to others or the collective, even at the expense of the self.
For the record, Dr. Seyoum was asked by President Issayas to lead the Eritrean constitution making process and head the Constitution Commission. Dr. Seyoum declined. He suggested that that honor be bestowed on a person that is more qualified than him in matters of constitution. And he proposed that Dr. Bereket chairs the Commission and that that he, Dr. Seyoum, would support the process with all his ability. Issayas accepted Dr. Seyoum’s suggestion and appointed Dr. Bereket to chair the Commission. Dr. Seyoum supported the process with all his heart.
Again, was Dr. Seyoum Eritrean? We can either dismiss this question as non-starter and unequivocally determine that he was Ethiopian without doubt (did he not serve the Emperor at a very high level? Did he not marry the Emperor’s grand-daughter; what more proof does one need?) or consider how one would define Eritrea-ness during Dr. Seyoum’s prime time in the Empire.
Dr. Seyoum marrying the grand-daughter of the Emperor is used against him. It is true that the Emperor married his daughters and grand-daughters to prominent Ethiopians that he wanted to co-opt, buy loyalty of or bring them to his side. A political move on the Emperor’s part; after all feudalism ruled! Was Dr. Seyoum a victim of the Emperor’s machinations? Or, was it Dr. Seyoum who wanted to climb the ladder even higher through marrying the Emperor’s grand-daughter? Was there any bond of some sort, affection, even love between the princess and the young lawyer? I don’t know. But, it could be a mix of all the above, including political considerations or advantages that Seyoum wanted to gain by marrying the princess; but I don’t believe he married the princess to be more Ethiopian than he already was. But, I know one thing for sure. He loved his family, and the three boys of Dr. Seyoum that I know grew up as Eritrean as any other. And not Ethiopian! Dr. Seyoum’s children were among the young (and old) Eritreans that returned to Eritrea from Diaspora to live and work and if possible to contribute to building the Eritrean nation. How could that happen without the strong influence of the father, and Seyoum’s commitment to his Eritrean identity that he wanted transferred to his children?
Semere, let me add an example or two about the role Dr. Seyoum played in the Eritrean struggle in general. Long before ELF came into existence, there were sporadic shootings and bombings in Eritrea, especially in Asmara, with some assassination attempts on some Eritreans who were serving the Imperial government well. I came to learn that Seyoum was among those who supplied some of the arms, together with some who are still alive, who might not want to talk about it for their own reasons. How it is that Seyoum and the others were never detected and/or arrested? Dr. Seyoum and those Eritreans who worked with him were some of the people absolutely trusted by the Empire and its system; it was therefore easier for them to act as they did with full confidence. However, a certain cunning Eritrean, who was effectively serving Ethiopian interest in Eritrea and whose life was put at risk because of the activities supported by Dr. Seyoum and his friends suspected Seyoum of the deeds and informed the Emperor about his suspicions. The Emperor asked the then Prime Minister Aklilu Habte-Wold, who was Seyoum’s boss, to investigate the matter. Aklilu, it was recounted to me, got furious at this particular Eritrean’s nerve to accuse Seyoum, and challenged him to produce concrete evidence, which, this person was obviously not able to do. Aklilu then warned him to get off the back of Seyoum. But, Seyoum never stopped supporting the Eritrean cause in his own way.
Another important act that I can attribute to Seyoum’s Eritreaness was the measures Seyoum took to save about 13 young Eritreans from certain imprisonment, even worse. A group of Eritrean university students in Addis Ababa were working underground either as members or supporters of the ELF in the late 1960s when the Ethiopian intelligence came to know about it and decided to arrest them. A father of one of the Eritreans, who was working for the Ethiopian security/police, was tipped off by the intelligence operatives and advised that he saves his son. The son told his friends/comrades about the impending arrest. The group did not know what to do. It was a time when the ELF was imploding; no one in his right mind thought about running away to meda, the field, at the time, unlike the period of the mid-70s and after. The group had to act to save itself and decided to approach Eritreans in high offices in the Imperial government for help. A delegation then went to see one Eritrean who they thought would save them; however, before they could finish explaining why they came to see him, this particular Eritrean got frightened; he immediately ceased talking to them in Tigrigna, and, in Amharic (that became the language of communication between them) asked them to leave his office. He was scared – keylikem. The delegation then went to see Dr. Seyoum; he listened to their stories and told them to sit still. He went to the Emperor, convinced him that these were young and gullible and that they should be pardoned. He then arranged an audience with the Emperor; the Emperor pardoned them. What was important is that Seyoum made sure that the Ethiopian chief of intelligence and the chief of military intelligence (and I think the head of the police) were present so that they could witness the pardon. He also made sure that the files of these young Eritreans were handed to him. Seyoum made absolutely sure that these Eritreans will not be harmed in any way by the Imperial system. I am talking about people who are still alive, who are known to many of us; some professors, lawyers, medical doctors and of course about some who made the ultimate sacrifice for the independence of Eritrea. Important for our current purpose is a profound statement that Dr. Seyoum made during his discussions with the delegates. He confided in them his belief of the Amhara ignorance when it came to the Eritrean issue; he told them how much the Amharas did not understand Eritrean nationalism, their lack of understanding about how far it could go, and because of their ignorance, Dr. Seyoum said, they will one day be surprised.
I and many Eritreans who were at the Haile Selassie I University during that interesting period knew this story very well, although we might have not known of the identity of the person who arranged the pardon and what exactly happened during the audience with the Emperor at the time. A story however began to circulate among university students that the 13 had asked pardon from the Emperor in the name of all Eritrean students in the university; this created mistrust, people felt antagonized and some got very angry, although most, if not all, of us were working underground for Eritrea in one way or another. As emotions were boiling high, we decided to organize a meeting to address the matter; we did; we debated a whole night: did they ask pardon on all our behalf? Should they even have asked pardon at all? Tempers were very, very hot. But, the matter was discussed extensively, perhaps without any lessons learnt, but was openly discussed. It might have somehow been academic; we might not have taken into consideration the risk the group took to do serious political work in the very capital of the enemy. Most of us were doing political work, but, student political work albeit in support of Eritrean self-determination. Convincing the Ethiopian university student association leadership to support Eritrean right to self-determination and take a public stand was no small feat at the time.
Semere, you mentioned something to the effect Dr. Seyoum joining a letter-writing campaign that was defamatory of Dr. Bereket Habte Selassie in the name of the Executive Committee of the Eritrean Constitution Commission. Seyoum came out to the US right after that and we had a telephone conversation about how and why the letter was written, among other things. I expressed my absolute disagreement with him joining the letter writing campaign against Dr. Bereket, especially using membership in the Executive Committee. One, I argued, the Executive Committee was long dead, disbanded in May 1997, after honorably discharging its task. Secondly, some of the issues that were raised in their open letter were never mentioned in the Executive Committee; anything therefore that was not taken up in the Executive Committee that related to a member of the EC could not justifiably be raised when the Executive Committee had long ceased to exist. Third, I said, I could not accept Seyoum being party to a political campaign that had nothing to do with finding facts or telling truth. He listened.
What Dr. Seyoum said about Dr. Assefaw is not clear and I don’t have the context as I have not seen the book yet. But, I know how much Dr. Seyoum respected Dr. Assefaw. I also have no doubt that Dr. Assefaw’s respect for Dr. Seyoum will not diminish because of this. If Seyoum states in his book that Dr. Assefaw was disillusioned with Issayas’s policies that must have been a gross understatement. Assefaw was and is more than just disillusioned. He feels betrayed, not as a person only; but at the absolute betrayal of the revolution, all the sacrifices that were made by the Eritrean people to gain independence and live a decent life in a country they can proudly call theirs. But, Dr. Seyoum himself was also very much disillusioned at the turn of events in Eritrea. He was very much saddened by the state of affairs caused by the misrule and cruelty of the Eritrean regime towards its people. And he had aired out his opinion at critical periods and opportunities.
His statement against Dr. Bereket? I am not surprised, nothing new! They are contemporaries and knew each other very well. I would leave it there. I would not try to embellish one’s image and destroy the other’s. Should Seyoum have written about Dr. Bereket? He shouldn’t have. He had many other stories to tell; experiences to share. I know them both very well. I wouldn’t get involved – it is also because it is totally irrelevant to what we are, what we would like to see in Eritrea now and the future, and what we can learn from to improve our wretched situation.
While serving in the Constitution Commission, and after, Dr. Seyoum and I were asked by shimagletat adi Arbate Asmara, to act as advisors on village matters; we both felt honored and accepted. We tried to do our best to help the village get more organized and obtain what is its inhabitants’ birth right – tessa, a right many young died for. It was again there in the meetings that I saw, witnessed how candid and bold Seyoum could be, telling members of the village committee to do what is right both in customary and modern/national laws. He used to repeatedly say this, that, if we don’t do the right thing and act quickly, this government is going to reduce us into the status of the “Red Indians”, landless destitute.
Again, I don’t know how Dr. Seyoum portrayed the Eritrean government or its leaders in his book. I yet have to read it. But to say that Seyoum had any respect left for the government or its top leaders is absolutely not correct. He was himself disillusioned. Manifestation of disillusionment, disagreement and disrespect might differ. But, I am sure he would have told his own history if he had ventured into his encounters with the Eritrean President and some senior members of his government truthfully as was his character. Dr. Seyoum had a stroke and came for treatment to the US and I went to see him. I told him I could not understand how he could have the stroke; I said to him, you are the most health conscious person I know, you don’t drink, you choose carefully what you eat, you are calm…. How come you had a stroke? His answer was – the situation in Eritrea would cause any person more than just a stroke!
Semere, my brother and friend, you reviewed a book written by Dr. Seyoum. I am talking about Dr. Seyoum as a person.
With my best wishes,