An Interview With Dr. Bereket Habte Selassie
The idea of interviewing Dr. Bereket was triggered by the feedback I received from the many people who have kindly shared their opinions with me. One of my primary goals in writing is to promote a healthy discourse, serve the truth and the cause of justice and hopefully play a minor role in enhancing our collective understanding on issues that matter to all of us—Eritreans. I had promised in a response to a reader that I will dig deeper into the subject and come back to him; and this, so far, is what I’ve been able to do in this regard.
This is the first part of the interview. The second part is in the making and plan to incorporate some of your questions in it, if you would kindly and promptly share them with me. I might not be able to individually respond to your comments but rest assured I’m seriously reading and reflecting on them and time permitting, I like to respond to all of them, sometime in the future.
Semere: In my previous article where I critiqued the late Seyoum Haregot’s new book, I referred to you as the “principal author of the Constitution,” and upon reading it, you called and expressed your objection to me. Why do you object? Aren’t you the principal author of the constitution? If it is not you, do you care to tell us who it is?
Dr. Bereket: First of all, I would like to thank you for giving me this opportunity to clear some misunderstanding related to some issues about the making of Eritrea’s 1997 Constitution.
The first issue of contention, which ideally should be a non-issue, concerns the authorship of the constitution.
You are not the first person to refer to me as the principal author of the constitution. Some even refer to me as “The Father of the constitution.” All my remonstrations and attempts at correction have fallen on deaf ears. I remember responding to one Eritrean who sent me an email in which he referred to me as such, that if I must be characterized in any manner in respect of my role with respect to the making of the constitution, it is probably more accurate to call me the handmaiden of the constitution in the manner of a medical personnel aiding or facilitating in the delivery of an infant. He was not convinced, and simply said that that was “commendable humility.” Many a journalist and commentator who reported on lectures I had given in various forums would insist on my being the principal author of the Eritrean constitution. And I had no control over such statement, which when published must have offended some people, including the late Seyoum Haregot and the other five members of the Commission’s Executive Committee who used it to launch a vicious attack against me.
Semere: Are you referring to the members of the Executive Committee whom I referred to as the “Ignoble Six” in the afore-mentioned article?
Dr. Bereket: (He laughs)…Those are your words, not mine; but yes, that is what I had in mind.
To come to your question, you asked me if I’m the principal author of the constitution and if it is not me, then it must be somebody else and you want to know who it is.
You need to bear with me and permit me to expand the story going beyond the actual drafting of the text of the constitution. I need to explain the overall narrative of its making—the overall narrative, which I have written about in my book, The Making of the Eritrean Constitution: The Dialectic of Process and Substance (2003) contains several stages.
The first stage included my appointment as chairman of the Constitutional Commission, and the drafting of the law establishing the Commission (Proclamation No. 55/1994). In my 2003 book, I give details about my reluctance to accept the appointment due to problems that my family faced, and the assurance made by Isaias that there would be financial provisions to answer the challenges to be faced by my family.
At our first meeting with Isaias I asked him about the terms of reference for making the constitution, including the law establishing the commission and guidelines to be provided by the EPLF government. He said: “Kullu kabaKa’yu.” (It will be up to you). So I set out to draft the law establishing the commission; but I had also the aid of the EPLF Charter to provide me with a general framework, in addition to my own sense and knowledge of the EPLF of which I had been a member since 1975, as well, of course, as my own expertise on constitutional law, which is my academic specialty.
The second stage involved drawing up a general plan of approach and presenting the plan to the first meeting of the Executive Committee and then the general body (the Council) of the Commission. This stage also included agreeing on the principal values that would guide the making of the Constitution as well as adopting the strategy and methodology of going about consulting with the public.
The Third stage involved making presentations to the public on constitutional issues, on the basis of an agreed booklet—Meba’ta Quam (Elements of the Constitution)—that acted as a guide to the process.
The final stage was a multi-layered activity involving seminars and debates involving different sectors of our society both in Eritrea and in the Diaspora.
Through it all, there were expert consultations based in conferences and special seminars. In all this effort all the members of the Commission, not just the members of the Executive committee participated—each to his/her own ability—even though the latter played the principal role in the process.
It was an exciting experience and one of the most exciting experiences of my life. The final outcome of this exciting processes—the text of the constitution—is the result of the collective effort. It does not belong to any one person, or a group of persons. Hence my reluctance of succumbing to the temptations of being called the father of the constitution, even though I played a significant part of its making from the beginning to the end in heading the Commission.
As to whether there was an English draft from which the Tigrigna was translated and the other questions related to this non-issues, I will, if need be, provide an answer another time.
I want to end this response to your first question by quoting a passage from the Foreword to my aforementioned book.
“…I am indebted to the countless Eritreans whose views expressed in many village and town meetings, during the three-year period of constitution making (1994-1997), enlightened us all and enriched the process. It has been a rare privilege and distinct honor for me to have helped design and manage the process and enabled people to air their views. It is hard to record faithfully and completely the views of so many compatriots from whose wisdom I learnt a great deal during the three-year period of constitution making, including particularly the members of the Constitutional Commission. My deepest thanks to all of them, and I hope that they can see in some of its parts a reflection of their contribution and the genius of our people’s age-old traditions of respect for law and justice.”
Semere: You’ve raised a lot of important issues that need further elaboration, but, allow me to revisit my previous question one more time. By referring to you as the “principal author of the Constitution” I was not negating the role of your colleagues in the Constitutional Commission. I know it was a collective effort, but, I assumed, as most people, someone amongst you was responsible for all the writing, or at least, most of it. Let me make an analogy, the US constitution cannot be credited to one person, but James Madison is generally regarded as the principal author and father of the constitution. Who is the James Madison of the Eritrean Constitution? If it is not you, somebody has to be. The analogy of “the handmaiden of the constitution in the manner of a medical personnel aiding or facilitating in the delivery of an infant” might be appropriate, but that is not what is commonly used to describe the role you’ve played in the making of the Eritrean constitution.
Dr. Bereket: To answer your main question, I have been intrigued by the phenomenon of people defining a historical actor (if I may presume to put myself in that category) in ways that seems to fulfill their intrinsic need to personalize a historical process. In the present instance, I happen to be the person who headed the historic Constitutional Commission, playing a major role in the constitution making exercise, and people attribute to my role any value they wish and attach a name they think appropriate. Americans use James Madison, and I am flattered by all this. The fact remains, though, that it would be distorting the reality of what happened, that the whole experience involved a collective effort, as I stated in answer to the first question.
Semere: Allow me to go back to some of the issues you’ve raised. You’ve said that Isaias had essentially given you a blank check to do whatever you want to do with the making of the constitution. I think the word you used is “Kullu kabaKa’yu.” This to me shows that Isaias had complete confidence in you. Why weren’t you then his first choice? You’ve once told me that Isaias’ first choice was the late Seyoum Haregot, a point that has been supported by the response, Mr. Paulos Tesfagiorgish, has written to my critique of Seyoum’s new book: https://awate.com/my-fears-and-paulos-views-on-seyoum-haregot/. Do you care to elaborate?
Dr. Bereket: Why Isaias did not choose me to head the commission in the first place is a question only he can answer. All we can do is speculate. Isaias and I had a fluctuating relationship ever since I first entered the Meda and joined the EPLF. The apogee of our positive relationship was when I became the founding chairman of the Eritrean Relief Association (ERA). And the relationship soured occasionally due to my assertive personality, which he apparently did not like. But because the movement needed my services, he tolerated me. Until the spring of 1990, when I published the booklet, which you have read, Reflection on the Future Political System of Eritrea. In the booklet, I wrote, among other things that in a future Eritrea where a multi-party system prevails, the ELF should be invited to participate in a general election. I cited the EPLF resolution of the Second Congress (1987) in which multi-party system is envisaged as the governing principle.
A person, who happened to be present in Sahel when Isaias first read the booklet, told me that Isaias was furious and uttered some harsh words of anger. So that was the last straw that broke the camel’s back (the camel being our relationship!). So he turned to Seyoum Haregot as is first choice, and was forced to consider for the same reason that he (the EPLF) decided to launch on a constitution making exercise. The two are related in that they demonstrate the opportunistic nature of Isaias exercise of power. Both Isaias and Meles Zenawi were told in no uncertain terms by Herman Cohen, head of the Africa Bureau of the American State Department: “No democracy. No assistance.”
The whole constitution making exercise was an opportunistic ploy to be in the good books of the West. It was not a strategic decision based on universal principles, but a tactical ploy. Hence the fact that a ratified constitution has not been implemented for 16 years.
Semere: If you knew through a reliable source that Isaias was not fond of your multiparty system ideas, why did you accept to be part of the constitution making process that was supposed to guarantee the very idea that angered Isaias in the spring of 1990? Or, are these observations you’ve made in retrospect?
Dr. Bereket: Multi-party system is an almost universally accepted idea in our time; it is not just “my idea.” And the EPLF had embraced it in one of its resolutions at its Second Congress in 1987 in which I participated. It is a vital part of democracy and even dictators pay lip service to it. A more relevant question would be the reverse of what you asked, like “Had you declined to accept the appointment of the Chairmanship of the Constitutional Commission, wouldn’t Isaias have accused you of hypocrisy saying: “Dr. Bereket, how can you decline to be part of a historic process that would herald a democratic era in your country for which you have been fighting?!”
- My point in all this is that democracy and human rights for me are fundamental principles, not to be embraced and discarded at will as expediency demands. Isaias is known to use such principles as a tactical ploy, as expediency.
- In my own case, it would have been foolhardy not to embrace a wonderful opportunity to help shape a constitutional process that would lead to democratic governance, despite the possibility that Isaias might try to thwart it along the way, which is what happened.
- An allied and relevant question is: in view of what happened, i.e. Isaias’s refusal to implement the constitution, why did he take the steps toward constitutional government? I think I have answered this question before by alluding to America’s demand for democracy as a condition for economic assistance. In a word, it was expediency. And he used the “Badme war” withe the Weyane as an excuse for his refusal to implement the constitution. It is a prime example of his contempt of the Eritrean people—their intelligence and sense of right and wrong. It is a perfect illustration of what I have called elsewhere Isaias Afwerki’s “Immaculate deception.”
Semere: The Isaias used the Badme war as an excuse for his refusal to implement the constitution is an oft given and somewhat convenient explanation but it really does not go to the heart of the matter. This is the same explanation the late Seyoum also gave in his posthumously published new book. The Eritrean constitution was ratified on May 23, 1997 and the Badme war broke out only a year later on May 6, 1998. What was Isaias’s excuse during this whole year? The war seemed to lend support to his earlier decision but it was not the main reason why he refused to not implement the constitution.
Dr. Bereket: Our expectation, partly based on the verbal expressions of some high-ranking agents of Isaias, was that the constitution would be implemented within a year of its ratification. We could not, in fairness and common sense, insist on the immediate implementation of the constitution. It was a matter of logistics; it was also a matter of the need of “clearing the deck” by changing any laws that contradicted the provisions of the constitution, such as the law establishing the Special Court. Thus the government created a special committee that we thought was to that end, a committee chaired by Ms. Askalu Menkerios. The committee met only once and was not heard from: there was no report of any kind from it or about it. We were to deduce later that the creation of the committee was a diversionary tactic—Isaias at his game of deception.
And then, in May 1998, he took the country to war with Ethiopia, a year after the constitution was ratified. You ask: what was his excuse “during the whole year?” By this, I take it you mean why didn’t he implement the constitution during the whole year (May 1997-1998)? He did not implement the constitution because he didn’t want to implement it; and I think I have already answered the question as to why he didn’t want to implement it, as well as the question why he allowed the process in the first place.
The “Badme War” ended in 2000. Therefore, the claim that the war was the reason for the non-implementation of the constitution was shown to be a bald-faced lie. It was only when he was cornered by some foreign journalists on this and related issues that the lies and prevarications of Isaias and his regime were exposed. On one occasion, when the reporters pushed him to the limit, insisting when would there be an election an exasperated Isaias blurted out the truth: “In thirty years, or forty…or fifty…” Speaking of the emperor being without clothes!
To be continued…
Dr. Bereket Habte Selassie is former Chairman of the Eritrean Constitution Commission and Professor of law and African and Afro-American studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.[i] The book can be purchased at: http://www.amazon.com/Making-Eritrean-Constitution-Dialectic-Substance/dp/1569021600 or http://www.africaworldpressbooks.com/servlet/Detail?no=322 [ii] The presence and publication of this booklet was denied by the two people with pen-names (Asaminew Ewnetun and Aradon Fedai Haqi) who wrote a 48 pages “book review” on the two memoirs Dr. Bereket has written. The “review” was sent to Dr. Bereket’s colleagues at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill by the woman who had been leading the campaign of defamation against Dr. Bereket, Mrs. Sophia Tesfamariam. The Awate Team responded to this review: https://awate.com/reviewing-the-reviewers-in-defense-of-bereket-habte-selassie/