Dear Prime Minister Meles

Human rights lawyer vs. trained healer

I wish I could discuss the contents of this letter with you in person; unfortunately, that is now impossible because of your untimely death.

Dear Prime Minister, in 1991 soon after your triumphant arrival inAddis Ababa, I watched you debate the question ofEritrea’s independence with Professors Endrias Eshete and Mesfin Woldemariam and another academic. I do not remember the details of the points you had made but I don’t forget thinking to myself two things: 1 – that you were an articulate and courageous advocate of Eritrea’s cause; and 2- that someone listening to the debate without knowing who was who would conclude that you were the intellectual, the brilliant professor in the group and your companions a group of less than bright students. In all your subsequent interviews and news conferences over the following years, you had consistently and admirably defended the rights of Eritreans to determine their political future through a referendum.

Dear Prime Minister Meles, you of course had not just been defending the rights of Eritreans in debates and interviews; you had been demonstrating your position through concrete actions. You had agreed to the UN’s organising and supervising the referendum for independence and had also enabled Eritreans in Ethiopia to participate in the referendum by allowing referendum stations to be set up inside Ethiopia. Your government was also one of the first to recognise officially the independence ofEritrea. You had made a crucial contribution to the realisation of an internationally recognised, independentEritrea.

I know your detractors had often questioned your patriotism because of your stance on Eritrea and it had not been easy for you. They had constantly made baseless allegations that all your measures had a concealed and sinister motive – benefitting Eritrea and Eritreans at the expense of Ethiopia and Ethiopians. What they could not appreciate was that you were a patriotic Ethiopian and a man of principles and that you had supported the right of Eritreans to decide their own future because you had been convinced that Ethiopia’s future would be best served by not denying Eritreans this right. You did not need to and did not try to conceal your view; on the contrary, you always stated openly, and defended capably, your views. I remember this scenario play out in relation to the closure ofAddis AbabaUniversityin 1993. Your opponents, through the newly mushrooming free press, had alleged, despite your explanations to the contrary, that you had closed the University to ensure that the Eritrean referendum would pass off peacefully, and therefore you would not reopen it until after the Referendum. The University was reopened a day before the referendum started, as you had promised.

Dear Prime Minister Meles, in recent years your country has also been hosting tens or even hundreds of thousands of Eritrean refugees and has given educational and other opportunities to some of them.

Eritreans recognise that you had over many years done a tremendous amount for them and their country and as a result owe you a huge debt of gratitude.

Dear Prime Minister Meles, I desperately wish I could say that your record vis-à-visEritreaand Eritreans was completely unblemished, but can I?

As you know the border war between your country andEritreacost the lives of tens of thousands of people on both sides. But did you think that you had done everything you could to avert the outbreak of an all out war in 1998? Was your conscience clear that you could not have done anything else to prevent these unnecessary deaths? Did you ever wonder whether you should have tried to resolve the dispute through quiet diplomatic channels before getting your parliament to declare an ultimatum? This is in no way to exonerate the conduct and failings of the Eritrean leadership but to ask whether you could have done more for the sake of peace and share with you questions that have been swirling in my head for many years. Prime Minister, I have over the years come across various theories that claim to explain why the two countries had gone to war but have found none of the explanations persuasive. I think they are unconvincing because their starting position (their premise) that one side or the other had set out to start an all out war is wrong. I believe that the war was the result of a huge blunder rather than a conspiracy and therefore perhaps could have been averted if a mechanism for undoing the blunder without losing face had been sought and found.


Dear Prime Minister Meles, even if I were to accept that there was nothing else you could have done to avert the outbreak of war, questions still remain about your government’s policies towards Eritreans. It was during your premiership, Prime Minister, that hundreds of thousands of Eritreans and Ethiopians of Eritrean origin had been dispossessed of their property, incarcerated, mistreated, harassed and deported. Prime Minister, many innocent people suffered greatly as a result of your government’s policies. Many fathers and mothers died broken men and women; many were reduced to poverty because they had lost what they had worked decades for; and many are still living with the psychological trauma of their experiences.


Dear Prime Minister Meles, why did you allow these Eritreans and Ethiopians of Eritrean origin to suffer these atrocities? Had you tried but failed to stop it? My mother, who herself had been detained unjustifiably by your government’s security forces at the time, refuses to blame you for these atrocities. She thinks that you had opposed the policy but had been outvoted by the hardliners in your party. I asked her why, if what she was saying was true, you had not resigned but instead had allowed your name to be associated with and tarnished by the atrocities. Her response was to say that you had stayed because you had believed that the fate of Ethiopians and Eritreans would be worse if the hardliners in your party had replaced you. Is that really what had happened Prime Minister? I am aware that in an interview in the last couple of years or so you had expressed regret about what had happened and had indicated that what had happened has happened because irresistible pressure had gathered to do what had been done. So perhaps my mother is right. But how can I square that explanation with your reaction when concerns about the mistreatment of Eritreans had been raised? You had said that your country had the right to expel anyone for any reason, even if the reason is just that you did not like the colour of their eyes. Is that the response of someone who had been struggling with his conscious about what had been happening?

Dear Prime Minister Meles, there is of course also the issue of your government’s failure to implement the decision of the Ethio-Eritrea Boundary Commission. Both governments had agreed that the Commission’s decision would be final and binding when they had referred the dispute to arbitration but after the Commission had delivered its ruling, your government reneged on the agreement. Your government’s reaction to the ruling has not been consistent; initially it had rejected the decision outright but later it modified its stance declaring that it had accepted the decision in principle. Under the circumstances, I don’t think it is unreasonable for people to question the sincerity of your government’s declaration of acceptance of the ruling or to have concerns that your government’s stated desire to have a negotiation is a ploy to unravel the ruling.

Dear Prime Minister Meles, a large number of Eritreans acknowledge that you had done a great deal for their people and their country and are rightly grateful to you. However, an equally large number of Eritreans have had concerns with the policies I identified above. I believe that as a man of principles you would not have wanted these concerns to be swept under the carpet. After all, you yourself had not covered up Tamrat Layne’s corruption, although he had for years been your comrade-in-arms and had devoted years of his life to the realisation of equality and democracy to the peoples of Ethiopia.

Dear Prime Minister, this letter’s focus is your dealings withEritrea, but as the prime minister ofEthiopia, the overwhelming majority of your time and effort had, of course, been devoted to the governance ofEthiopia. You had been in public service for the past 38 years, so a meaningful discussion of your achievements for your country in different areas, would require many, many paragraphs, not least because some of them are a source of contention – perhaps I will in the future attempt to write a separate letter to deal with them. What is not in contention, however, is your dedication to, and huge efforts to improve the lot of, the poor of your country. Dear Prime Minister, since your passing, many world leaders have been paying their tributes to you but I know the tribute you would have valued most is what a group of homelessAddis Ababaresidents did. They queued for hours, giving up their precious begging time, and paid their respects to your coffin; they said you had been a champion of the poor.

So long Prime Minister Meles, may your soul rest in peace and may God give your family strength during these difficult times.


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