By Prof. Paulos Milkias
September 30, 2020
It is with great sadness that we learned, as of yesterday, professor Mesfin Wolde Mariam, an indefatigable Ethiopian nationalist, is no more. Mesfin is the victim of Covid-19 at age 90.
For me, writing this In-Memoriam is personal. It brings back decades of memories. The first time I remember seeing Prof. Mesfin Wolde Mariam was when he came to General Wingate Secondary School to recruit me, and three other teenage colleagues, to work at the Ethio-American Mapping and Geography Institute, of which he was a Co-Director. He was removed from the position due to his strong nationalist stance that made it difficult to work with his American counterpart and the then Minister of Education, Lij Endalkachew Makonnen assigned him as a Geography professor at the University College of Addis Ababa. Together with my colleagues, we followed him there.
Then as I, in particular, settled into a life of radical student movement and helped found “the University Students Union of Addis Ababa” (USUAA) that ultimately staged Land to the Tiller demonstration as well as the demand for the dismantlement of the Shola camp where hungry poor people flocking to Addis for mere survival were incarcerated, Mesfin was with the students. He was with us all the way when we launched the radical student journal Struggle, which castigated the feudal regime. During those tumultuous University College days, Mesfin remained a mentor not only to me but also to many of my radical colleagues, including Haile Fida, Berhane Meskel Reda, and Walelign Mekonnen. He continued to be on the side of the students when the Student president, Tilahun Gizaw was assassinated and his colleagues held a vigil with his body but were brutally butchered by the Haile Selassie police at the University Campus in Sidist Kilo.
It is important to note that a few years before, when during the abortive coup d’état lead by Mengistu and Germame Neway, the university college students demonstrated in support of the uprising, Mesfin was the only faculty member who accompanied the demonstrators from Arat Kilo to La Garre tendering advice to the young demonstrators as to what they should or should not do. At the end of the day, he saved the student demonstrators from a certain massacre by warning them not to disobey the orders of the pro-monarchist soldiers led by General Merid Mengesha, who’s heavily armed military police trained their guns on the protestors and started to count down from 10, ordering the protesters to turn back or otherwise face mass slaughter. As the count reached 3, Mesfin jumped to the forefront and hurled Shibiru Seifu, Tamiru Faisa, and student president Teshome H. Gabriel who were preparing to martyr themselves and their colleagues for the cause of the revolution not to proceed. The demonstrators listened to their teacher’s advice and turned back, avoiding a certain carnage at the nick of time.
During the time he was a faculty member and even long after he retired, Mesfin never rested from advancing the cause of the downtrodden Ethiopian people. He had always been a giant of a man if not in body in intellect and in nationalist spirit. His numerous books testify to his tenacity and tremendous intellectual insight. He persevered through the pain and tragedy of the Dreg’s murderous period. He stood his ground through Woyane excesses.
Due to Mesfin’s staunch opposition to ethnic fragmentation and his religious dedication to fair elections, equality, the protection of human rights, and governance under the rule of law, he was a target of the linchpins of the EPRDF. He was instrumental in the creation of the “Coalition for Unity and Democracy” (CUD) party which; according to the European Union electoral observer Anna Gomez, won the general election but was shamelessly invalidated by Meles Zenawi who with the rigging of a secretive system known as 1 to 5 claimed to have won all the seats in parliament in 2010. When in 2005, Mesfin refused to bow to authoritarian dictat and stood his ground, he was thrown into Alem Beqagn jail together with his colleagues, where he stayed for almost two years. He stoically accepted this degrading treatment, not to fulfill a personal ambition or vanity; not for wealth or power; but for the sake of cultivating democracy for the people of Ethiopia and for the country that he loved from the bottom of his heart.
Mesfin has now departed, guided by the same faith that he put in the multitudes of Wollo’s famine victims whose plight he helped bring to the attention of the international community during the last days of the regime of Emperor Haile Selassie. He championed the cause of human rights victims under the TPLF rule and tried to forge a democratic order for his people most recently by employing social media to which he contributed insightful ideas until his last breath. For these and numerous other achievements, as I mentioned in my book on Haile Selassie in 2010, he deserved to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Mesfin has at last joined those he fought for, leaving those of us who grieve his passing on with the memorials he left behind, the good that he bequeathed to the present generation, the vision he left as a beacon of light. Mesfin will always remain a singular, lasting image of an indefatigable Ethiopian nationalist, who bestowed to our hearts a living flame of love of country, an adoration that we ought to pass on to our progeny. It was because he was a great Ethiopian nationalist that, in our darkest days, he lit a candle of hope and tried to liberate many of his countrymen from the clutch of despair and repressive tyranny.
Whenever Mesfin spoke of his people’s plight in lecture rooms or in political fora, his voice rang with valour, boldness, hope, and rocky conviction. Indeed, there has been no nationalist of his stature during our own lifetime. Instead of grieving, therefore, we must strive to be worthy of his example.
May God bless Professor Mesfin Wolde Mariam, and may he rest in eternal peace.
Professor Paulos Milkias, Concordia University, Montreal, Canada