Mehari Taddele Maru: “When you speak truth to power, clashes are inevitable”

Originally posted at EUI News

This is the third war in Tigray in his lifetime.

Mehari Taddele Maru narrates his story while waiting to board a train on the East Coast of the United States. In the background, Americans shuffle around the coffee shop with their lattes. Born and raised in Tigray, the northernmost region of Ethiopia, Mehari has come a long way.

Once a mathematics student, he transferred to law school after realising that by doing so he could do more to improve the human condition. “Growing up without a father and grandparents instilled in me a sense of compassion with those who are suffering,” Mehari says, his eyes piercing the screen as he recounts painful childhood memories of civil war. “Moving to the capital of Addis Ababa, being exposed to other, more peaceful ways of living, I realised what I had missed. My commitment to human rights goes back to those times.”

In the past two years, over 600.000 people have died in the war on Tigray. Millions more are displaced. “I am Tigrayan. My family is a living example of the victims of war. The current war is genocidal in nature and the most devastating I have witnessed so far.”

Vital organs

As an academic scholar, Mehari researches matters of transnational law and governance, human rights, humanitarian affairs and migration. As a public intellectual, he speaks out against injustice. Doing so means putting himself and his loved ones at risk. As for many other African human rights defenders, security is a daily concern. “I’ve learned that saying what you believe in results in brutal individual attacks. Being a public intellectual requires responsibility. You must guard yourself and stay loyal to your beliefs, while respecting others. But when you speak truth to power, clashes are inevitable.”

Mehari compares contributing to the public debate to the functioning of vital organs. “Without them, you can’t exist. A scholar who doesn’t engage with real life is like a candle in a dark barn. To me it is vital to link research to trying to make a difference to people’s well-being.”

In November 2020, Ethiopian Premier Abiy Ahmed’s troops started the Mekelle offensive, named after a city in Tigray. Framed as an operation against political leadership in the region, the conflict soon escalated into full-blown civil war. But the public opinion beyond the African continent remains largely unaware. For Mehari, it is one of the hard lessons learned about society and how communities insulate themselves from human tragedy elsewhere. “I wrote that war was coming long before it actually started. But Europe was not following developments and even telling fellow academics was tough. In academia, one wants to avoid sounding alarmist or subjective.”

Early on, the international media didn’t report on the conflict early on either. “While I knew Eritrean forces had killed 17 people in the place where I grew up, an international editor urged me to describe the presence of Eritrean armed forces in Tigray and the civilians killed as ‘likely’. The Nobel Committee awarded Abiy Ahmed the Nobel Peace Prize when many, including myself, already gave early warning to the coming civil wars. Tigray was too far from people’s hearts and minds for them to realise what was happening on the ground.”

The war also shows that Ethiopia faces crucial governance questions about centre versus periphery with the scenario of loose multi-national federalism looming. “This scenario demands not only greater devolution of power and more autonomy, but also confederal arrangements, self-determination, and even, where necessary, independence from the country,” says Mehari who studies these matters for a living.

Young African Leaders

Mehari Taddele Maru is an Adjunct Professor at the School of Transnational Governance and Migration Policy Centre at the European University Institute. At the School of Transnational Governance, he leads the Young African Leaders Programme (YALP). “We equip young African experts with the vision and world-class skills to accelerate Africa’s systemic transformation. The pan-African prism and collective focus sets this programme apart from other initiatives.”

A graduate of both Harvard and Oxford, Mehari’s career so far is prestigious both in academia and in international policymaking. His diverse experiences across the globe have been an asset in designing the programme. “In African Union meetings you get a summary of the state of things in 55 countries. You learn how to understand other viewpoints, jurisdictions and political orders.”

Governance beyond the state is the School of Transnational Governance’s bread and butter. “We apply concepts of transnational governance to the African context. Africa has many suitors and partnership requests, and it has to be prepared to maximise benefits based on
pragmatic, dynamic continental policies that amplify a unified pan-African voice. We want our fellows to understand partnership debates, with all their challenges and opportunities,” says Mehari, who advised among others, on the Africa-EU Partnership on migration, mobility, and employment, as well as on higher education.

Connecting Africa and Europe

The Young African Leaders from across the continent spend three months in Florence, enjoying seminars with African and international leaders, skills training and field visits to Brussels and other European capitals.

“Africa is more fragmented than any other continent. It has 55 voices, which will only be heard if they come together and integrate. Bringing experts from different African countries together in a European setting to learn comparative regional integration is enriching for all involved.”

The leadership programme is funded by the European Commission’s Directorate-General for International Partnerships. “YALP is important for Africa, but even more so for Europe. It is crucial to be connected to young Africans who are assertive, mobile and vocal. They will drive the partnerships of the future,” adds Mehari .

In Florence, the Young African Leaders build a network with peers from across the continent, integrate with the academic community and experience life in a city considered the cradle of the Renaissance. Mehari recalls the first time he left Africa. “In 1999, I went to the University of Tilburg, in the Netherlands. It taught me one should not take some of the assumptions in my community for granted, even the basics of communicating with others.” He recalls a memory of a student in a law course questioning a mother’s legal duty to feed her child. “I remember thinking that question could not even be asked where I came from. Taboo! It was eye-opening to me that anything can be questioned.”

Mehari checks his watch: it is time to catch the train. He is expected for a meeting with policymakers. Safe travels!