Joel Mekonnen is the great-grandson of Emperor Haile-Selassie I. The newly minted lawyer from Washington DC’s Howard University, Joel has had a busy year, including his marriage which was highlighted, among others, in the New York Times and Vogue magazine. He reflects with The Reporter’s Samuel Getachew on his childhood, his impression of the era of Abiy Ahmed (PhD), on the Derg regime that killed, humiliated and made them refugees in western nations and on his planned return to Ethiopia. Excerpts:
The Reporter: You are many things to too many people. You are a royalty, a lawyer and an activist. You must have had a busy childhood growing up. Share with me the highlights of your fascinating life.
Joel Mekonnen: I was actually born outside the country, in Italy, in 1982, while my family was in exile after the Ethiopian Revolution. My family lived in different places in Europe, and I spent most of my childhood in Switzerland and France. It was not until 1993 that I finally first visited Ethiopia, after the country was liberated from the communist regime and became a Federal Republic under the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition.
The next time I would come back to Ethiopia would be in 1999. I moved back to Addis Ababa to live there with my mother, and I went to high school at the International Community School (ICS). I completed the 11th and 12th grade, and spent two and a half year’s total. It was some of the happiest years of my life because I was able to get to know my country, to live there, learn the language and the everyday culture and traditions, make many friends, and overall experience my homeland which I had been away from all my life. I lived in Bole, by Novis Supermarket. I really loved the years I spent living in Addis and it was a very special time for me.
You recently wrote an article lamenting on the recent political activities of Ethiopia under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD). What stood out the most for you so far?
In fact, I was not lamenting at all, but admiring the recent political activities that took place and commending Prime Minister Abiy in his new initiatives. Indeed, when I read about all his accomplishments over his first 100 days in office, I was so excited to hear all the good news – as were all the Ethiopians I know. It was so relieving to know that the newly appointed PM had a vision of peace, unity, and love for the Ethiopian people. My emotions were so strong that I felt obligated to speak out about my thoughts. Also, PM Abiy was set to visit Washington DC, where I live, and so I thought the timing for my writing would be perfect. With this article, I could capture the thoughts and feelings of me, my family, and all the Ethiopians I have discussed with, and convey our excitement and hope to the new PM on his visit to the US.
I am very hopeful now with the recent changes and I believe that Ethiopia is at one of the most important crossroads in its history. This comes at a time when the youth are very engaged and active in political life. After all, it is thanks to all the youth protest and demonstration that change was able to happen in our government. Congratulations to all of the youth movements! They are the brave ones who stood up, sacrificed their lives and made a difference for all of us.
There are a number of reforms that have taken place during the last four months. Which of these reforms, do you think, will help change the narrative of the nation?
The most important reforms must necessarily be to the institutions of government, the pillars of a strong democracy. Even more importantly, the new administration must be able to ensure free and fair elections to the people of Ethiopia in 2020 and the following years, and work hard to restore the public trust in the elections process.
In the immediate, however, I think that Prime Minister Abiy has been very smart and methodical in addressing the most urgent issues; such as, releasing the political prisoners and all the unjustly accused people from jail, removing individuals responsible for human rights violations at the infamous prison, lift the state of emergency, restore internet access, among many other things. His initial steps helped restore a climate of good faith, and with his decisive actions also in ending the war with Eritrea, he has shown the people that he is not only talking about change but really doing it. I congratulate him on doing a very good job on all this because he has successfully allowed the tensions among the people of the different ethnics and nationalities to calm down. But that is for now. There is still a lot of work ahead, and all of the problems in the country will not go away just easily like that.
The campaign of “Medemer” and of “forgiveness” will require a lot of effort on the part of the government and the people. Forgiveness is a complex feeling in human beings, and nobody can just order you to “forgive him!” or “forgive her!” It takes time, and there should be a careful strategy in place to address all of the atrocities that have been perpetrated against the Ethiopian people. Rwanda and South Africa are good examples of how to process such a national tragedy and recover from it. And the perpetrators of these atrocities must be held accountable. Without accountability, there is no justice. Without justice, there is no peace. It may be a temporary peace, but not a true, lasting peace.
You have mentioned your willingness to contribute and help the new administration. What areas would you want to contribute?
As a lawyer, I have a good command of legal theory and policy, civil law, criminal law, constitutional law, international law, corporate law, and therefore I am willing to contribute in these areas. For example, I know that Prime Minister Abiy has vowed to make constitutional amendments, institutional reforms and legislative reforms, and I am willing to contribute to these efforts too. While I am a practicing lawyer for not a very long time, I have a group of Ethiopian lawyers with me in the US and also in Ethiopia, and all together we can certainly contribute a lot of expertise in whatever the new administration needs help with on the legislative front.
More generally, however, I also have many years of experience in business. In addition, I also have some experience in non-profit charity work and fundraising, as I have helped established a non-governmental organization in Ethiopia with my uncle back in 2008. So, altogether, I am willing to help with many aspects of the new agenda for the country. In the Diaspora in the US, many of us want to help our country. We will gladly contribute to the Ethiopian Diaspora Trust Fund, but we also want our voices to be heard and have opportunities in Ethiopia in return for our support.
During the US visit we heard Prime Minister Abiy say to us “we challenge all of you to contribute to your country, return to your country, and give money to your country.” Sure, why not, most of us would love to go back. But what exactly will be there for Diaspora people in Ethiopia? Are there jobs ready for us? Will we be able to have dual citizenship so that we can vote, and also buy property in Ethiopia? Will we have business opportunities, and be able to get a business loan or government financing? We have many questions, still.
The era of the Derg totally attempted to destroy that part of Ethiopia’s history, including that of the Emperors. How is the family preserving his legacy?
Number one, the family has preserved the legacy by staying alive! (laugh) Indeed, many of our family members were killed during the Revolution by the Derg, and many were in prison for more than 15 years. So for those who are still alive and have survived, it was not easy.
Second, many members of the Royal Family have contributed to preserving the legacy by continuing some of the foundational organizations like the Haile Selassie Foundation or the entity of the Crown Council of Ethiopia. Others have written books, done interviews, shared their stories and continue to honor His Majesty Emperor Haile Selassie in many different ways. But trying to start back their lives after such a tragedy was very difficult for our family, so not everyone has the energy to do much else than to try and carry on with life. The spirit of our legacy still lives on in all of us, and now that things have settled and time has passed, I believe more members will step up to carry on the legacy; especially our new generation.
For my part, the biggest projects I would like to accomplish are to do a comprehensive and high quality documentary of Emperor Haile Selassie, and also a biopic film on the life of the Emperor. Currently, I am working on both of these ideas and have been contacted by some big production companies in the UK and in the US who are interested. Before I leave this world, if I can achieve these two, or even just one of these projects, I will be very satisfied and consider that I have done my part to contribute to preserving our 3,000 year old legacy.
Your family has been through much since the beginning of the Derg. The hardship your family went through, in Ethiopia and elsewhere is public information. What is the best way to reconcile with members of your family, now that the Premier is on a drive to be a bridge between many members of the Ethiopian society?
First, I think PM Abiy can begin by publicly denouncing the atrocities the Derg was responsible for and that the Emperor and the Royal Family has suffered through. And not just our family, also the entire Ethiopian people who have suffered under that regime. We have yet, as a nation, to recover and begin a process of healing the wounds. The Derg is effectively responsible for one of the most heinous and bloody mass killings of its own people in the history of the world.
And especially dealing with Mengistu Hailemariam, Prime Minister Abiy and the Ethiopian government must be firm and declare him to be banned from Ethiopia forever. Although Prime Minister Abiy did say so in his recent press conference, I believe he should have a more definitive position on this issue, meaning that his statement should be recorded in writing in an official legal document. The best way to do this would be to issue an arrest warrant against Mengistu with an accompanying order that he be returned to Ethiopia to receive his judgment as ordered by the courts.
His sentence must be made incommutable and remain in effect until Mengistu either comes to Ethiopia to answer for his crimes, or until he is dead. If this process is followed, it is the same as making sure he is banned from Ethiopia forever. No matter how many years pass, Mengistu’s crimes are just too horrific to be pardoned. If PM Abiy ever decides to pardon Mengistu, I think he will lose almost all of his support – in Ethiopia, and in the diaspora everywhere. It would be the single biggest mistake he could make. He will definitely lose my family’s support.
Second – speaking on my behalf, as a member of the Royal Family – in order to build a new bridge between the Ethiopian government and the Royal Family, I would love for Prime Minister Abiy to take steps to honor the memory of HIM Emperor Haile Selassie to make sure that the people are aware about his contributions to our country and to the world. Prime Minister Abiy has proposed many good ideas in that respect, such as talking passionately and recognizing HIM in a speech after his inauguration, offering to open the Menelik Palace to the public, and now I am told they will be building a monument of Haile Selassie at the African Union. These are all very good plans, and I truly appreciate Prime Minister Abiy’s efforts. Furthermore, I hope he will consider opening up the Jubilee Palace as well for the public to visit. This is the heritage of all Ethiopian People; they should have access to it and be educated about it. Although the people of Ethiopia have many different backgrounds, together we all share the same rich history. Ethiopia is a unique and exceptional country; our history should be a source of pride for all Ethiopians.
Moreover, I hope Prime Minister Abiy can see the value in giving the Royal Family an opportunity to meet with him and his Cabinet to discuss current affairs in Ethiopia, and give our opinions on certain issues. I also hope that Prime Minister Abiy extends an invitation for our family to be involved specifically in initiatives concerning Ethiopian history. We could help with the plans for the museums at the palace, and help establish some programs and seminars for the public to be engaged in learning more about Ethiopia’s rich history. In the past 40 years, our country has been through some very difficult times and a lot has been done to try and destroy our legacy during that period. I believe a dialogue between PM Abiy’s new administration and the Royal Family would be good for our country and would send a good message to the world. It would be an excellent way to create a bridge from the past to the present day, start the national healing process, and promote the efforts for the Ethiopian people to “Medemer”
If you could advice Prime Minister Abiy on areas to focus on, as he approaches his 6-month anniversary since he became Prime Minister, what would that be?
First, I would again congratulate His Excellency Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed for such an incredible start of his appointment and premiership. Sincerely, congratulations. Second, I think he is doing already many good things, meeting with the people, taking step by step for every area he has laid out in his agenda. But my only advice to Prime Minister Abiy is to remember all the victims in Ethiopia.
I admire him for wanting forgiveness for the people so that the country can unite, and that is why he is very willing to pardon many people. As I said in my article, pardoning an unjustly accused political opposition leader is completely different than pardoning a Derg official, especially not Mengistu. The Derg high officials were not unjustly accused; they are actually guilty of crimes, horrific crimes. I would say: “Please Dr. Abiy, focus on the VICTIMS at this moment, and give them a remedy. Give them reparations. Focus on the people who have been abused and harmed by the perpetrators. Focus on the people who have been imprisoned for false reasons, who have lost family members, who have lost their homes and their livelihood, those have even lost their arms or their legs in prison, and those who have protested and have been killed. Focus on them, they need help. The perpetrators can wait, and maybe later we can address their pardons, if the People have agreed to forgive them.” The country needs healing; there are still many issues that are not resolved.
Any plans to visit Ethiopia in the near future?
Yes! I will visit Ethiopia very soon, and I hope to be in Addis for our Ethiopian Orthodox Christmas.