The Ethiopian Elder, Professor Ephraim Isaac


By Tedla D.

December 21, 2014

What would you call someone who has degrees in Music, Philosophy and Chemistry, few PhDs – honorary and academic, fluent in at least 17 languages, leads the boards of over a dozen of international organisations, teaches/taught in at least five of the best/top ranked universities in the world, prides in teaching some of the world’s and America’s celebrated leaders and academics at Harvard and has worked in the resolution of many international conflicts from Northern Ireland to Ethiopia and the Middle East? That is a genius! If that is ever a befitting description. And delightfully he is an Ethiopian! 

I recently sent a personal email to Professor Ephraim Isaac with a little expectation that he possibly will answer. Fortunately, he responded within hours and the response was satiating. The first time I met Professor Ephraim was back in 2007 at the Sheraton Addis Hotel when he was preparing to give a press conference on the pardon and release of opposition politicians and journalists who were arrested following the 2005 post election violence. In that short interview interaction, he came across as a humble person but very much reserved especially when it came to speaking to the media. The release of the opposition leaders and journalists was chiefly mediated by Professor Ephraim. In collaboration with other organisations, he played the primary role in the release of the senior leaders of the then Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), journalists and subsequently the freeing of over 30, 000 prisoners, most of whom were detained for political, election related reasons.

As there had been no immediate and desperate reason for me to search for him as now, it was very rarely that I had keenly read and contacted him. The few times he crossed my mind were for instance when he appeared or wrote on the media as in his most recent and moving article “An open letter to an inquisitive young Ethiopian sister”. My present concerns, however, made me dig a bit deeper about Professor Ephraim Isaac’s biography and works. The Elder, a chapter in the book edited by David Little (2006) titled Peacemakers in Action: Profiles of Religion in Conflict Resolution, narrates that Ephraim was born in Ethiopia just before the  WWII started to Yemenite Jewish father and an Oromo Ethiopian mother. After completing his primary and secondary education in Ethiopia, he left for the U.S.A. to pursue his third level studies.

It is in the U.S. that he studied and spent most of his adult life but keeping his closer attachment with his motherland, Ethiopia and places in the world that needed intervention, peace. He studied, wrote and taught about different subjects ranging from music, chemistry, religion, philosophy, history, language to peace among others.  Although I have not even skimmed his numerous works, I remember reading his piece in 2011 about an Ethiopian female philosopher, Saint Kirstos Semra for the first time which thus inspired me to search more and contextually translate her Amharic hagiography and miracles booklet into English.

Just like Saint Kirstos Semra, often referred as the “Mother of Peace” for her love, prayer and efforts to human beings and peace, especially remembered for “attempting to mediate and reconcile God and Satan for the sake of world peace”, in a metaphoric semblance, Professor Ephraim is quoted in David Little’s (2006) book as endeavouring to do the same, “Ephraim jokes that if Satan called asking for negotiations, he would agree to help if he thought that it might bring greater peace to the world.” The late Ethiopian author Sebhat G. Egziabher reportedly wrote in the now defunct Efoyeta Amharic Magazine in April 2000 the following about Professor Ephraim: “I have been lucky to know many individuals I love and admire. However, I only know one person — Ephraim Isaac– among those that I know and admire the quality of whose character is exactly what we mean when we say such and such a person must be a great man.”

These praising words are only based on my mere public knowledge of the Professor and readings of secondary materials. He, like anyone human being could have his own shortcomings and characters to be criticised. I leave that for those who know him intimately and could do an appreciative inquiry.

The Ethiopian traditional garb wearing scholar, national educator (via the Ethiopian Literacy Campaign that made over 1.5 million Ethiopians literate), peacemaker, mediator, philosopher and a person of so many other expertise, skills and prodigy, Ephraim has been little celebrated (perhaps because he distances himself from the media or he does not like to self aggrandise) but is one who worth countless torchbearers that would carry his scholastic and most importantly peacemaking endeavours and missions, I argue.

Ethiopia and Ethiopians in Diaspora today have got so many disgruntled, aggrieved, disenfranchised, polarised, antagonised and grudged individuals, communities, parties and populations grouped in “their” or “our” camps. We are not short of protagonists and antagonists, supporters and opposers; fighters and defenders. What we are dreadfully short of are peacemakers, mediators and third-party transcenders, as Galtung would describe them, people who would solve the conflicts by transcending the traditional methods of conflict and grievance resolution briefly, people like Professor Ephraim. Have we ever contemplated the total absence of such people in the Ethiopian political sphere? Admittedly, Ephraim’s training, job type, prominence and international audibility might have given him an edge to champion such an agency; however have we as journalists, activists, scholars, artists or anyone ever taken the task of peace building and reconciliation at our best capacities to call, write or campaign for same? You have the answer.

Today; when so many Ethiopian youth, farmers, politicians, journalists and activists are being ever more detained for political and rights related issues and when the societal and national tension on political, ethnic and economic inequality is insufferably rising, what we are again scarce of is not and are not people who support the status quo or passionately oppose it; we are short of many Ephraim Issacs.

On my recent field research in Kenya interviewing Kenyan peace scholars and citizens, a common response came up from the majority of my interviewees. They said Kofi Anan, who brokered the peace deal post the 2007 Kenyan election violence in 2008 did such a great service in stopping the chaos and mediating the conflicting parties; however they said what Anan did fail was in, indeed this is the failure of most mediation and peace building projects elsewhere too, trickling the mediation and reconciliation down to the grassroots among the ordinary Kikuyu, Luo, Luhya, Kamba and Kalenjin. I can draw the same parallel in Ethiopia too. Although Professor Ephraim brokered the release of opposition leaders and journalists in 2007; the elder’s team he predominantly led did not go to the ground in every Kebele and region to extend the reconciliation and peace efforts. As important as the top mediation and reconciliation is, the bottom-up peace building and reconciliation is fundamental for perpetual peace. Finance, time and other bottlenecks might have had prevented him/them. This was one of the points he was criticised for including what some groups in the Diaspora accused him of i.e. only “echoing the voice of the government and failing to criticise the human rights abuses by the government”. There was one Website Editor in the U.S. nonetheless that had defended Ephraim in those tumultuous moments saying “Everybody cannot be an activist or a freedom fighter”. Wittily, I found out that grassroots or national peace building has always been one of Ephraim’s main projects since the yesteryears. In Little’s 2006 book, Ephraim is mentioned for suggesting in early 1990s to Meles Zenawi, the then President of the Provisional Government of Ethiopia and Isaias Afwerki, the President of Eritrea to establish Ministries of Peace and Reconciliation to parallel their Ministries for Defense envisioning “an “army” of young people supported and trained for the purpose of resolving conflict”. This is the space now where a good link and hard work must come in.

Despite the fact that he produced many academic, theoretical and practical materials for the peace studies sector even much earlier than Western academics considered as the pioneers of the discipline, I discover that either him or his works are rarely referred to in peace and conflict study texts unlike the likes of Johan Galtung, John Paul Lederach or John Burton who dominate the field. It is probably up to us, novice entrants of the peace building academic field, to read through and utilize what is relevant to our studies thereby increasing the citations and the wider dissemination of his outputs.

The purpose of this article is clear; it is appreciating and respecting the profile of this grand Ethiopian elder, scholar and icon thereby extending the olive branch or calling for the cultivation of the new breeds of Ephraim Issacs. It is not intended as an appeasement or seeking favours though it obviously has been triggered by recent personal issues.

Our country of origin’s, Ethiopia, conflicts are now slowly but surely changing from structural to direct violence; the types of fights and disagreements we had 10 years ago have now come in a different face and intensity both due to the shift of the oppositions’ strategy and also more stringent government proclamations that came into effect since 2009. Fewer pardons, longer arrests and cruel tortures are becoming the norms unlike the relatively moderate pre-2005 period of the incumbency. The polarisation of either sides or all camps would only exacerbate matters leading to a cyclical tit for tat, tug-of-war and revengeful future. To prevent, quell and resolve this, people of Professor Ephraim Issac’s credibility, calibre, experience and clout first deserve nationwide and international recognition. Second while they continue works at track one for the release of the thousands of political prisoners; they need to work towards grassroots negotiation and reconciliation. Last but most importantly, we the youth must join hands, take the torches from him and work for preventive, reconciling and reconstructive perpetual peace in Ethiopia and beyond.

Let me finish with a line from my recent correspondence with him, supposing that he does not mind, he said “My prayer is that we Ethiopians learn to love and respect each other. That is our ancient tradition. That is what will make us a strong people and a prosperous country.”

Amen to that and let us promise to do our parts!