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Remembering Boutros Boutros-Ghali

Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the first United Nations chief from the African continent, has passed away at the age of 93, it was announced last Tuesday in the UN Security Council, where a minute’s silence was observed. According to the prominent Al-Ahram newspaper, Boutros-Ghali died in a hospital where he was admitted after suffering a broken pelvis.

Others quibble and say Boutros-Ghali – a scion of a prominent Egyptian Christian political family – was the first UN-Chief from the Arab world to lead the world organisation from 1992 to 1996. Boutros-Ghali, the 6th UN-Secretary General, will be remembered as the first chief of the world body who served only one term. The United States of America and its allies blocked a second term for Boutros-Ghali because of his independent and critical approach. Boutros-Ghali, who studied international law in Cairo and Paris, seemed to prefer the French approach to the Anglo-Saxon mentality.

Boutros-Ghali fluently spoke Arabic, English and French just like his Egyptian-Jewish widow, Mrs. Leila Maria Nadler. In an interview he gave to The New York Times in 1995, Boutros-Ghali said: “when I have tense relations with my wife, we speak in Arabic. When we talk business, then we speak English. When our relationship is better, then we talk French.” Some observers say that his love for the French contributed to his troublesome relationship with the Americans, who loved him at first for the pivotal role he plaid in the Camp David peace agreements between Egypt and Israel.

In a predominantly Muslim country, Christians and certainly Jews are not allowed to hold government positions. It is by coincidence that Boutros-Ghali became acting foreign minister of Egypt. When President Anwar Sadat started his peace deal with Israel, the then Egyptian foreign minister resigned to protest Sadat’s move. Then Sadat made Boutros Boutros-Ghali acting minister in charge of the team that prepared the Camp David agreements between Sadat and the Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Despite his international standing and fluency in French, English and Arabic, Boutros-Ghali never became Egyptian foreign minister because of his Christian religion. Formal and informal political considerations dictate that the post is reserved for a Muslim.   

While I am cognizant of his shortcomings – like when he failed to avert the 1994-genocide in Rwanda by the extremist Hutu government whom Boutros-Ghali himself sold Egyptian weapons worth $26 million US-dollars to in 1990 while he was working for the Egyptian foreign ministry – I have always admired Boutros-Ghali for many reasons, not least for his position toward the American administration, which cost him a second term. When he left the UN stage, it was for another African: the Ghanaian Kofi Anan. I belong to the same Christian denomination as Boutros-Ghali; the Eritrean, Ethiopian and Egyptian churches are of the same branch: the same miaphysite family who believe that Jesus Christ was full of divinity and humanity at the same time when he was walking on earth. Boutros-Ghali’s features, smile and humour often reminds me of my father and his friends. You can easily mistake Boutros-Ghali for an Eritrean or Ethiopian.

Christianity arrived in Ethiopia (then one territory with the current state of Eritrea) in the third century A.D. According to some stories, the first Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church of Axum, St. Frumentius (or Aba Selama as the Ethiopians used to call him) was ordained in Alexandria. He was a Syro-Phoenician Greek from Tyre whose ship suffered shipwreck in the shores of the Red Sea and then was captured by the then king of Axum. The church of Alexandria was established by the Evangelist Marcus from the Bible. 

Boutros-Ghali saw Ethiopia as his second home. Not only because of the fact that 86 percent of the Nile, the life-line of Egypt, has one of its sources in Ethiopia, but also due to the strong religious connection between the Coptic Christians of Egypt and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Boutros-Ghali  never whole-heartedly supported the independence of Eritrea. Ironically Cairo was the birth-place of the Eritrean armed struggle for independence. Around 1960 Eritrean students launched the Eritrean armed struggle from Cairo. One of these students was the Eritrean intellectual, Dr. Taha Mohamednur, who was a law student of Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s at the University of Cairo.  Mohamednur wrote a paper on Eritrea as an independent nation to the fury of Boutros-Ghali, who reacted: “we don’t know an independent nation called Eritrea,” and he threw the paper on the face of  Mohamednur. The student Mohamednur was touched but unmoved. He pursued his studies further in Rome, where he earned his Ph.D in international law. He continued to mobilise Eritrean students in the world for the Eritrean armed struggle.

The late Eritrean Dr. Taha Mohamednur, the former student of Professor Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who died in prison in Eritrea without any charges in the heart of the Eritrean capital city Asmara.
The late Eritrean Dr. Taha Mohamednur, the former student of Professor Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who died in prison in Eritrea without any charges in the heart of the Eritrean capital city Asmara. Image courtesy of the author. 

In 1991, almost the same year that  Boutros-Ghali became UN-Secretary General, Eritrean freedom fighters liberated the whole of Eritrea and entered its capital city of Asmara on May 24, 1991.

Eritrea waited for two years before it organised a UN-sponsored referendum where Eritreans had the choice between independence or union with Ethiopia. The Eritrean referendum commission had five people and one of the commissioners was  Mohamednur, who welcomed his former professor at the liberated Asmara airport and reminded him of the incident at Cairo University. Boutros-Ghali used his disarming smile and humour to break the ice and congratulated and embraced Mohamednur. Mohamednur was not only a referendum commissioner, he was also elected to be member of the executive committee of the first Constitution Commission of Eritrea. As secretary of the Constitution Committee in The Netherlands that worked closely with the Constitution Commission, it was a privilege to work with such people of high calibre.

The Eritrean Constitution was ratified in 1997 but to this day the only president Eritrea has had since independence in 1991 (de-facto) and 1993 (de-jure), Mr. Isaias Afwerki, refuses to implement the constitution. He has been 25 years in power without interruption. He arrested Mohamednur in 2005 and he later died on November 15, 2008 while in prison – officially of “cardiac arrest”.  No independent autopsy was conducted. He was never charged of any crime. The Eritrean revolution, like many others, has been devouring its own children.

Dr. Taha Mohamednur
Dr. Taha Mohamednur as a young man. Image courtesy of the author. 

Another victim is the former Eritrean Foreign Minister and former comrade in arms of the Eritrean President, Mr. Petros Solomon (see pictures with Boutros Boutros-Ghali). Mr Solomon belongs to the G15 Eritrean ministers, diplomats and generals who have been languishing in prison since 2001. They are all held incommunicado. Some three years later the wife of Petros Solomon, Mrs. Aster Yohannes, was abducted from the Asmara airport when she came back from the USA where she was pursuing her studies. Their four children fled Eritrea together with their grandma, the mother of Aster Yohannes, and have been growing up without parents.

What is Mohamednur going to say to Boutros-Ghali when they meet for the third time; now in heaven, where the nation-state, religion, race and international law have no place? Both of them studied international law and were very committed for the rule of law. Boutros-Ghali is survived only by his wife; while the three children of Dr. Taha Mohamednur and his widow have been condemned to spend the rest of their life together with their mother.

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