University gives prisoner of conscience Distinguished Alumnus Award

Press Release

The New School for Social Research presented the 2006 Distinguished Alumnus Award to Berhanu Nega (PhD in Economics, 1991) at the 2006 Graduation Ceremony on May 19, 2006. 

Founded as the University in Exile in the 1930s, New School for Social Research, New York, created a safe haven for leading European scholars under threat at home. Their progressive ideas and quest for justice and equality inspired a tradition of probing democratic dialogue that continues in our classrooms today and is brought by our students to the wider world in often difficult and dangerous environments. It is in this spirit that we recognize Berhanu Nega, a leading proponent of democracy in his native Ethiopia, who received his PhD in economics in 1991.

A respected economist and politician, Nega has taught at the University of Addis Ababa and in 2005 was the first elected mayor of Addis Ababa in the country's history. He has served as president of the Ethiopian Economic Association, founded and served as director of the Ethiopian Economic Policy Research Institute, and was a consultant for the UN Economic Commission for Africa. Prior to his work in Ethiopia, Nega served as an assistant professor at Bucknell University.

On November 1, 2005, Nega was arrested along with several prominent members of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), Ethiopia's leading opposition party. These arrests followed protests over recent Ethiopian
election irregularities in which more than 80 people were killed and hundreds wounded. Nega and his political allies are being held on charges of treason-an offence punishable by death under Ethiopian law. Amnesty International regards them as "prisoners of conscience, arrested solely for the non-violent expression of
political beliefs."

At The New School for Social Research, world peace and global justice are not theoretical ideals; they are the central, practical goals of every course of study. We salute the eloquence and courage with which Berhanu Nega is striving for human rights and democracy in Ethiopia, and we hope that his freedom will soon be won. 


Dr Berhanu's acceptance speech on the occassion ( By Hiwet Nega on behalf of her brother)

Thank you.  I am truly honoured to accept this award on behalf of Berhanu and all those who are fighting for democracy in the world.      

 I will read a letter to express Berhanu’s sentiments:

 Senator Bob Kerrey, President of the New School for Social Research,

The graduating class,

Ladies and gentlemen

 It is indeed a great honor and privilege to be chosen for this year’s Alumnus of the Year Award, especially from an esteemed institution that formed my thinking and that I highly respect.  I am both grateful and proud.  

 To be a graduate student at The New School was much more than developing a career path.  It was about the exchange of diverse ideas and perspectives. It was about highly stimulating discussions, intellectual curiosity and learning about responsibility.  These experiences led to my quest for solutions and my move to Ethiopia to help make a difference in alleviating poverty.  I was overwhelmed by the problems. Yet, the possibilities seemed promising.

 I immersed myself in numerous economic activities.  However, the sense of despair I observed was inhibiting progress and required a fundamental shift in the thinking of individuals.  I decided to engage in empowering people to take responsibility for their freedom and development.  In fact, the link between individual freedom and development was often the topic I debated thoroughly at the New School and my biggest lesson while in the US.  

 In 2001, I, along with a famous human rights activist, gave a lecture on the values of academic freedom to economic development.  The next day, university students staged a peaceful rally calling for such freedom, but were met with violence from the government.  In one day, 34 people lost their lives.  My colleague and I were thrown in jail.  We were released on bail after a month, mainly because of the efforts of many in the US including some in this audience.  

 In 2004, I formed a political party with a group of like-minded individuals.  This eventually led to the formation of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) party.  

CUD’s campaign focused on democratic values which enabled the party to garner immense support despite heavy-handed intimidation.  On election day, over 97% of the registered voters cast their votes – some standing in line for over 10 hours.  The head of EU election Observation Team said “I have NEVER seen such a genuine yearning for democracy anywhere in the world”.  

 As it became clear that the opposition was leading in many districts, the ruling party declared victory even before half the polling stations were counted.  In Addis, our party won 99% of the seats for city council, and I became the first elected mayor in the country’s history.

 Soon thereafter, the situation deteriorated.  A campaign of terror was launched by the government.  Beginning May 17th, I was placed under surveillance. University students who rallied peacefully were killed, beaten viciously and imprisoned.  

 Our party called for a stay at home strike in November.  The government provoked violence and at least 44 unarmed citizens were murdered.  The entire CUD leadership along with dozens of journalists and human rights defenders was jailed.  It has been six month since our arrest and our ONLY crime is our commitment to democracy.

 The irony in all of this, is in the subsequent involvement of foreign officials.  Especially US officials.  Many Ethiopians were disappointed that the US did not exert its influence to promote democracy - as it could have, as it does in other parts of the world.  In fact, in many instances, the US, unjustifiably, supported the dictatorial regime.  

 For example, US embassy officials attempted to persuade incarcerated leaders of CUD, to support the formation of a government sanctioned party to use CUD’s name - making us politically irrelevant.  

 I find these actions directly contradicting my knowledge about the values of the American people.  

 Nathan Sharansky in his book, The Case For Freedom, said:

“…The concept of a friendly dictator is a figment of our imagination because the internal dynamics of non-democratic rule will always require eternal enemies.  Today the dictator’s enemy may be your enemy.  But tomorrow, his enemy may be you.”  

 I thank you for all your persistence to bring democracy in the world!

I hope to personally thank you as a free man one day!