Haile Menkerios '70

Mike Lovett

U.N. Undersecretary-General Haile Menkerios is a man forged by conflict and by reconciliation.

Born in a small farming village in Eritrea, Menkerios lived a rural life before moving as a youngster with his family to Asmara, Eritrea’s capital. He came to the U.S. as an exchange student for his senior year of high school, then enrolled in Haile Selassie I University, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

He spent just one year there. Menkerios’ English teacher, a Peace Corps volunteer, urged him to apply to Brandeis, where he was awarded a Wien Scholarship and earned a bachelor’s in economics.

Immediately after Brandeis, Menkerios completed a master’s in manpower development planning at Harvard and began working on a PhD there. His studies were cut short, however, after he was called back to Eritrea in early 1973 to participate in his country’s armed fight for independence from Ethiopia.

When the war finally ended in 1991, Menkerios represented Eritrea for a decade in various diplomatic roles, including as the country’s first ambassador to Ethiopia, ambassador to the Organization of African Unity and permanent representative to the United Nations.

But independence proved a difficult transition for Eritrea. Its president refused to implement a constitution or hold elections, and continually took military action against neighboring nations. Menkerios resigned his government post and, along with 14 other colleagues, was accused of treason after publicly condemning his country’s slide into dictatorship.

Joining the U.N., Menkerios quickly expanded his reputation as a peacemaker. So successful was he in reaching difficult accords that he served as a U.N. emissary in the hottest hot spots in Africa, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zimbabwe and Madagascar. He was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for his role in Sudan and South Sudan as the latter earned its long-sought independence from the former.

In May 2013, Menkerios was tapped by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to be the head of the U.N. Office to the African Union and special representative to the African Union. He still serves as the secretary-general’s special envoy to Sudan/South Sudan.

The 67-year-old Menkerios, who is now a South African citizen, is stationed in Addis Ababa.

What was your idea of perfect happiness when you were at Brandeis?

Driving into Waltham in the evening with friends for pizza.

When or where were you most miserable at Brandeis?

When Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. I was enraged.

Who was your favorite Brandeis professor?

Ruth Morgenthau, professor of international politics.

Where did you usually spend Saturday night?

Parties on campus, visiting friends in Cambridge.

What is the most important value you learned at Brandeis?

The importance of social awareness, and a commitment to positive engagement in affecting life around me.

Which talent did Brandeis help you develop most?

Listening — there was so much to grasp that was new to me, that I didn’t know and wanted to learn.

What do you wish you had studied harder?

History. I hardly took any history courses, and had to read and study on my own after college.

What three words of advice would you give to current Brandeis students?

Listen, learn, engage.

If you could go back to college, what would you do differently?

Not much, really.

What would your friends say is your greatest strength?

Probably my commitment to social change, to fight for what I believed, even with my life. I joined the armed struggle for liberation in Eritrea soon after graduation and fought for 18 years.

What would your friends say is your greatest weakness?

That I am quick-tempered at times and react quickly but regret later.

What is your blind spot?

I can’t see the obvious negative when I love.

What book do you read again and again?

I haven’t had the time to do that often. Engagement in war during my youth and in conflict resolution — the mediation between social forces in conflict — as a later profession forced me to constantly have to deal with crises throughout my life.

What movie changed your life?

“Z” really affected me, though I can’t say it changed my life.

Which possession do you most like to look at?

Our cattle when I was young, and the plants in our apartment in later life.

Whom would you like to sing a duet with?

Aretha Franklin, although I would stop right away so I didn’t spoil her great voice.

Which deadly sin is your middle name?

Smoking. I did it since my time at Brandeis until December 2010, when repeated pneumonia gave me the hint I might go before I saw the [January 2011] South Sudanese referendum through unless I stopped. And I did.

Which bad break was your biggest blessing?

Being appointed ambassador of Eritrea to Ethiopia at the hardest time — right after separation.

On your deathbed, what will you be most grateful for?

That I was satisfied with what I did to make a difference in the lives of some people.