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Asrat Woldeyes (1928 – 1999)

Eminent surgeon and university dean turned political opponent who stood for unity in Ethiopia.

Asrat Woldeyes

Turbulent youth

Asrat Woldeyes was born in Addis Ababa on 20 June 1928 to a family belonging to the Amhara ethnic group. His early years were marked by traumatic events. When he was seven, his father was killed, along with many other civilians, in retaliation for a failed assassination attempt on an Italian fascist general of the occupying force. His mother also passed away shortly afterwards.

Despite these tragedies, Woldeyes excelled at school in Ethiopia and Egypt. He came to the University of Edinburgh to study medicine in the 1950s, successfully gaining an MBChB qualification. He would go on to become the first Ethiopian to train as a surgeon in the west.

Leader in medicine

Forgoing better conditions and pay offered in the west, Woldeyes returned to Ethiopia to serve his people – rich and poor. He spent much of this working life at the medical faculty at Addis Ababa University and the Black Lion (Tikur Anbessa), the largest public hospital in the city. A pioneer of medical education in Ethiopia, Professor Woldeyes became dean of the medical faculty and published a number of research papers during his career.

Thanks to his strong reputation, Woldeyes was also the personal physician to Emperor Haile Selassie until the latter’s death in 1975. Two decades later, Woldeyes would be called to testify that he did not believe that the former Emperor had died of natural causes.

Political action

In 1993, Woldeyes and 21 other Amhara professors were dismissed from Addis Ababa University following a period of political change during which Eritrea gained de facto independence. A critic of President Meles Zenawi and government policies of regionalisation based on ethnicity, Woldeyes founded the All Amhara People's Organisation (AAPO) in the same year and became its chairman. He hoped to protect Amhara interests and called for the Amhara people to be represented throughout Ethiopian territory, rather than contained in one region.


Woldeyes was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment in 1994 for allegedly inciting the population to armed revolt against the government during a meeting of the AAPO in Addis Ababa. Despite being kept in a communal cell, he was not allowed to communicate with others. From prison, he wrote to the public prosecutor at Ethiopia's central high court refuting the accusations against him. Amnesty International considered him a prisoner of conscience and demonstrations were held calling for his release.

In 1995, his sentence was extended by three years after a speech he made in 1993 was found to have amounted to “high treason and inciting violence”. The following year brought a new trial, but repeated adjournments meant it was never completed.

Deteriorating health

In the midst of this, Woldeye’s health was deteriorating. High blood pressure and failing eyesight prompted Woldeyes’ transfer to the hospital where he was once chief surgeon, the Black Lion, in January 1998 under watch.

On Christmas Day the same year, following growing international pressure, Woldeyes was granted compassionate release so he could receive medical care abroad. The first stop was London, where he attended the Wellington Hospital, before flying to Houston, Texas for surgery, which went well. However, only a few months afterwards, on 14 May 1999, Woldeyes died at the hospital of the University of Pennsylvania aged 70, in freedom, if not in his home country.


Obituary in the Guardian by Brian Barder (external link)

Biography in Ethiopian Voices by Ashu Wasies (external link) 

Biographical account on the Centre for African Studies website by Tom Cunningham (external link)

Journalist Jonathan Steel recalls his interations with Woldeyes for Edit magazine in autumn 1999 (PDF)