Posts filed under ‘Books’
By Fikre Tolossa, Ph.D
The second volume of the reminiscence of Colonel Mengistu Haile-mariam, the ex-president and Prime Minster of Ethiopia, authored by Weyzero Genet Ayele saw the light of the day recently. I had a chance to read, review and analyze it. The book is divided into two parts. Part I deals with the Colonel’s memoir and his views on personalities and events. The second part covers the reactions and comments of former soldiers and ex-members of the Colonel’s Government on the Colonel, his government, the Ethiopian Revolution, the Somali invasion of Ethiopia, the civil war in Eritrea and the failed coup against the Colonel.
In the first volume of his reminiscence, the Colonel was accusatory, emotional and angry at everyone including his former comrades, his adversaries and the EPRDF Government. In the present volume, he seems to be mellow, composed, reflective, nostalgic and even considerate to some extent. He now calls his incarcerated ex-comrades his brothers and friends, unlike in the past, even though he shows no sign of remorse still. Genet has captured even the humane side of his split personality.
I intend to review this book and use the occasion to analyze it and pose a few crucial questions to Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam, the former President of Ethiopia. Even though it is almost 20 years since the Colonel was exiled, the impact of his legacy is still fresh in the minds of many Ethiopians. As such, it won’t be inappropriate to address the Colonel, whether he responds or not. I will also offer him an advice with regards to the book he is currently writing whether he heeds to my advice or not.
In part one, the Colonel touches many subjects speaking briefly about Major Dawit Wolde-giorgis, Emperor Haile-selassie, Ex-prime Minster Endalkachew Mekonen, the late Oromo leader Baro Tumssa, the Felasha, Robert Mugabe, Garbachov and Paul Henze, He also airs his views on power and African leaders, Derg and democracy, his opponents, the EPRDF court that gave him death sentence, remorse and forgiveness, betrayal, his security officers, his counselors, those injured in war, Somalia, and last, the book he is currently writing.
Colonel Mengistu doesn’t dwell at length on most of the topics he touches. I can cite Emperor Haile Selassie as an example. Whereas he could have given an account of how he met the Emperor first, how he impacted him, why he was opposed to him, what he thought of him as a person and leader stating his achievements and failures, he makes statements irrelevant to these. Perhaps, the questions posed to him by the author didn’t lead to these points. I have no clue how the author posed her questions to him, but his answers are too brief and too unrevealing even when it comes to topics that warrant detailed responses such as his childhood.
Speaking about his childhood, he remembers how his mother made him a ball of rags, and how later on his uncle bought him a real ball, and how other kids of his neighborhood flocked after him begging him to kick his ball. However, he does not say where in Ethiopia this event took place. I wish the author took this opportunity to ask him further the whereabouts of this and the details of his childhood as we don’t have much information about his childhood and boyhood except a few rumors regarding his early life.
The Colonel doesn’t say much about the character of his former comrades either. It would have been great if Genet had selected a few of the personalities that were closely associated with him such as Colonel Atnafu Abate, Captain Fikre-selassie Wog-deres, Generals Tesfaye Gebre-kidan, Teferi Benti, Aman Andom, Colonel Birhanu Bayeh, Col. Teka Tulu, Col. Debela Dinssa, and even Captain Legesse Asfaw; and spurred him to give a detailed account of their character.
The Colonel misses Ethiopia in general, and is very nostalgic for Harer in particular. He has a particular affection and yearning for Harer since it was there he had spent his life before he joined the Derg in Addis Abeba. His situation reminded me of the proverb, “bidir be midir”, the equivalent of which in English would be “what goes around, comes around” or “what you sow, you’ll reap”. Weren’t the Colonel and his regime responsible directly or indirectly for the fact that tens of thousands of Ethiopians were uprooted from their motherland and were made to flee for their lives to lead a life of anxiety and homesickness in distant lands? Would the Colonel now put his feet in the shoes of such unfortunate Ethiopians and feel their pain and anguish? Whether he would or not the fact that he is as homesick as other refugees is a poetic justice.
I have heard various opinions pertaining to the peaceful life he leads in Zimbabwe as a refugee though he chooses to call himself “the guest of the people of Zimbabwe“. Some exclaim, “I can’t believe he finds himself well and alive after he caused the deaths of so many people? I just don’t comprehend the reality that he is not languishing in jail like his comrades after what he had said and done!… Where is poetic justice? “ Others respond to this, “He suffers deep down inside, even though he looks okay outwardly. He is scared of his own shadow. His condition is worst than being incarcerated!”
“It is the prayers of his wife that has kept him safe and alive. His good wife is pious. She prays for the “forgiveness of his sins fervently and ceaselessly. His wife remained faithful to God when he “renounced God and claimed to be a Marxist. Maybe he now has repented and believes In God;” would remark a few. There are also those who refute this, “But how could he repent and beg God’s forgiveness when he hasn’t yet expressed his apology to the people of Ethiopia?…”
Indeed, those were words I heard for the last 20 years. Speaking of his wife, Weyzero Wubanchi Bishaw, she is a true and devoted wife who shared his fate all the way through without flinching. Without her, he would probably have collapsed, unable to bear all the pressure exerted on him. According to what I read and heard about her, she was gentle and God-fearing. When her husband was in power, she never abused her power nor amassed wealth like some women of her position would have done. She left the palace and her country to share the misfortune of her husband without partaking of his glory, always maintaining a low profile. In not dedicating a chapter or two to her, the author of this book, Genet Ayele has missed a wealth of information the former first lady would have shared with her on herself, her husband, her children, and most of all, on the Ethiopian Revolution. Weyzero Genet should not only interview her in the future, but also her children and the uncle, as well as the brother of Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam. Genet, let me give you this assignment for the future. Your task is not completed yet as you think it is.
The present book authored by Genet Ayele reveals that Colonel Mengistu is writing a book about his life, the Revolution and Ethiopian history. It is long overdue that you wrote such a book, dear Colonel. So far, we haven’t read your own testimony composed with your own hand.
As stated earlier, the second part handles interviews the author conducted with former soldiers who served under the Colonel’s regime. I find this part to be engaging and mind-stimulating. The insight of some of them on the Revolution, The Ethio-Somali war, the aborted coup in Asmara and the Ethio-Eritrean civil war is profound and original. These interviews add some more facts to our knowledge of these subjects. In enjoyed them a lot.
The finale of the book ends abruptly. It has no designated conclusion. I wish the author summed up the book by summarizing it in a conclusion stating her personal comments and views on the interviews. Moreover, the colonels views on a variety of topics and burning issues are too short, and do not reveal as much as we expect them to. I wish the author stirred the Colonel to elaborate them.
Overall, Genet Ayele should be applauded for presenting us with this book and the previous one which dealt with the life of Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam. I gather that she spent her own hard-earned money to write and publish it. It is obvious that it has cost her a fortune. If she didn’t dedicate her money, time, energy and talent, we would never had the information enshrined in these two books. We know for fact that it is extremely expensive, time-consuming and exhausting to fly back and forth to Zembawe so many times, deal with the security situation there, spend tons of money and get something out of the Colonel’s mouth single-handedly. Her readers owe Genet a few nice words for her extraordinary achievement. I was saddened to read on Ethiomedia journalist Eskinder Nega’s “book review” in which he tried to link Genet with the Derg because her late father and her ex-husband were soldiers, and associate her with the current Government because, among the persons she thanks in her page of indebtedness. happens to be Prof. Endrias Eshete, President of Addis Abeba University.
Genet’s father, Sergeant Ayele Anbesse was a brave soldier who died defending the territorial integrity of Ethiopia. She also lost two brothers in battlefields. Regarding Prof. Endrias Eshete, she didn’t dedicate any special page exclusively to him. His name simply appeared in a sentence among a number of other names. I couldn’t fathom why Ato Eskinder singled him out. I can’t still understand Ato Eskinder’s logic. Is every person that happens to know Prof.Endrias an associate of the Government? Furthermore, what is wrong if the Professor indeed advised and encouraged her to write a book of this much historical significance on the man who ruled Ethiopia for 17 years, and she thanked him for it, regardless of his political stance and his position in the Government? Wouldn’t it make Genet ungrateful and opportunistic if she thanked all those people who encouraged her to write her book and leave out the Professor after she made a good use of his valuable advice? I feel that Ato Iskinder Nega has made a sweeping generalization in stating that the fact that Genet expressed her gratitude to the Professor is an indication of “her proximity to the Government”. It is regrettable that he discredits her name instead of saying a few nice words for her effort. I wish he focused on the substance of the book than becoming personal for a reason unclear to the reader.
Back to Colonel Mengistu, when I think of Colonel Mengistu Haile-mariam, I wonder how he rose to prominence among his fellow soldiers. What was the secret of his rise to power not only among his rank and file, but also among all those intellectuals by whom he was surrounded. Some people attribute this to his callousness and sobriety of mind in the face of calamity, as well as his ruthlessness and speed to take action while others take time to reflect and deliberate instead of acting decisively when situations called for immediate action. Granted this was so, I think the main reasons were his leadership ability and audacity. He didn’t elect himself to be the Chairman of the Derg, did he? Was it not because the Derg members detected in him some leadership qualities that they chose him to lead them in the beginning? And how would he outmaneuver and outsmart the intellectuals that were keen on using him to seize power themselves, as well as his foes and friends alike unless he had some intellect, persuasive power and was crafty? True, he eliminated his opponents violently to emerge as a total winner. Non-the-less, without some leadership qualities and the initial backing of the Derg, he wouldn’t have seized power absolutely.
If the colonel would take my advice worth one cent regarding the book he intends to write, I have something to say. I read in this book the outline of your forthcoming book. It is ambitious. Besides your life, you are writing on Ethiopia history. Unless you dedicate only a chapter to Ethiopian history, the reader will lose track of your own history. So, avoid devoting too many pages to Ethiopian history. People can access Ethiopian history on their own if they desire to. However, they can’t access your life history unless you tell it yourself. Even though your interpretation and perspective of Ethiopian history would be interesting of and in themselves, your own life history should be the focus and the issue. For this reason, I encourage you to detail it truthfully. Please give us the truth, and the whole truth. Avoid justifications of allegations and counter allegations, and focus on the facts. Personally, I would like to know more about your childhood, boyhood, your life as a soldier, your parents, family members, the personalities that you met, encountered and impacted on and influenced you, incidents and events that affected and shaped your views and character. If you don’t do that, people will continue speculating about your background. If you pass away without telling your life history truthfully, it will remain shrouded in mystery for eternity. It is only you who can record your life history best as long as you are alive.
A friend who read your late father’s interview that he granted years ago to a local paper told me what he remembers about the interview. According to your father, shortly before the Ethio-Italian war broke out in 1936 (European Calendar), your mother was engaged to your father. After the war broke out, your father and mother lost track of one another. Your mother married another man and lived at Chefe-denssa (?) around Shenkora. When your father found out this he went to the Italian authorities, showed the agreement of engagement and expressed his desire to marry his fiancée. The Italians asked your mother to choose between your father and the man she had married. Your mother chose your father and married him. Then you were born. Your father moved to Addis Abeba and you started to live with Dejazmatch Kebede Tessema on your own, even though you were not related to him biologically. He helped you to join the army and also to win a short scholarship for a military training in the USA.
Colonel, is this all true? How much of this is true? It is important that you include such details in your autobiography. How was growing up in Ethiopia? For instance, it is rumored that some people had teased you when you were young on the basis of the dark tone of your skin. If this is true, how did this affect you and impact your social and political behaviors and actions later on? Did you do something to change the mentality of such color-conscious, abusive individuals in a black African country? A while back when you were in power, I was shocked to hear some individuals who didn’t like your politics cursing you, referring to the color of your skin, ridiculous and outrageous as this was. I have also eavesdropped when others were saying, “since the light-colored leaders were oppressing the people of Ethiopia, God raised a dark-skinned man to straighten them up …” Colonel, it would be good to address in your book such mental backwardness to teach such individuals a lesson, if you think it is important to do so.
On another note, since you were the head-of-state of Ethiopia for 17 years, you are held accountable for both the good and bad actions you and your government took during your tenure as a leader. Too much blood was shed during your reign. You are responsible for this to a significant extent, even though you can’t be held responsible for all the bloodsheds, because everybody was killing anybody in those days of madness. Please allow me to pose to you a few questions for the record, pertaining to bloodletting and other issues. I understand that you were one of the major actors of a historical time marked by a revolution. Yes indeed, I am cognizant of the fact that making a revolution is not attending a wedding party. My contention is that, you could have minimized the death-toll, had you cared much to preserve human life. One way of doing this would have been to keep in prison the people you had captured and incapacitated, instead of executing them in an act of retribution. Let me start with the death of Emperor Haile Selassie. I don’t think it was necessary to kill him since he was old and dying by himself anyway.
In your interview with Weyzero Genet in this latest book you have said that you were not around when the Emperor died, and you were as surprised as everyone about the news. According to you, you were upset and suspicious of his death since Professor Asrat had announced a few days prior to that, that the Emperor’s health was in mint condition. I find this assertion of yours hard to buy. It was said then by witnesses (probably by the servants of the Emperor) that the ruthless Colonel Daniel Asfaw, the Derg’s Chief of Security and a certain doctor injected the Emperor with a poison or chocked him to death. If this is true, it is unlikely that Colonel Daniel would dare do this without your prior-knowledge and approval as he wouldn’t take an action of this magnitude on his own. What do you say about this? Even if you deny this, who buried the Emperor under the floor of an office in the palace? People say that you used that room as your office and you sat above the remains of the Emperor. Is this a slander or true? Weren’t the bones of the Emperor dug out of that office and exhibited a number of years ago and reburied at the Trinity Cathedral by the relatives of the Emperor in a full view on TV while the Ethiopian people were watching? Or do you dismiss this as a fabrication of the current government? Please share the truth, Colonel.
You say often that you didn’t kill any one unjustly, and you even uttered to a foreign journalist, if you remember, that you hadn’t even killed a fly unkindly. Therefore, you had no and you still don’t have any regrets about the death of some of the people you encountered, and you owe no one an apology. Leaving aside the tens of thousands of people who perished in the cities and war-fronts under your leadership, let me ask you a question about the killings of your own comrades. As you know, Colonel Atnafu Abate had been a founding member of the Derg long before you joined it coming from Harer. You knew he was brave and genuine. He trusted you and passed through thick and thin with you. Why did you kill him? The main reason your media gave then was that he proposed the application of “mixed economy” like Sweden, for instance. You yourself accepted this economic policy pressured by the demand of the times and attempted to apply it towards the end of your regime. Why did then you kill that innocent man throwing his poor mother into a sate of immense sorrow? His mother was as unfortunate as your mother. She loved her son even as your own mother loved you. Don’t try to give me another reason. No any other reason or excuse you come up with will justify Colonel Atnafu’s death. Since you were possessed with the urge to kill, the conscious people of Ethiopia knew that he was your next target. Even I, who was in Europe then used to predict that your next victim would be Colonel Atnafu. Many people didn’t trust you then. It was Col. Atnafu alone who thought that you won’t exercise on him what you had exercised on others. So, people used to call him, “the sheep that would be slaughtered next.” It seems that you got rid of him to get rid of the last obstacle on your way to power. Don’t you feel you owe an apology to his mother and the people of Ethiopia for shedding innocent blood? I won’t list here the numerous well-meaning Ethiopians that were executed extra-judicially directly or indirectly by you for such unfounded reasons.
Next, why did you kill or you had Colonel Daniel Asfaw, The Derg’s Chief of Security, kill (if you prefer to blame it on Colonel Daniel) General Teferi Benti, who had been like a father to you? He was never caught red-handed while attempting to murder you. Nor did he try to have you arrested. Why did you condemn him to death? After you and Daniel killed him and the rest, you said, “le kurs yasebunin, le missa adergnachew.”Okay, let’s say that they had plotted to make a coup against you. Why didn’t you confine them in prison instead of executing them in the palace basement? Weren’t you able to resolve any acute problem except by killing your opponents?
Furthermore, granted all those generals of yours that you executed at the war fronts and cities for imagined and real reasons and for attempting the coups on you, such as General Tariku, General Fenta Belay and the others were treacherous and criminals as you say, why did you have to kill them when you could have kept them in prison indefinitely.? You knew that Ethiopia had paid a lot to train them. You knew that there was no one to comfort their wives and raise their children after you had annihilated them. Why did you then kill them? You and I know the answer- You were vindictive. The word “mercy” was not in your vocabulary. But you forgot one thing blinded by your retribution: The domino effect of your execution. Regardless of the reasons why you humiliated and executed General Tariku, General Fenta Belai and the rest, it delighted the EPLF leadership and enabled them to march into Ethiopia unhindered by your dwindling army a good number of which had surrendered to EPLF and TPLF, demoralized and confused by your vindictive actions. In other words, your own action backfired on you and caused your downfall. This proved that you were not as farsighted as you gave the impression to be. Worst of all, you fled Ethiopia leaving her to the adversaries you had been fighting against, besides abandoning your comrades who trusted you and were willing to die for you.
Concerning the execution of the 60 individuals who had served under Emperor Haile Selassie’s Regime just like you did, you have denied time and again that you were not the one who condemned them to die. While this may have some germs of truth, it is impossible to absolve you completely, because the facts indicate that you were the principal architect that instigated openly and behind the scene their execution, particularly after the death of General Aman Andom. This you did to diminish the shock of the General’s death as he had been popular among the armed forces, and also to confuse the populace and compel it to focus on the 60 persons including the few soldiers that faced your firing-squad because of their opposition to your leadership, rather than focusing on the General. Those officials should have been tried at a court of justice and proven guilty before they were executed mercilessly. A good number of them had served their county well, and some of them, like Prime Ministers Mekonen Habtewold and Endalkachew Mekonen could have served their country further if they were not condemned to die. All were harmless and helpless in prison. Their properties were confiscated. Why did you and your Derg members have to kill them as long as it was not proven in court that they had taken the lives of others. Don’t you think that you and your comrades owe an apology to the families of the 60 people? Why should their blood be the blood of dogs?
You have declared in this book and elsewhere that the interest of Ethiopia precedes that of individuals. Hence, it was okay for you to execute those that, in your opinion, violated the sovereignty of Ethiopia. Did this hold true for you too? Or did you have a double-standard? Were you the only one that safeguarded the interest of Ethiopia among the members of your government? Why didn’t you relinquish power when your comrades told you time and again that your leadership would damage the sovereignty of Ethiopia? You said in his book, “who am I going to relinquish power to? To Weyane?” Why Weyane? If you really had the interest of Ethiopia at heart, why didn’t you relinquish power to your rank and file comrades who were capable of leading Ethiopia when your leadership was under question mark? If you didn’t trust individuals, you could have given back power to a committee that would check and balance itself, so that no individual would abuse power and emerge as a dictator. The Ethiopian soldiers who attempted the coup negotiated a cease-fire and peace-accord with the leaders of Shabia and Weyane having the best interest of Ethiopia at heart just like you claimed you had. Let us think of a scenario in which the coup had succeeded. Since the Ethiopian army was intact then, Shabia would not have seceded. If it broke the deal, it would continue fighting eternally. As it was tired of fighting, it would have abided by the arrangement that would have been made with the coup makers. Moreover, Weyane would not have ceased power by itself. It would have been compelled to share power with the members of the new Ethiopian government. As such, the partition of Eritrea from Ethiopia and all the ethnic upheaval that followed would have been averted. You see what I mean? If you really loved Ethiopia more than yourself and your power, you would have relinquished your power for the welfare of Ethiopia when your leadership was beginning to cause the downfall of Ethiopia.
You know General Fenta Belai and the rest of the coup attempters were Ethiopian heroes. Why didn’t you spare their lives when they were at your mercy if you cared for Ethiopia as much as you claimed you did? I read that even General Tesfaye Gebre-kidan was begging you to spare their lives. In killing them, you didn’t show any clemency and magnanimity. Even Emperor Haile Selassie was merciful and magnanimous at times. He didn’t kill all those who opposed him, and even attempted to kill him. He has spared the lives of many including Bitwoded Negash and Dejazmatch Takele who were attempting to kill him all the time. You were unmerciful, and I should add, cruel. Yes, you vindicated yourself and appeased your ego. But what did the Ethiopia you “love” benefit from their death? The answer is that Ethiopia lost immensely because of their death. Of course, the immediate loss was to their family. They could at least have raised their children and done whatever they chose to do with their lives including writing books on the Ethiopian revolution exactly as you do. Because you didn’t die you were able to raise your children to be medical doctors and you are writing a book besides sharing your story with us. Had you died early on in Ethiopia, you wouldn’t have achieved all this, would you?
By your own admission in this book, there were nine attempts on your life in Ethiopia. As to why you didn’t die or even languish in prison like your comrades, is a big mystery. God works in mysterious ways and only the God you don’t believe in (unless you believe now) knows why he didn’t let you suffer as thousands of Ethiopians did; and most of all, why He spared your life. I know only one thing- your family has benefited much from it. And if you write a book truthfully, history too, can gain from it. Frankly, I do not expect you to be truthful and admissive of mistakes. So far, none of the principal actors or leaders of the Ethiopian Revolution, be it from your camp or the camps of your opponents, have told the whole truth and admitted where they went wrong. Sadly, it seems that it is not in our tradition to tell the truth, admit mistakes or wrongs and apologize for them. Hence, it would be unfair to expect you to be exceptional.
You say that you didn’t mean to flee and that you had not planned to head for Zimbawe. I don’t believe you. You had appointed your uncle as ambassador to Zimbawe ahead of time so that he could pave the way for you flight. Was it purely a coincidence that your uncle was your ambassador in Zimbabwe at the time of your flight? I could also furnish you with other evidences that your flight was pre-arranged. But this alone suffices. You used to break bottles filled with red ink symbolizing blood at Abyot Adebabay (the former Meskel Square), screaming that you would fight until you were left with the last bullet. Dear Colonel, you fled without shooting even a bullet. If you say that you didn’t want to cause the destruction of Addis Abeba by meeting the enemy there, why didn’t you meet it outside Addis Abeba and fight it until the last bullet? Your conscience knows the answer to this question; and you have to live with it for the rest of your life.
Now pertaining to the exportation of the Felasha to Israel. you stated that you simply signed a done deal, that you were not aware the Felasha were present in Addis until the eleventh hour. How could this be true? Would then a tiny bird fly from one tree to another without your pre-knowledge, let alone the exodus of a whole nation all the way from Gonder to Addis? The fact was that you permitted Ato Kassa Kebede, he in whose father’s house you had spent a good part of your boyhood, to negotiate with the Israelis on account of his good connection with them. Didn’t you allow US $30 million Dollars to be deposited at a government account in New York as a compensation for exporting those Ethiopian subjects of yours to Israel? If you did, wasn’t that equitable to blood money, Colonel? Wasn’t that a sale-out of your people? Please correct me if that was not the case. Even the EPRDF leaders refused to put their fingers on that account in the beginning labeling it as “blood money”. I have no clue where that money is now. Whoever has taken it has blood in his hands.
In this same book, you state that the Felashas were Ethiopians through and through. You don’t believe that they had emigrated from Israel to Ethiopia as it is claimed. They practiced Judaism like most Ethiopians before the advent of Christianity. You are right in saying that most Ethiopians practiced Judaism before the advent of Christianity. I like your insight here. Nevertheless, you are not right in asserting that they didn’t immigrate to Ethiopia from Israel or elsewhere. They did. The Jewish people had immigrated to Ethiopia three times en mass- the first was when Moses was still alive 3500 years ago. They immigrated to Ethiopia from Media (Medyam) escorting Ethiop, the grandson of Jethro, the Ethiopian high priest of Median, Moses’ father-in-law. The mother of Ethiop was Ruth Amin. She was a Jewish of the tribe of Judah. The second immigration occured when the Jewish were escorting, ironically, another half-cast by the name of Menilik I, son of King Solomon and Queen Sheba, 3000 years ago. The last immigration took place during the Babylonian captivity about 2400 years ago. True, physically the Felashas now look like the rest of Ethiopians. This was due to their intermarriage with other Ethiopians. Technically, they are every inch Ethiopians. That’s why they don’t accept them in Israel as full-fledged Jews. Since you are writing the history of Ethiopia in your autobiography, please check these facts.
How about your legacy and positive qualities? To be fair, I have to admit that you had some positive qualities too. You didn’t compromise an iota on the territorial integrity, and even sovereignty of Ethiopia at trying times. You aspired to see the advancement of Ethiopia in your own way. You built and improved some of the infrastructure of your county. You were instrumental in providing land to he tiller and in the effort to eliminate illiteracy. In fact, you played a vital role in breaking the backbone of the oppressive feudal system. You were sober and decisive at critical moments such as the invasion of Ethiopia by Somalia. You didn’t favor one ethnic group over another. You didn’t let one ethnic group dominate another. You were proud of being Ethiopian and you cherished the great Ethiopian history. Your judgment was fair in some situations that called for fair judgment. You had a fine ability to chair meetings. You were articulate, yet absolutely attentive while others spoke, a quality which enabled you to summarize the ideas of others and make them your own if you liked the ideas and were new to you. You were a fast learner and very alert. Given your educational background, you learned a great deal from reality, educated yourself during the Revolution and tried to tackle complex subjects. Most of all, you lived humbly, and neither you nor your good wife plundered the resources and wealth of Ethiopia. Nor did you allow your family members and friends to do so. These qualities of yours should be appreciated and be recorded in Ethiopian history. If your Government was not pre-occupied with a civil-war, it would perhaps have fared well in nation building. Dear Colonel, let me rest your case with these final words.
PS: A note to the reader- I was informed that Colonel Mengistu’s latest book, which I just reviewed above, will be available in the US and Canada soon. You can order from the publisher or buy it at stores when the publisher announces its release.
— Fikre Tolossa, Ph.D., is a poet-playwright, critic, essayist and educator. His latest book entitled,The Hidden and Untold History of the Jewish People and Ethiopians, as well as his original songs that he himself has composed and plays on the Kirar, will be released soon to the public at large. His film in English, Multi-colored Flowers was featured with great resonance in the USA, Canada, Europe and Ethiopia. He has written extensively on Ethiopian history and culture for the past 20 years finding common factors that united the peoples of Ethiopia at a time of historical confusion and denial. Dr. Fikre Tolossa has authored over forty published and unpublished articles and books He could be reached at: email@example.com
By Nancy Haught
Benjamin Brink/The OregonianSteve Delamarter sits with the royal Psalter made for Emperor Menilek II.Before he opened it, Steve Delamarter knew the book before him would be extraordinary. The smooth sienna leather was worn in a few places but hand-tooled and carefully fitted together inside the cover. The rough edges of its yellow parchment pages didn’t look hand-cut. Then he recognized the intricate section headers, entwined lines of red, green and yellow ink, as the work of a government scriptorium.
Delamarter, an Old Testament professor at George Fox Evangelical Seminary, is founder and director of the Ethiopian Manuscript Imaging Project. In the past five years he’s tracked down 900 rare books owned by dealers and collectors outside the African country. He and his team digitize the contents, creating copies for Ethiopian libraries. It’s an attempt to preserve some of the cultural heritage that’s been lost in the turmoil of Ethiopia’s history.
So Delamarter is used to handling rare manuscripts. Those he works with are often well-worn religious volumes, handwritten in Ge’ez, the ancient liturgical language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. He’s examined many Psalters, books of Psalms and other texts used for prayer.
But this one was different.
Buried inside was a rare marker that Delamarter had seen only once before. In a kind of handmade reverse, a line of white letters stood out against a line of red ink. He ran his index finger under the words as he translated aloud: “This book belongs to the king of kings, Menilek.”
Delamarter took the book to Saint John’s University in Minnesota, where he showed it to his mentor and colleague, Getatchew Haile, an Ethiopian expatriate and expert on Ethiopian manuscripts. “This,” Haile told Delamarter, “is a national treasure.”
Emperor Menilek II (1844-1913) united the separate kingdoms of modern Ethiopia in 1889 and thwarted an Italian invasion in 1896. He modernized his country by introducing banking, a postal system, railway, electricity, telephones, telegraphs and automobiles. But he’s also remembered in Africa and parts of Asia for resisting imperialism.
“This was his personal Psalter, with which he’d pray every morning,” Haile says in a telephone interview. “It was one of the items that he touched. This is important museum material.”
Except that it belongs to someone else.
Ethiopia has struggled — and still does — with its own diversity and violence from inside and out. Political unrest has forced thousands to flee. Some have taken manuscripts and other cultural treasures with them, Haile says. His own story attests to the violence that has plagued Ethiopia. A coup deposed Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974. Haile, a Ge’ez scholar at what is now Addis Ababa University, was shot as he resisted arrest. Haile was allowed to leave Ethiopia to receive medical care — he is a paraplegic — and came to the United States in 1976. A MacArthur Fellow, he is curator of the Ethiopian Study Center at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library in Minnesota.
Delamarter, interested in scribal communities who still transcribe religious texts by hand, first visited Ethiopia in 2004. He saw widespread poverty tempting Ethiopians to sell religious manuscripts to tourists or book dealers. A personal prayer book, worth the equivalent of $100 to another Ethiopian, may be sold to a tourist or book dealer for $300 or $400, Delamarter says. Collectors will pay $1,200 for the same volume, $2,000 if it’s illustrated. And some take manuscripts apart and sell the pages separately.
Menilek’s Psalter, which Delamarter dates from the late 19th or early 20th century, is owned by Gerald Weiner, a manuscript collector who is also a senior vice president of Morgan Stanley in Chicago. The Psalter was in a batch of books Weiner bought from a dealer. Neither was aware of the book’s value until Weiner entrusted it to Delamarter for digitalization.
It was Haile’s idea that Delamarter ask Weiner to give the book to a new museum planned in Ankober, Ethiopia, to be dedicated to Menilek. Delamarter had never made such a request of a book owner, he says. He’d been content to create digital copies and preserve the contents for the use of students and scholars.
“The more I tell collectors how valuable a book is, the more they want to hold on to it — or sell it,” Delamarter says. He estimated that Menilek’s Psalter was worth about $18,000, but he prepared “a 19-minute presentation” for Weiner and made the call.
A manuscript collector for about eight years, Weiner specializes in Ethiopian Jewish texts and plans to donate his collection to the University of California at Los Angeles, which is home to many Ethiopian refugees. Delamarter says Weiner listened to the opening of that 19-minute pitch.
“As soon as he told me how important this work was, its importance to the Ethiopian people, I wanted to do the right thing,” Weiner says. “I wanted the book to be back where it belonged, honoring the man who owned it.”
Delamarter leaves Monday to return the book to Ethiopia, where eventually it will be displayed in the Ankober Municipal Museum. Much as he’d like to, Haile can’t go with him.
“I never thought the owner would just give it back,” Haile marvels, “so precious a book that is his own property. That was my first thought, but some people have a good heart.”
Nancy Haught: 503-294-7625; firstname.lastname@example.org
Beneath the lion gaze
Addis Ababa, September 12, 1974: a date few Americans remember, but for Ethiopians it was the first day of a new year and the last day of Emperor Haile Selassie’s long reign. As the public discontent intensified, Selassie-blamed for decades of famine and coraption-is abandoned by his servants and cabinet members.
While the emperor quietly reflects upon his final moments in power, the struggle for new Ethiopia arrives swiftly and without mercy. Hundreds of protesters take to the streets, demanding foods and people’s government for all. Focusing on the lives of three determined members of one family, Mengiste’s gripping debut novel looks closely at the ties that bind family and country, and the sacrifices made in pursuit of justice and a life of dignity. An important work of literature, it is both timely and unforgettable. Illustrating the lengths each member is willing to go, the loyalties they must betray, and the hardships they must endure to ensure their country’s freedom from oppression, beneath the lion’s gaze is a dramatic and tragic story that is ultimately inspirational.
“An extraordinary novel that tells stories that nobody can want to hear, in such a way that we cannot stop listening.” - Bookforum
by Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Author Meaza Mengiste left Ethiopia for the U.S. when she was four years old. It was 1974, two years after the revolution which toppled Emperor Haile Selassie from his throne.
But the experience was so traumatic she has very clear memories of what happened.
“I remembered so vividly my life in Ethiopia, and I remember very specific moments and those stayed with me here,” she said. “And as I grew older I started wanting to put them into context, to try to find a historical and political explanation for what I remembered.”
So she wrote “Beneath the Lion’s Gaze,” a critically-acclaimed novel about a family living through the Ethiopian revolution. The story also tells of the last days of Hailie Selassie before his death in prison.
Maaza Mengiste, who now lives in New York, told Euan Kerr even though many people wanted the Emperor gone, his removal was traumatic.
All Things Considered, 01/26/2010, 4:50 p.m.
” An epic tale of a father and two sons, of betrayals and loyalties, of a family unraveling in the wake of Ethiopia’s revolution”.