A missed opportunity to tell Ethiopia’s story

By IndepthAfrica
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Dec 17th, 2013
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By Terefe Masresha

Mandela’s funeral, on December 15, 2013, marked an important chapter in the history of Africa’s struggle for freedom, equality and justice. It also marked the end of the long political walk Mandela started at the age of 25. For 70 years, Mandela struggled against Aparthied, sacrificed hugely for the cause, and promoted a political discourse to free his people. He was instrumental in dismantling Apartheid and establishing the rainbow nation. By freeing himself from the urge for revenge, Mandela freed his incarcerators and avoided a potential bloodbath. In doing so, he left an indelible mark of foresight, forgiveness and tolerance on the global stage, which is difficult to emulate. His accomplishments as freedom fighter, prisoner, statesman and humanitarian inspired many on the continent and around the world to stand up against injustice and to assert their rights. Many have learned from Mandela how to be persistent in trying to find solutions to seemingly intractable problems through peaceful and dignified means.

Mandela’s humanitarian actions exemplified the fact that Africa has won the war of independence, but the battle for economic and social justice remains to be fought. In 2005, Mandela said “While poverty still persists, there is no true freedom.” The principles and values of equality, the eradication of poverty and the elimination of all forms of oppression Mandela vehemently resisted, and was prepared to die for are not yet realized; not only in his own country, but also around the continent.

At the funeral ceremony, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister (Haliemariam Desalegn), the Presidents of Malawi (Joyce Banda) and Tanzania (Jakaya Kikwete), among others, paid tribute to Nelson Mandela. The President of Malawi underscored the lessons she learnt from Mandela and how she successfully applied them to addressing issues, which arose during her turbulent political career, particularly in her attempt to assume the helms of leadership in her own country. Tanzania’s President highlighted the significance of his country’s contributions to the struggle of South Africans spearheaded by the ANC. He also proudly mentioned that Tanzania was home to several African liberation movements. He even reminded the audience that when Nelson Mandela discreetly visited Tanzania in 1962, he didn’t stay in a hotel. He added, Mandela left a boot at the home of a senior government official with whom he stayed in Dar Es Salaam and the boot was returned to Mandela after he became President of South Africa.

Regrettably, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister (PM) failed (perhaps because of lack of preparation), or he deliberately avoided (for political reasons) to mention our country’s contributions to Africa’s liberation struggle. He mainly spoke about Mandela in ways that many others have spoken since Mandela’s death was announced. His speech didn’t attract much attention as President Banda’s or Kikwete’s speech. Both spoke with ease, confidence and eloquence. Both leaders ceased the opportunity to tell their country’s relationship with Mandela, the ANC and South Africa. A guest who was following the proceedings on BBC and commenting on Mandela’s legacy said something like ‘President Banda’s speech was sensational and Tanzania’s president looked and sounded like Mandela’. Yes, both leaders took advantage of the occasion and the stage to effectively communicate with the audience and the world. In contrast, Ethiopia’s PM missed an opportunity to outline our country’s contributions to the ANC and other African liberation movements.

It is well known that Ethiopia inspired Africa’s struggle for independence and freedom from colonialism. Today, many countries on the continent have national flags depicting Ethiopia’s tri-colour in different patterns. Rastafarians use the colours of the Ethiopian flag as a symbolic expression of their identity. For many Christians around the world, the name Ethiopia evokes spiritual significance based on biblical history. For Muslims, it reminds them of protection given to fellow Muslims by a kind and just king to exercise their faith when they fled Saudi Arabia because of religious persecution. Since then, Ethiopia has never wavered on this tradition and on its commitment to pan Africanism.

In 1962, Ethiopia organized and facilitated the formation of the AAU, which gave the continent a concerted voice to speak and act against colonialism. The following are a few of Ethiopia’s specific contributions, which supported African freedom fighters:

In the 1960s, Ethiopia was the leading supporter of African freedom fighters. Ethiopia provided funds and awarded scholarships and military training to its African brothers and sisters who fought colonial rule. Emperor Haile Selassie encouraged and invited liberation movement fighters to be trained on Ethiopian soil.

In July 1962, Mandela received his first guerrilla combat training, including proficiency in armoury, rifle shooting, defence, and battlefield combat. In later years, Mandela said about the training: “I felt myself being moulded into a soldier and began to think as a soldier thinks — a far cry from the way a politician thinks.” When his training had to be curtailed because of a pressing need related to the struggle back home, General Tadesse Biru, the then Assistant Police Commissioner, presented him with a pistol and 200 rounds of ammunition (the first weapon of the African National Congress). The gun is thought to be buried somewhere on Lillesleaf Farm, where in 1963 other ANC leaders were arrested and sentenced to life in prison alongside Mandela in the famous Rivionia trial.

Mandela was issued with an Ethiopian passport (his first) under the name of David Motsamayi.

Ethiopia trained and armed freedom fighters from Zimbabwe and Namibia.

Colonel Mengistu in a recent interview stated Ethiopia welcomed Mandela with great honour and extended financial support when he visited the country after his release from prison.

The PM of Ethiopia could have mentioned those remarkable records. His speech gives the impression that the statement he read was prepared to avoid mentioning the name of Ethiopia’s past leaders, particularly Emperor Haile Selassie and Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam. If this was indeed the case, a country’s history doesn’t necessarily begin and end with the rise and fall of a leader or a political party. For better or worse, the actions of past Ethiopian leaders remain part of the country’s history – this includes the current rulers of Ethiopia.

To conclude here are a few statements that Ethiopia’s PM could have considered mentioning in his tribute to Nelson Mandela to signify our country’s longstanding relationship with the ANC and South Africa. Most importantly, Mandela’s admiration of Ethiopia could have struck a chord with the audience and others who were following the funeral proceedings.

In his famous book Long Walk to Freedom Mandela’s said: Ethiopia has always held a special place in my own imagination and the prospect of visiting Ethiopia attracted me more strongly than a trip to France, England, and America combined. I felt I would be visiting my own genesis, unearthing the roots of what made me an African. By the way, the BBC correspondent following and reporting on the event mentioned the first part of Mandela’s words when the PM was being invited by the Master of Ceremonies to take the podium as Ethiopia’s PM and current chair of the African Union.

Referring to his journey to Ethiopia and his impression of the country Mandela said: When [we] changed flight to an Ethiopian Airways to Addis […] I experienced a rather strange sensation. As I was boarding the plane I saw that the pilot was black. I had never seen a black pilot before … Once we were in the air, I started studying the geography of Ethiopia, thinking how Ethiopian guerrilla forces hid in these very forests to fight the Italian imperialists … Here, for the first time in my life, I was witnessing black soldiers commanded by black generals applauded by black leaders who were all guests of a black Head of State. It was a heady moment. I only hoped it was a vision of what lay in the future for my own country.

Mandela got his inspiration for his struggle and a vision for his country from Ethiopia. Why did the incumbent PM fail to cease the opportunity to tell Ethiopia’s story in relation to the ANC and other African liberation movements of the 1960s and 1980s? He either has to take a lesson in Ethiopian history or he needs to guide his speech writers not to focus on empty non-inspirational archaic diplomatic jargon with which he struggles to pronounce. This is not only about speaking good English in one’s own accent, but to say the right thing, at the right time and place when one represents a country such as Ethiopia.

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