The Crown and the Pen The Memoirs of a Lawyer Turned Rebel
by Bereket Habte Selassie
The Red Sea Press, Inc., xvi+367pp., ISBN (PB) 1-569092-2763, (HB) 1-
The Red Sea Press, Inc., xvi+367pp., ISBN (PB) 1-569092-2763, (HB) 1-
This fairly long history of bloody confrontation has left its mark on memory and identity. Eritrea and Ethiopia have come to be viewed as irreconcilable polarities rather than overlapping identities, as primordial enemies rather than estranged members of the same family. In this respect, Bereket Habte Selassie’s book could not have come at a better time. As the memoirs of someone who straddled both worlds, the Ethiopian and the Eritrean, this account of his life and career is typical of so many other Eritreans who have lived in both worlds, some eventually eschewing one completely for the other, some continuing to grapple with these conflicting identities. But few have told the story with so much eloquence and erudition, even if one is bound to take issue with some of his interpretations.
The book, which is said to be the first part of a two-volume memoir, traces the author’s life and career from his early childhood in the village of Adi Nifas (Hamasien, in the heart of highland Eritrea) to the attainment of Eritrean independence in 1991. Bereket, to use the Ethiopian form of addressing him, was the sixth child of a large family of nine children. It was a family dominated by the imposing figure of his father, Qeshi (Priest) Habte Selassie Gulbot, an Orthodox priest who had turned Protestant. The Protestant element was to be so crucial in the intellectual history of Eritrea, producing as it did the two personalities who embodied the divergent aspirations of the Eritreans at the end of Italian colonial rule in 1941 – Bairu Tedla, leader of the group that sought the union of Eritrea with Ethiopia (the Unionists), and Woldeab Woldemariam, generally recognized as the ‘father’ of Eritrean independence.
Bereket had his early schooling at the Scuola Vittoria in Asmara, routinely making the five-mile walk from and back to his village, Adi Nifas. But this did not last long. In early 1945, as the Second World War was coming to an end, Bereket (then aged about fifteen) and a friend found themselves on their way to Harar in eastern Ethiopia, to join a Lutheran school. The eventful journey across Ethiopia to the boys’ final destination is narrated with remarkable memory and a good deal of wit, a feat that is repeated in his account of some of the defining moments of his life, including the marathon flight that he and fifteen other marticulants – drawn from the rival prestigious high schools Wingate and Kotebe – made to England for their higher education in October 1948, complete with a vignette of the ground hostess (Almaz), who ‘shepherded’ the young scholars to the plane.
From his school days in Harar until his escape from the clutches of the Derg to join the EPLF, Bereket’s life was to follow the trajectory of many an Ethiopian student and civil servant of his generation. Indeed, some of his most enduring friendships were to be with Ethiopians rather than Eritreans, such as Worku Habtewold, his constant companion both in high school and in England, the famous poet Mengistu Lemma, the artist Afework Tekle and Aseghid Tesema and Shimelis Adugna, who was to become the first Commissioner of the Ethiopian Relief and Rehabilitation Commission that was set up following the 1973 famine. À propos the last two, Bereket writes: ‘Although eventually, differing views or opposed positions on the Eritrean question would send us our separate ways, I remember both Asseghid and Shimelis with fondness and gratitude’ (p. 236).
Indeed, while Bereket could never forgive the ‘Shoan intrigue’ that precipitated his recall from his studies in England in 1953, he could not forget the steadfast support and encouragement that he encountered from so many ‘Shoans’. In the end, that ‘Shoan intrigue’ turned out to be a unilateral act of the Vice Minister of Education, Akalework Habtewold. Bereket’s forced repatriation was eventually terminated through the intercession of Emperor Haile Sellassie’s eldest daughter, Princess Tenagnework. It was also during his forced sojourn in Addis that he met, almost providentially, his future wife and mother of three children, Koki Menkir, also from a Shoan family. Some fifteen years later, when Bereket was banished to Harar province, he fell into the warm embrace of the governor general, Dejjazmach Workineh Wolde Amanuel, and his family. Finally, his return to grace and to a new post of Legal Adviser at the Ministry of Interior was masterminded by the minister, Bitwaddad Zewde Gebre Hiwot, who persuaded the Emperor that it would be easier to watch over the dangerous element that Bereket was purported to be in the capital rather than in a distant province.
At the centre of the whole saga is, of course, Emperor Haile Sellassie himself. Hence the title of the book. Even before Bereket relocated to Ethiopia, he recalls the Eritrean fascination with the young prince Tafari (as the emperor was called before his coronation in 1930). Many Eritreans had moved to Ethiopia in search of education and employment. Tafari patronized a number of them, notably the famous Lorenzo Ta’ezaz, who rose to become foreign minister after Ethiopia’s liberation from Fascist Italian occupation in 1941. Bereket recalls songs in praise of the emperor, still fondly remembered as Tafari, during his period of exile in 1936-41. Haile Sellassie was, as he puts it, ‘a palpable force in the minds of many Eritreans, particularly among the literati’ (p. 42). In view of this assessment, it is difficult to agree with the author when he reduces the attachment so many Eritreans under Italian colonial rule evinced for the emperor and Ethiopia as a matter of choosing between ‘an African neighbor as against a European occupier’ (p. 43).
Bereket gives us some memorable descriptions of his encounters with Haile Sellassie. At his first audience, when asked who his father was, Bereket had the temerity to tell the sovereign that he would not know him, oblivious of the fact that the emperor would be briefed thoroughly about someone’s background before giving him/ her an audience, all the more so as Bereket’s father happened to be an active member of the Unionist party. When Bereket returned from his studies abroad, he was asked with the fundamental and almost nontranslatable question: ‘mindenew yedekemkibet?’ which the author bravely translates into ‘what was your endeavor on?’ (p. 126). When it came to the laureate’s future occupation, the emperor was not amused when Bereket expressed his preference to practice law; he was, as was imperial wont, summarily assigned to work in the Ministry of Justice, where he rose convened earlier in the year by Nkrumah. Five years later, the Organization of African Unity was born in Addis Ababa. Bereket, who was a member of the Ethiopian committee that drafted the OAU charter, gives us some vivid descriptions of those heady days – Nkrumah stepping ceremonially over a slaughtered sheep, the tumultuous welcome that the Muslim population of Addis Ababa accorded the Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, the emperor imploring Sekou Touré (‘Mon fils, je vous prie’) to dissuade Nkrumah from walking out when he saw that his call for a strong union was going to be rejected by the majority, and the dramatic confrontation between the Somali president and the Ethiopian prime minister.
Bereket’s estrangement with the imperial system – the battle between the ‘crown and the pen’ – came at two levels, first as an Ethiopian then as an Eritrean. While in London, he was part of the budding student movement that was destined to be the harbinger of the revolution that swept away the ancient regime. What began in more innocuous forms in the United Kingdom assumed a more radical flavour in the United States (where he had gone to study at UCLA), when he chaired the historic 1965 congress of ESUNA (the Ethiopian Students Union in North America), marking the decisive shift from a reformist to a revolutionary agenda. Back in Ethiopia, he was sympathetic to the rebellious figure of Garmame Neway, who was to be the brain behind the abortive coup of 1960 that was led by his brother, Brigadier General Mengistu Neway. Bereket recounts an interesting encounter with the third leader of the coup, Colonel Workineh Gebeyehu, Chief of Security, when the colonel let Bereket read the thick intelligence file compiled against him by security agents and then, to the utter astonishment of the author, burnt the whole file. The emperor had so much faith and confidence in his security chief that he remained in a “state of denial” about the colonel’s involvement in the coup and kept asking for him long after he was dead.
Although it failed, the coup opened a new era in the history of political opposition to the regime. As Bereket concludes: ‘Those historic events infused in the progressively inclined elites of the time – all those who desired change – a sense of empowerment, intimating the possibility of change. The question became: what kind of change and by what means?’ (p. 165). Bereket, who was a member of that elite, began to work with kindred spirits towards that change, ‘straddling two contradictory worlds – the one of high government office, the other of a secret underground movement’ (p. 183). The agents of change that were identified included the labour unions, the military and the students and teachers.
The quest for change thus took Bereket into organizing the labour unions with fellow intellectuals like Mesfin Wolde Mariam and Seyoum Gebre Egziabher and flirting with the military, notably with the charismatic General Aman Andom, like Bereket of Eritrean origin. Briefly, until their cover was blown and they had to disperse, he was involved in a clandestine group led by the inveterate opponent of the emperor, Blatta Takkala Walda-Hawaryat. This underground activity is the subject of a thinly disguised novel that the author had written earlier, Riding the Whirlwind: An Ethiopian Story of Love and Revolution (Red Sea Press 1993). The novel is dedicated to General Aman, along with two other Ethiopians, the physicist Yohannes Menkir and the poet Yohannes Admasu, the latter also something of a rebel and who apparently was befriended by the author when they were both banished to Harar.
Bereket’s ultimately enduring estrangement with the regime – and Ethiopia – came through his involvement with the Eritrean liberation movement. As in the case of so many other Eritreans, that estrangement took an almost irreversible turn with the dissolution of the UN sponsored federation in 1962. It was presaged by the successive steps taken to undermine the federal arrangement and the clandestine opposition movements that this triggered – the MaHber ShewAte (Cell of Seven) and the Haraka (the [Eritreran Liberation] Movement), active in the highlands and lowlands of Eritrea, respectively; Bereket came to be affiliated with a unit of the former operating in Addis Ababa until its cover was blown.
It was apparently his Eritrean clandestine work that eventually led to his banishment to Harar province. Apart from the initial shock and uncertainty triggered by the nocturnal knock in September 1967 – the chain of occurrences that form the prologue to the whole story – his banishment was far from intolerable. That indeed was the case with most imperial banishments, contrary to the author’s assertions that he was shown particular leniency because of the emperor’s special sensitivity to people of Eritrean origin, his reputation among his generation of educated Ethiopians and his connections with the diplomatic community. Imperial policy generally aimed at the cooption or mollification – rather than liquidation – of political opponents. Not only did Bereket enjoy the sympathy and understanding of the provincial governor and his wife, but he was soon elevated to the post of Mayor of Harar town. That too, as we have seen, was terminated through the artful intercession of the Minister of Interior. Bereket was rehabilitated, even if he opted for a World Bank posting in Washington DC soon after.
The 1974 revolution was a great landmark in the history of Ethiopia. When it erupted in February 1974 with a series of popular strikes and demonstrations, there was a euphoric expectation that it was the herald of a new era of social justice. The revolution was expected to be a kind of panacea for all the country’s ills, from the age-old problems of social inequality and injustice to the more recent one of the over a decade-long war in Eritrea that had pitted government forces against the Eritrean insurgency. No person symbolized these aspirations better than General Aman Andom, an officer of Eritrean origin who was unshakeably Ethiopian in his orientation. Intimidated by the enormity of the task they were embarking upon, the group of officers who deposed the emperor and seized state power in September 1974 had no choice but operate behind his imposing figure. He was made chairman of the Derg, as the committee of 110 or so officers and NCOs who were steering the course of the revolution came to be known.
But the delicate arrangement, which was reminiscent of the partnership between General Neguib and the Egyptian Free Officers led by Nasser some two decades earlier, was bound to unravel. The Derg wanted Aman to be nothing more than a ceremonial head of state. Aman, who was a strong-willed person and not entirely without political ambition of his own, had other ideas. More fundamentally, Aman and the Derg, more strictly its emerging strongman Mengistu, clashed over the handling of the Eritrean problem. The former understandably preferred a pacific approach; the latter opted for a military solution. The tragic finale was played out on a fateful evening of November 1974, when troops loyal to Mengistu stormed the general’s residence. The general was killed in the shootout, accompanied by nearly sixty other senior government officials and members of the nobility (as well as a small number of former members of the Derg or its subordinate committees), whom the Derg executed that same evening, thereby ushering in unmistakable fashion the bloody chapter of the revolution.
Bereket himself had hurried back from Washington to join the revolutionary tide. He was appointed member of the Commission of Enquiry that was set up to investigate the misdeeds of officials of the fallen regime. The Commission could hardly pretend to conduct an impartial investigation amidst the aggressive media campaign that had been unleashed against the accused. Bereket himself incurred universal opprobrium for the way he harassed the fallen prime minister, Aklilu Habtewold, who, given the prevalent imperial power structure, had little executive power after all. Was Bereket perhaps taking revenge for the conduct of Aklilu’s brother, Akalework, who as Vice Minister of Education had him recalled from his studies in England in 1953? To his credit, Bereket demonstrates a remarkable capacity to laugh at himself when he recounts an encounter in Mekelle, a provincial capital in the north, where he was hiding as he ran away for his life, when one of the women visiting the house he was staying in harshly criticized Bereket, who was listening incognito, for his conduct.
The killing of Aman Andom proved a turning point in Bereket’s life. As a close associate of the general, Bereket soon found himself on the Derg’s wanted list and had to run for his life. The saga of his escape across central and northern Ethiopia is so full of drama that it is fit for a novel rather than a memoir. Bereket succinctly sums up his involvement with the Eritrean liberation movement thus: ‘first as a mediator, then as relief organizer and finally as a full-fledged member of the EPLF’ (p. 306). The mediation was between the two warring fronts, Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) and Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF). The relief work was with the Eritrean Relief Association (ERA). Despite some early disturbing signs of the dictatorship that EPLF was to evolve into, such as its methods of interrogation of suspects, Bereket plunged with gusto into the campaign for Eritrea’s liberation. It was in his capacity as an uncompromising lobbyist for Eritrea’s independence in academic and diplomatic venues that Bereket incurred the enmity of so many Ethiopians, including some who were his erstwhile friends.
Yet, the attainment of that independence left the big question of how independent Eritrea was to relate to Ethiopia wide open. In this respect, I recall meeting Bereket for the first time in my office at Addis Ababa University, only months after Eritrea’s independence. He had come with the idea of a conference on Ethio-Eritrean cooperation. I was baffled by the initiative, coming as it did so soon after two decades of warfare that had pitted the two countries as totally irreconcilable entities. Bereket was not alone. Other Eritreans were coming to Addis in big numbers, some to enjoy the variegated cultural life of the capital, others to reclaim their parent’s residential quarters. The bloody war of 1998-2000 notwithstanding, those gestures underscore the fact that the destiny of Eritrea and Ethiopia remains inseparable, and this is indeed the overall feeling that the reader comes out with after reading the book under review.
Africa Review of Books / Revue Africaine des Livres
Volume 04 N° 02, Septembre 2008