Historic Parallels in Search for Justice within the Systems They Served
By Jawar Mohammed
Generals Tadesse Birru and Asaminew Tsige are two soldiers separated by generation, ethnicity and political views. The former was an Oromo who was a senior general under Haile Silassie’s rule. The latter is an Amhara, who until very recently was a top general serving Meles Zenawi’s regime. Yet their life stories mirror each other as the unjust history of Ethiopia repeats itself. Both served as loyal soldiers of their respective systems until they realized how unjust and illegitimate their rulers were and rose up against them to bring about change. In the process, both generals suffered great humiliation and degradation at the hands of the very systems they protected for decades.
Tadesse Birru’s Legacy and his quest for Justice
General Tadesse Birru was one of the young men who fought the Italians alongside other patriots and was later jailed in Somalia. When the embattled Emperor returned to power, Tadesse joined the military together with other veterans of the resistance movement. Known for his bravery, discipline and hard work; he quickly rose through ranks, became a brigadier general and serving in the Ethiopian military for over 30 years.
A devout Christian and career soldier, General Tadesse Birru’s loyalty to the system was unquestionable. As a commander of “Fetno-Derash” or Special Forces, he played a crucial role in crushing the Neway brothers’ coup of 1960 and restoring the Emperor to power. He was a strong believer in Ethiopian unity and sovereignty. A Pan-Africanist who trained Nelson Mandela, General Tadesse Birru resisted both factionalism and ethnic partisanship, as evidenced by his initial rejection of an invitation to join the Macha Tulema Self-Help Association.
Determined to uplift and expand educational opportunities, General Tadesse Birru volunteered to lead the “Fidel Serawit”, a literacy campaign, in addition to his military duties. It was during this campaign that he encountered a life changing experience. Aklilu Habtewold, then prime minister of Ethiopia, not knowing General Tadesse Birru was an Oromo, suggested that it was unwise to educate or recruit Oromos to the military. Aklilu Habtewold said that doing so would mean sinking the empire under the Oromo ocean, an apparent reference to the large size of the Oromo population.
The prime ministers’ comments proved an eye-opener for the unsuspecting General. He realized the longstanding government policy to keep the Oromo uneducated and unempowered, in an effort to keep them away from the state power. Baffled by what he was hearing from the very government he served and defended, General Tadesse Birru decided to join the Macha Tulema Association and went on to become a prominent figure, a pioneer and the founding father of the Oromo national movement.
The much celebrated hero to millions of Oromos, General Tadesse Birru, advocated empowering the Oromo mass through education, modernizing their economy and infrastructure. He emphasized Oromo self-reliance as a primary means of development instead of dependence on the government with the sinister motive of keeping its own citizens in the dark. Although the sincere objective of General Tadesse Birru and the association was to build roads, schools and health centers, their attempt to unify and mobilize the Oromo for development was not welcomed by the government.
Prevented from working to educate his people, General Tadesse Birru along with other Oromo soldiers unsuccessfully attempted a coup in 1966, and was arrested along with many of his comrades. At an old age, General Tadesse Birru was severely tortured and was subjected to repeated ethnic slurs and ridicule. He was sentenced to death but later committed to life in prison, while his colleague Captain Mammo Mezemir, an aspiring young lawyer, historian and officer was hanged. Hailamariam Gemeda, a lawyer and the intellectual powerhouse of Mecha Tulema Association was tortured to death by the direct order of Haile Silassie himself. Seyfu Tesemma and Temesgen Haile were poisoned and assassinated, respectively. Daniel Abebe Aregay was killed by a “mysterious” midair explosion aboard his private plane.
On the occasion of his execution, Cpt. Mamo Mezemir told the hangman “Please tell my children that I did not die in vain. My blood is spilled for the just cause of the Oromo people. I am certain that those who falsely convicted me, for a crime I did not commit and their rulers, will receive the appropriate judgment of Ethiopian people at this very spot I am being hanged. More importantly, sooner or later, the Oromo people will win their freedom by the struggle of its fighters” This message remains one of the most vibrant inspirations within the Oromo movement four decades later.
The trial of the Mecha Tulama leaders revealed the ethnic prejudice in the Ethiopian system at its worst. The prosecutor asked to expropriate the properties owned by the defendants in addition to demanding the highest possible punishment handed down to the accused. Responding to the prosecutor, General Tadesse Birru wrote a historic letter to the court, saying that officers who were accused of attempted coup previously were never asked to give up their property. He argued that the government was taking the unprecedented and vindictive decision in order to uproot his family for the mere fact of his ethnicity. When it became clear that the judges were moved by the appeal, they were quickly replaced by hardliners before the verdict was reached. Thus, not only were the Mecha Tulema leaders were killed and incarcerated, their entire families were shattered. One can rightly argue that the vindictive ethnic-specific punishments directed against the founders have played a large role in radicalizing the Oromo movement and the subsequent formation of the OLF in 1973, leading to the current situation today.
New Rulers and New Victims – The Same Old Game
General Asaminew Tsige was a member of the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (EPDM), which later became Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM). EPDM began as a splinter group from the left wing EPRP in 1980. In the late 1980s, the 37 founding members consolidated their guerilla units into several thousand strong-armed men. When EPDM joined the TPLF to form the EPRDF, Asaminew Tsige was one of the rebel commanders who led the fighters that ousted Mengistu Hailamariam and brought Meles Zenawi to power. He served as a soldier, in harm’s way for three decades, both during the rebellion and as a member of the federal military under two repressive systems.
One can argue that EPDM was formed by the more moderate faction of the EPRP. That is why at the time when the larger Amhara elites opposed TPLF, General Asaminew Tsige and others within their group were sympathetic to the struggle of the Tigrean people. They lived among the Tigrean peasants, they fought alongside Tigrean freedom fighters and the dead were buried together. After the collapse of the Dergue, even as TPLF continued to marginalize other ethnic groups, General Asaminew Tsige and others in EPDM hoped that democracy and genuine federalism could eventually take root in Ethiopia. It was with this hope that they saved Meles from the attempted ouster by Seeye’s group which was then considered a much more conservative Tigrean nationalist faction.
General Asaminew Tsige and his comrades were known for raising the question of equality and fairness with the EPRDF military and the system in general as critical supporters of the regime. Year after year, their calls and demands were left unanswered. To make matters worse, the regime expanded its discriminatory policies. After the 2005 election, their hope faded away when they became subject to constant harassment and isolation. Under the disguise that Amhara officers supported the Coalition for Unity and Democracy party in the election; ethnic slurs, demotions and character assassinations became part of the daily routine. Fed up with the humiliation, unwilling to continue taking part in an unbending system that dehumanizes his own people, General Asaminew Tsige and his comrades started raising issues with the ANDM leadership.
To no one’s surprise, the government responded by forcing the dissidents out of the army without any retirement benefits. Some among the group tried to find work for private firms, but the TPLF regime started intimidating the firms that employed the dismissed officers. Unable to support their families without any income, they formed an agricultural investment company and pleaded with the Amhara regional state for a piece of land. They were given 40 hectares of land at a place called PAWI.
When the TPLF got the news that the generals’ request for land grant was approved by the regional government, land that the Ethiopian regime was ironically selling at a bargain price to “foreign investors”, the regime forced the regional investment office to revoke the land grant under a false pretext that ‘the land belonged to ‘some farmers’.
General Asaminew Tsige, a commander who was denied the right to serve his country or live a peaceful life in retirement, might have decided to organize his comrades and challenge the repressive system. Knowing the potential danger of having such a highly respected general as opposition, the regime trumped up false charges and arrested him along with several high ranking Amhara officers, and purged tens of thousands of Amhara officers and soldiers. Reportedly, General Asaminew Tsige was severely tortured, and lost his left eye in prison. He endured not just physical but also psychological torture. The torturers hurled ethnic insults directed at his Amhara ethnicity in much the same way General Tadesse Birru was treated under the Emperor’s rule. At the time when he was supposed to enjoy retirement and reap the benefits of his long years of service, General Asaminew Tsige was subjected to humiliation by his ex-comrades whom he once supported, at the expense of being ostracized by his own ethnic group.
Meles Zenawi and his collaborators, including the kangaroo court, were so malicious that they deliberately planned the sentencing of the Amhara officers on the 29th birthday of the EPDM, to infuriate ANDM members. According to eye-witness accounts of the court proceedings, the main judge, Assefa Abraha, a Tigrean, was acting with more fervor and animosity than the prosecutors, and questioned witnesses even after the prosecutors rested their case. One cannot expect a free and fair judgment from such a skewed process. But the manner in which ANDM soldiers were handled, including torture, insult and degradation, will serve nothing but to radicalize the Amhara opposition.
History is a Prologue: We Must Break the Cycle
As you know it’s likely that my political views might be quite different from that of General Asaminew Tsige and his comrades. But long time ago, the anti-Nazi German pastor Martin Niemöller wrote:
“First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak out for me.”
The two generals served their country but were victims of different authoritarian systems. General Tadesse Birru served an Amhara-dominated system, and was brutalized by the ruling clique which was using the Amhara as a shield to indefinitely remain in power. The cruel actions taken against Macha Tulema Association and its leaders gave rise to an animosity between Amhara and the Oromo elites that lives on to this day.
General Asaminew Tsige served a Tigrean-dominated regime and was humiliated simply because he said NO to continued discrimination. Today, Meles Zenawi continues to torture and degrade him and his Amhara comrade soldiers in an effort to increase the animosity between the Amhara and Tigrean groups. Meles Zenawi’s goal is that the latter will continue to feel insecure and remain loyal defenders of the system.
But I remind the current rulers that Haile Silassie persecuted, isolated and eliminated those who demanded modest reform. leading the country to collapse under a poorly managed revolution, unnecessary bloodshed and the rise of a military junta. Predictably, those who surrounded and advised the emperor against reform, due to fear of losing their personal power, wealth and influence, were not only the first victims of their own making, but they established the conditions leading to the rise of the psychopathic military ruler that succeeded them to massacre the best and brightest sons and daughters the country had at the time.
It is critical that we end this dangerous and century old ploy of authoritarian regimes who plant seeds of hatred among the people of Ethiopia in order to derail reform and remain in power. If there is any hope of establishing a genuine, democratic and stable country, we must break this cycle of pitting one group against the other. The ‘rule of law’ must prevail in our country if its citizens are to live in peace and harmony.
A Legitimate Grievance Deserves a Genuine Answer
In my opinion, this is a political case that needs a political resolution, and not a kangaroo court process. Substantive political reforms are the only way out of this quagmire that the ruling elite find itself in. Even if the ANDM officers were found with circumstantial evidence of organizing themselves to challenge the system, the TPLF should look back to the history of its own ‘national struggle’ and imagine what it would have done in a similar circumstance. It is clear that the TPLF has transgressed on its promise to balance the ethnic composition of the defense forces, and that policy has brought these ANDM officers to fight for justice in a way they saw it fit. In the court hearings, the officers have made public that they organized themselves because they reached a point where they could not accept the ethic discrimination within the army they served for so many years. Penalizing the victims of a skewed government policy cannot be justice by any standard.
If Meles Zenawi is interested in restoring confidence and trust within the system, the system has to be merciful to the officers and show clemency to General Asaminew Tsige and his comrades. If he does not heed this call for ‘clemency’, Meles Zenawi will undoubtedly face a much more radicalized ‘Amhara’ opposition, both within the army and amonst the bureaucrats at the regional level. Given the level of financial and economic problems citizens are currently facing, such radicalization could lead to unforeseen circumstances that could well boil down to a large scale unrest and strife.
Some folks within the Tigrean community hope that TPLF will hold on to power for some time to come. They believe that through a consistent reform and liberalization process, they will change the ethnic imbalance within the government’s civilian and military structure and save Tigreans from the hatred and antagonism they feel from other Ethiopians. They see the ‘Code of Conduct’ signed between Hailu Shawel and the ruling party as indicative of the progress that will ultimately reduce the ethnic tensions between the two communities and deliver on the hope of reform.
What these genuinely well-meaning people do not understand is that nothing of substance has been achieved beyond Meles and Hailu’s handshakes. Behind the scenes, the regime has intensified “ethnic cleansing” against the Amharas through mass purging of soldiers and bureaucrats. Some analysts suggest that since ANDM’s rank and file have deserted him, Meles Zenawi is trying to warn them that they can be replaced by Hailu’s group. Unfortunately, people know that with nothing to offer to his supporters and well-wishers, Hailu cannot garner the support of the Amhara and urban dwellers. He can easily be discarded as an accomplice to the ethnic ‘apartheid’ system. The agreement is a lose-lose deal for both Meles and Hailu.
Authentic and genuine reforms are needed to cool the ethnic tensions in the country. I believe this is the last opportunity for the TPLF to embark on a reforms agenda. The Tigrean elite aligned with regime should seriously and carefully reflect on the ever worsening tension in Ethiopia and its possible outcomes. For anyone, including foreigners, who have been to Finfinne in the last few years, it is hard to miss the anti-Tigrean climate that is brewing due to the regime’s increasingly dangerous apartheid policies. It is a precarious condition for ethnic Tigreans; it’s disastrous for all of us. It should not be allowed to continue. The Tigrean elite should take the lead in challenging and pressuring the regime to change its attitudes and policies.
Meles should have the courage to begin these political reforms, because he is well positioned to legitimize his rule in the coming May 2010 elections. Through his many arrogant mistakes and wrong calculations, he has created unprecedented level of ethnic animosity against the Tigreans. He has let down the “golden” people who sacrificed tens of thousands of their sons and daughters to bring him to power. For the sake of these people, to show last minute respect to his fallen comrades and to let them rest in peace and dignity, he should remove this cloud of isolation and fear from his people. It is only fear of the unknown that stops him from reaching this goal. What Meles has to fear is fear itself. There is NO other road than the way of substantive political reforms, a road less travelled in Ethiopian history, to legitimize power, unlock the dangers of ethnic strife, and free Tigreans from the tension they feel in their everyday life.
As we embrace for this holiday season, let’s remember our political prisoners and if our income allows, let’s extend our helping hand to their loved ones.