Last week, many Ethiopian families in the United States gathered in houses of worship with their relatives and friends to hold memorial services in remembrance of the victims of the massacre of the 24th of November 1974, a date that shall live in infamy in Ethiopian history. On that fateful day, a military junta gathered and took a “simple vote” to summarily execute 60 high level government officials, civil servants, decorated war veterans and elite army officers and enlisted men of the imperial regime of H.I.M. Haile Selassie. That massacre propelled Ethiopia into a spiraling vortex of gross human rights violations and tyranny which persists to the present day. On November 24, 1974, Ethiopia crossed the Rubicon, the point of no return, and marched headlong from a promised bloodless revolution to one the bloodiest military power grabs in modern African history. The darkness that descended on Ethiopia on November 24, 1974 still envelopes her today.
The bloody bloodless coup of 1974
The 1974 military takeover of power in Ethiopia has been described alternatively as a “bloodless” and “creeping” coup. Unlike most African countries that experienced violent military coups in the post-colonial period, the junior officers in Ethiopia tiptoed their way into a power vacuum left by a decaying imperial regime whose leaders were in confusion and disarray over the burgeoning civil unrest at the time.
The “creeping” coup began haltingly as a ragtag bunch of junior officers bungled their way into power. Their slogan was “Yaleminim Dem Ityopia Tikdem” (“Without shedding blood, Ethiopia First (Forward)”.) They organized themselves in a self-styled “Derg”, (Coordinating Committee of the Armed Forces, Police, and Territorial Army). By September 1974, the Derg had dethroned H.I.M. Haile Selassie and arrested many of his top officials.
The pretext for the Derg’s seizure of power included the purported need to control the civil arrest triggered by student protests over economic hardships following the 1973 oil crises, the need to establish accountability for official neglect of widespread famine in northern Ethiopia and to address mutinous soldiers’ demand for pay increases and improvements in military service conditions.
To ingratiate itself with the protesters and the public, the Derg launched a public relations campaign using the rallying cry, “Ethiopia Tikdem (First)”. The Derg later made a political platform out of the slogan to articulate its ideas about promoting equality and grassroots democracy, reforming the judicial, justice and land sectors and to pledge implementation of national health and literacy campaigns. The Derg infused its populist propaganda with combative and militaristic rhetoric. In 1975, the 120-member Derg proclaimed its allegiance to communism and renamed itself the “Provisional Military Government of Ethiopia”. Despite the official change in name, most people continued to refer to the military junta as “Derg”.
As the Derg implemented its “creeping coup”, it began arresting high level officials of the imperial government. The arrests provided grist to the anti-imperial government propaganda mill and fueled the widespread dissatisfaction with the imperial government and its ineptitude in dealing with pressing demands for economic, social and political change. The Derg arrested and detained hundreds of officials in the imperial government. It promised to undertake a full investigation into their alleged official misconduct, wrongdoing and malfeasance. The promised investigative process was stillborn on the night of November 23, 1974.
The events leading to the executions of the 60 high officials of the imperial government was diabolically conceived and staged by Mengistu Hailemariam, a junior officer consumed by blind ambition. From the beginning, Mengistu’s eye was fixed on the top prize, the chairmanship of the Derg; but he had to consolidate his power. Mengistu cleverly orchestrated the massacre of the 60 officials as his ultimate power play game for the chairmanship. Mengistu first scapegoated Gen. Aman Michael Andom, the first titular chairman of the Derg. Gen. Aman was not only a highly decorated military leader but also widely respected and loved by the troops. He led Ethiopian troops during the Korean War and distinguished himself in the Ethiopian Somali border conflicts in the early 1960s.
Mengistu set in motion an elaborate intrigue to oust Gen. Aman by fabricating a story that Gen. Aman was plotting to sabotage the “revolution” spearheaded by Derg. He accused Gen. Aman of being an appeaser of the rebels in Eritrea because Gen. Aman had proposed a negotiated settlement of that conflict. Gen. Aman had ethnic roots in Eritrea and Mengistu sought to play on prevailing sentiments of ethnic mistrust in the Derg. He depicted Gen. Aman as a conspirator and rebel sympathizer and insisted that the Eritrean rebellion could and should be crushed militarily.
Gen. Aman actually had other fundamental disagreements with Mengistu and his faction in the Derg. For instance, Gen. Aman as chairman rejected Mengistu’s demand for the summary execution of certain detained imperial officials. Gen. Aman also did not believe Ethiopia could be led by a gathering of callow and sophomoric junior officers and enlisted men. As a result of deep disagreements with Mengistu, Gen. Aman resigned. On November 23, 1994, Mengistu sent troops to “arrest” Gen. Aman. In the ensuing battle, Gen. Aman was killed. It was rumored that he committed suicide than be captured. It will never be known whether Gen. Aman could have delivered a negotiated settlement of the conflict in Eritrea, but in 1994 Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia.
On November 23, 1994, Derg members reviewed a list of 250 detainees of the imperial government for summary execution to cover up and to make the murder of Gen. Aman more palatable to the public. On November 24, 1974, the Derg announced the dreadful news of its dastardly deeds to a shocked public.
In justifying the summary executions, the Derg issued the following statement:
The Council (Derg) also found it necessary to execute former civilian and military officials on whose account repeated plots have been made that might engulf the country into a bloodbath. This decision was imperative to save the lives of innocent people that had suffered for so long in the past. Hence the Council ordered the execution of those found guilty of maladministration, hindering fair administration of justice, selling secret documents of the country to foreign agents and attempting to disrupt the present Ethiopian popular movement.
The 60 victims were all buried in a mass grave with their hands tied as evidence later proved following exhumation of their remains. (For a Youtube video of the exhumation and reburial of the remains of the 60 victims, click here.)
Extra-judicial executions by Mengistu and the Derg
George Orwell wrote, “Political language… is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” To justify its cold-blooded murder of the detained officials, to give a veneer of legal legitimacy for its criminal actions and to create political theater for a shocked public, the Derg announced the detained officials were executed for having committed one four “crimes”: 1) gross abuse of power, 2) gross abuse of authority, 3) plots to incite civil war and disrupting popular movement, 4) breach of oath of office and attempt to create divisions in the armed forces.
At the time of the summary executions of the officials, the applicable criminal law was codified in the 1957 Penal Code of Ethiopia. That Penal Code provided a comprehensive scheme of criminal sanctions and penalties not only for criminal violations by civilians but also military personnel under Title III.
The most extraordinary fact about the execution of the 60 officials is they either committed NO CRIME at all as a matter of law; or if they arguably committed a crime, their offenses were violations punishable “with simple imprisonment or fine.”
First, 17 of the highest level officials of the imperial government were executed for committing the crime of “gross abuse of power”. The fact of the matter is that there is NO SUCH CRIME as “gross abuse of power” in any provision of the 1957 Penal Code. Period! Those officials were murdered for a crime that did not exist!
Second, the allegations of “gross abuse of authority” against the military officers also does not exist as a crime per se in the Penal Code. It could arguably arise under Article 304 (Abuse of Authority) of the Penal Code, which incorporates by reference military regulations. That article provides, “A superior officer who exceeds the authority be exercises by virtue of his commission, abuses such authority or improperly assumes authority not conferred by such commission is punishable, where his act does not constitute an offence under this Code, in accordance with the provisions of military regulations.” Assuming, for the sake of argument, that the military officers had committed “abuse of authority” in the military, they should have been court-martialed not summarily executed. However, there was no evidence whatsoever to show any of the military officers abused their authority let alone grossly abusing it.
Third, the alleged “plot to incite civil war ” also does not exist as a crime per se in the Penal Code. The allegation could arguably arise under Article 252 (Armed Rising and Civil War) of the 1957 Penal Code. That article prohibits “a revolt, mutiny or armed rebellion against the Emperor, the State or the constitutional authorities…” As a matter of law, the officials executed for “plotting to incite civil war” could not have been guilty of this crime because the Derg itself was not a lawful authority under any circumstances within the meaning of Article 252. At the time the imperial officials were executed, the Derg itself and its leaders could have been legally and reasonably charged for “plotting to incite civil war” by overthrowing the constitutional monarchy. Yet, three captains, one corporal and one private were executed for a crime that did not exist in the Penal Code of Ethiopia 1957 or in any military regulations.
Fourth, there is no such crime as “breach of oath of office and attempt to create divisions in the armed forces” in the 1957 Penal Code! Arguably, that allegation could arise under Article 332 (“Compelling Breaches of Duty”) and/or Article 344 (“Failure to Report Crimes against the Armed Forces and Breaches of Military Obligations”) of the Penal Code. Assuming, for the sake of argument, that the officers actually committed the crimes of “breach of oath” and “attempted division of the armed forces” under the foregoing articles, both offenses were “punishable with simple imprisonment or fine.”
Assuming, for the sake of argument, that all of the allegations as formulated by the Derg to justify the summary execution of the officials were based on lawful regulations and policies made by the Derg itself, those allegations would have been legally null and void because Article 5 (2) (non-retrospective effect of criminal law) of the 1957 Penal Code prohibits the application of ex post facto criminal sanctions: “An act not declared to be an offence and committed prior to the coming into force of this Code is not punishable…”
Such was the murder of 60 innocent Ethiopians by Mengistu and the Derg –without any proof of their guilt– and the death of the rule of law in Ethiopia!
** Summarily executed for allegedly committing the crime of “Gross Abuse of Power”:
Aklilu Habtewold (Tsehafe Tizaz, served as prime minister under H.I.M. Haile Selassie for 13 years and in other high level positions for a total of 39 years).
H.H. Ras Asrate Kassa (member Crown Council, Senate President, Enderassie; served in various high level positions for over 34 years).
Endalkachew Mekonnen (prime minister; Lij; Ethiopian ambassador to the U.N., served in various high level positions for 23 years).
Ras Mesfin Seleshi (war veteran, Enderassie; served in various high level positons for over 54 years).
Ato Abebe Retta (Minister, linguist, scholar in history and religion, particularly the Ethiopian Orthodox Church; served in various capacities for 47 years).
Lt. Col. Tamirat Yegezu (Enderassie, Crown Council member; served in various capacities for 38 years).
Ato Akaleworq Habtewold (Minister, ambassador, served in various capacities for 39 years).
Dr. Tesfaye Gebre-Egzy (Minister).
Ato Mulatu Debebe (Minister; served in various capacities for 22 years).
Dejazmach Solomon Abraha (Enderassie; served in various capacities).
Dejazmach Legesse Bezu (Enderassie; served in various capacities for a total of 29 years).
Dejazmach Sahlu Defaye (Enderassie, veteran; served in various capacities for a total of 46 years).
Dejazmach Workneh Wolde Amanuel (Minister, Senator, Enderassie; served in various capacities for a total of 30 years).
Dejazmach Kifle Ergetu (Ambassador, diplomat, Senator).
Dejazmach Worku Enqoselassie (Enderassie; served in various capacities for a total of 26 years).
Dejazmach Aemeroselassie Abebe (Enderassie, civil servant; served in various capacities for 35 years).
Dejazmach Kebede Ali Wole (Enderassie military commander served in various capacities for 34 years)
Summarily executed for allegedly committing the crime of “Gross Abuse of Authority”
Ato Nebeye Leul Kifle (Minister, Crown special cabinet member; served for a total of 24 years).
Col. Solomon Kedir (Chief of security, minister; served in various capacities for 25 years).
Afenegus Abeje Debalq (Judge, Crown Counsellor, Senator; served in various capacities for 44 years).
Ato Yilma Aboye (Palace courtier, served in various capacities for 18 years).
Ato Tegen Yeteshaworq (Minister, editor Ethiopian Herald; served for 12 years).
Ato Solomon Gebremariam (Minister; served in various capacities for 31 years).
Ato Hailu Teklu (civil servant).
Blata Admassu Retta (Palace courtier).
Lij Hailu Desta (Ethiopian Red Cross President, served in various capacities for 26 years).
Fitewrari Amede Aberra (rancher, served in various capacities).
Fitewrari Demessie Alamerew (Enderassie).
Fitewrari Tadesse Enquselassie (Enderassie).
Lt. General Abiye Abebe (Minister, ambassador, Senate President).
Lt. General Kebde Gebre (Minister, Enderassie).
Lt. General Dressie Dubale (Commander, Ground Forces).
Lt. General Abebe Gemeda (Commander, Imperial Body Guard, Enderassie; served in various capacities for a total of 40 years).
Lt. General Yilma Shibeshi (Chief of national police; served in various capacities for 34 years).
Lt. General Haile Baykedagn (Chief of staff; served in various capacities for 32 years).
Lt. General Assefa Ayene (Minister, chief of staff; served in various capacities for a total of 38 years).
Lt. General Belete Abebe (Chief of staff, served in various capacities for a total of 40 years).
Lt. General Isayas Gebreselassie (Senator).
Lt. General Assefa Demissie (ADC H.I.M.).
Lt. General Debebe Hailemariam (war veteran, palace courtier, commander ground forces; served a total of 33 years).
Maj. General Seyoum Gedle Giorgis (served in various capacities in the military for a total of 31 years).
Maj. General Gashaw Kebede (served in the national police force and other capacities for a total of 33 years).
Maj. General Tafesse Lemma (Military attache, palace courtier; served total of 28 years).
Vice Admiral Iskinder Desta (Commander of the navy, modernized Ethiopia Navy, diplomat).
Brig. General Mulugetta Woldeyohannes (Chief of National Police; served in various capacities for 31 years).
Brig. General Girma Yohannes (served in national police force for 28 years).
Col. Yalem Zewd Tessema (Commander, Army Airborne).
Col. Tassew Mojo
Col. Yigezu Yimer
Major Berhanu Metcha
Capt. Molla Wakene
Summarily executed for for allegedly comitting the crime of “Plotting to Incite Civil War and Disrupt Popular Movement”
Cpt. Demessie Shiferaw.
Cpt. Belay Tsegaye (Army aviation heliopter pilot; served a total of 31 years).
Cpt. Woldeyohanes Zergaw.
Lance Cpl. Teklu Hailu (18 year-old and member of Army engineers; executed for opposing the idea of military government).
Pvt. Bekele Woldegiorgis (served 22 years.
Summarily executed for allegedly committing the “Breach of Oath of Office and Attempt to Create Divisions in the Armed Forces”
Lt. General Aman Michael Andom (chairman of Derg and Council of Ministers, Defense Minsiter and Chief of Statff of the Armed Forces).
Lt. Tesfaye Takele (24 years-old Army aviation pilot, Derg member).
Junior Aircraftsman Yohanes Fitiwi (Derg member).
Mengistu Hailemariam “The ‘man’ who charged a bullet tax”
The man singularly responsible for the carnage, massacres and deaths of millions of people during the period 1974-1991 is none other than Mengistu Hailemariam. Mengistu is ranked No. 13 among “history’s deadliest dictators”. (In contrast, Adolf Hitler is ranked #1, Joseph Stalin #3, Pol Pot #8, Omar al-Bashir of the Sudan #9, Idi Amin #22, Kim Jong-Il #23).
Mengistu Hailemariam and his Derg were condemned by various human rights organizations in their rampage to commit crimes against humanity. Amnesty International estimated Mengistu killed an estimated one-half million people during his Red Terror Campaign of 1977 and 1978. According to Human Rights Watch, Mengistu’s “Red Terror” represented “one of the most systematic uses of mass murder by a state ever witnessed in Africa.” In May 1977, the Swedish general secretary of the Save the Children Fund reported “1,000 children have been killed, and their bodies are left in the streets and are being eaten by wild hyenas . . . You can see the heaped-up bodies of murdered children, most of them aged eleven to thirteen, lying in the gutter, as you drive out of Addis Ababa.” According to Human Rights Watch, “The Kebeles required families to reimburse the administration for the price of bullets used to kill victims when they reclaimed their bodies for burial.” That was done with full knowledge, if not order, of Mengistu Hailemariam.
During Mengistu’s reign of terror, millions of Ethiopians perished as a result of political violence or neglected famines. Eyewitness testimony directly implicates Mengistu’s personal involvement in the murder of H.I.M. Haile Selassie. (Forward clip to 18:20 minutes.) Mengistu buried H.I.M. Haile Selassie under his office.
In practically every speech Mengistu closed by calling “Death to counterrevolutionaries! Death to the EPRP! Death to reactionaries. Death to imperialists… feudals…” Yet Mengistu told a foreign interviewer that he “did not even kill a fly” when he was in power. That is very likely true; but he did kill millions of people like flies.
Mengistu Hailemariam was a bloodthirsty killer who decimated not only those he considered his enemies but also his closest friends, allies and comrades. Of late, Mengistu and his former underlings have written books to shield themselves from the judgment of history. They say they did it all out of patriotism and nationalism. I just do not understand. How is the indiscriminate murder of children in the streets a “patriotic” and “nationalist” act? How is torturing and abusing suspected political enemies a patriotic and nationalist act? How is suffocating to death a dethroned and aged monarch and burying him under an office a patriotic and nationalist act? How is charging families a bullet tax to obtain the dead bodies of their children for burial a patriotic and nationalist act?! How true the saying, “Patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels” and bloodthirsty murderers and cutthroats. Mengistu and the Derg did not commit their crimes against humanity out of patriotism and nationalism; they did it out of blind ambition for power.
Mengistu and his brethren criminals against humanity were prosecuted by the regime of Meles Zenawi. Some three dozen Derg members faced “trial”. Mengistu was tried in absentia for the murder of thousands of people. The evidence against him allegedly included signed execution orders, videos of torture sessions and personal testimonies.
The “trial” of Mengustu and members of his Derg by the regime of the late Meles Zenawi took twelve (12) years ending in 2006. Mengistu was convicted and given a life sentence which was subsequently changed to death.
How ironic to see Tweedle Dee judging Tweedle Dum! I never cease to be amazed by the fact that those who put Mengistu and his underlings on trial merely re-engineered and took Mengistu’s tyrannical rule to a higher and newer level. They do now what Mengistu did in uniform then clad in designer suits and carrying leather briefcases. But they share the exact same mentality: Our way, the highway or there ain’t no way!
Today, Mengistu is holed up in the capital of Zimbabwe with the permission of dictator Robert Mugabe. Mugabe feels he owes a debt of gratitude to “Mengistu and his government [who] played a key and commendable role during our struggle for independence”. Some 23 Derg members had their death sentences commuted. Another 16 members were released from prison. Others died in prison.
In 2012, Mengistu published a book with the principal aim of absolving himself from responsibility for the crimes he personally committed and committed by others under his watch. Certain persons illegally copied and posted his book online as a form of retaliation. I was greatly dismayed by the copyright violation and brazen intolerance and condemned the conduct in my January 2012 commentary “Copyrights and CopyCrimes”. In as much as I loathe and detest Mengistu’s crimes against humanity, I was the first one to stand up and vigorously and uncompromisingly defend his right to publish and freely speak his mind:
One can disagree deeply with Mengistu and the facts or lies contained in his memoir. Having read the book, I am critical of the accuracy and selective recollection of many of his “facts”; and disagree with his attempt to avoid personal and regime accountability for his gross violations of human rights. But that is the way of all dictators. They always try to tell their stories in heroic terms and attempt to justify their crimes as patriotic acts. Although I disagree with Mengistu on numerous “facts” and unreservedly condemn his human rights record, I will be the first one to stand up and defend his right to write a book and publish it, even if it is all lies. To be sure, I defend Mengistu’s right to express himself just as vigorously as I defended the free speech rights of his successor Meles Zenawi when he spoke at Columbia University in September 2010. Why shouldn’t these two dictators be allowed to express themselves? Who is afraid of their “facts”, “lies”, ideas or opinions? Don’t the people have the right to hear these dictators and make their own judgment?
The power to seek forgiveness and the power to forgive: The power of atonement
I am going to “pontificate” a little bit here about the need for atonement on the 40th memorial of the victims of November 24, 1974. After four decades, there is still lingering sadness, heartache and heartbreak, anger and resentment about the crimes committed on that fateful night and during the Derg era. The crimes committed by Mengistu and his Derg are still fresh in the minds of the surviving victims and the surviving family members of the executed officials. Those crimes remain open wounds in the hearts of the surviving victims and families.
I believe after 40 years of woe and sorrow, it is time to begin an end to the pain and suffering and heal the wounds that have been left open for so long. It is the responsibility of those who opened the wounds to now take the initial steps to close them up. That is why I have the audacity to demand of Mengistu and his surviving Derg members to step up and man up to their responsibilities. That is why I would humbly beg the victims of Mengistu’s and the Derg’s crimes to find it in their hearts to forgive.
I ask the victims and the victimizers to bury the hatchet once and for all not for themselves necessarily but for the love of the untold generations yet to come. Of course, I know I have no moral authority to make such demands. But I do not see those with the moral authority — the religious leaders, the elders, and all of the other pillars of Ethiopian communities – taking the lead to heal the 40 year-old wounds. So, I have decided to speak up about the need for atonement between the victims and victimizers of the Derg era.
I believe Mengistu and the surviving members of his Derg should come forward, acknowledge their crimes and ask to be forgiven by the Ethiopian people. They should start by asking forgiveness from the surviving families of the 60 innocent victims and others whose human rights were violated through unjust imprisonment, torture and abuse and extra-judicial killings. By seeking the forgiveness of their victims, Mengistu and the Derg members will finally gain an inner peace that has eluded them for four decades. It must be hell to live with a conscience (I disagree with those who say they have no conscience) that gets no respite because the ghosts of victims long forgotten stand in the corner of one’s conscience pointing a finger. The only thing that can cure the sickness of a soul tormented by guilt is to acknowledge one’s wrongdoing and seek atonement.
Atonement means “at-one-ment”. It is a process of coming together to make amends, to heal wounds, and to reconcile. Through atonement much good can be achieved. One can liberate not only one’s mind and heart from the burden of guilt not but also free one’s soul. Hatred can be replaced by love in a process of atonement. One can unchain oneself from the burden of the past and move forward to a new day in a process of atonement. One can mend broken hearts and aching hearts in a process of atonement.
There is a lot of atonement for everyone to make. The families of the 60 victims were subjected to great suffering not only because of the loss of their loved ones but also for being family members and relatives of the victims. Everyone knows how the surviving family members were subjected to humiliation, social isolation and cruel deprivation beyond the limits of human endurance. Every day they suffered indignities; they were called foul names, humiliated and spat upon for merely being family members of victims who were unjustly executed for committing no crimes. They were deprived of the right to live like ordinary human beings. Mengistu and members of his Derg regime should reach out to these survivors and ask to be forgiven.
Mengistu and members of his Derg regime should acknowledge the crimes they committed during the “Red Terror” campaign. They should ask the forgiveness of the mothers, fathers, grandparents, brothers, sisters, uncles and families of the young people they slaughtered throughout their reign in power. The gaping holes the Derg created in the hearts of the mothers and fathers of those young victims remain open and need to be stitched back.
Mengistu and members of his Derg regime should acknowledge the crimes they committed during the 1984-85 famine neglecting and even withholding food from them as a military tactic against rebels. They must accept full responsibility and seek forgiveness.
To me atonement is a process and forgiveness a decisive act. Atonement is like a cross-road where those who seek forgiveness and those willing to grant it meet voluntarily, in good faith and with clear heart. At the crossroad, those who seek forgiveness, openly acknowledge their wrongdoing and ask to be forgiven. Those with the capacity to forgive will let go of the years of anger and resentment. In my view, the outcome of forgiveness is a change in attitude and feeling for the victims and the victimizers. Hatred that lurks in one’s heart is detoxified, and if one is lucky, transformed into love. Hate and love are two side of the same coin. It is all in the way we flip that coin. If we flip it one way, we get understanding and harmony. If we flip it the other way, we get discord and strife. I believe forgiveness is a cure for resentment, anger, grief, hopelessness, hatred, bitterness and the need for vengeance.
In South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation commission (TRC) was established “to enable South Africans to come to terms with their past on a morally accepted basis and to advance the cause of reconciliation.” Perpetrators of gross human rights violations could give full and truthful testimony on their politically motivated crimes and request amnesty from both civil and criminal prosecution. The TRC may be viewed as a success or a failure depending on one’s perspective, but in my thinking it was a success because it recorded for posterity in an undeniable way something Nelson Mandela said in his inauguration speech, “Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another.” That to me is the purpose of atonement, for this generation to make an iron-clad promise to future generations that never, never and never again will this beautiful Ethiopia again experience extrajudicial killings, torture and massive human rights violations.
I understand atonement will be the most difficult thing to do for Mengistu and his Derg members and also for their victims and survivors of their victims. I believe most Ethiopian men, starting with me, are filled with false pride and empty macho-ism. We seem to be incapable of admitting mistakes and apologizing for the things we have done wrong. Perhaps it is a cultural trait; it could be a collective character flaw. I don’t know. What I know is that we would rather talk for hours seeking to justify the things we have done wrong than to say, “I am really sorry; forgive me”, correct our mistakes if possible or just move on. We would rather write books and give a thousand reasons to excuse our misdeeds than to admit responsibility and make things better. We seem to believe forgiveness is the ultimate human weakness and flaw of character. We perceive it to be proof of defeat, shame and the ultimate loss of face.
All that can be changed, I believe. We can save ourselves from ourselves by unlearning bad old habits and replacing them with good new ones. We can make atonement a good habit to practice.
I believe the 40th memorial for the victims of the 1974 delivers a life lesson to all who held ultimate power in the past and are still alive and to those who precariously hold onto power presently. Meles passed away without asking forgiveness for all of the crimes he committed. Because he never asked forgiveness of those whose lives he destroyed, he is put on trial every week long after he has been dead. In death, Meles gets no forgiveness from those whose lives he destroyed and whose lives continue to be destroyed in prisons throughout the country by the crimes he committed before he died. Because he is unforgiven, he shall get the ultimate judgment from history.
Ironically, Meles’ predecessor, Tamrat Layne, learned a life lesson from 12 years of imprisonment and saved himself from himself, from his powerful former friends, from the judgment of his fellow man and woman and from the judgment of history by coming forward, openly acknowledging things he has or may have done wrong while in office and by publicly asking the forgiveness of all he may have knowingly and unknowingly hurt or inflicted suffering. In his public statements, Tamrat says one of the first things he did following his release from prison was to go to Meles and ask his forgiveness. He said he did the same with others who held positions of power with him. He travels around preaching the story of his own spiritual deliverance and begging forgiveness for the wrongs he has done in the past while in office. He has asked forgiveness and it is upto the people to grant it to him.
For all of his personal and professional failures and achievements as a leader and human being, Tamrat Layne, for his own reasons, has decided to take the personal initiative to atone and take full responsibility and atone for his actions and omissions while in office. One would assume the “natural” tendency for someone in his position would be to seek revenge against those who caused him much suffering, but he chose to take the road “less traveled and asked forgiveness and that has made all the difference” for him, to paraphrase a line from a Robert Frost poem. My wish is to see those who are currently in power, those who have long been out of power and trying to get into power and those who do not give a damn about power to take the less traveled road of atonement and reconciliation to the final destination of love.
Why you and I must remember the 24th of November
It has been said, “Those who forget the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it.” You and I must remember the 24th of November 1974 because there are so many valuable lessons we can learn and pass on to the generations to come.
Lesson No. 1: Ethiopia should be governed by the rule of just laws administered by a sound judicial system, and never by the arbitrary and whimsical decisions of military commanders, rebel leaders and others who seize or cling to power by force. The principle of the rule of law is fundamentally about legal and constitutional accountability. No man or woman is above the law justly made by representatives of the people elected in a free and fair election. We must eternally remain vigilant and prevent and speak up when we have evidence of extra-judicial killings and gross violations of human rights by those in power or out of power.
Lesson No. 2: No Ethiopian shall be deprived of life, liberty or property with due process of law. This simply means no one should be summarily executed or railroaded to prison in a kangaroo trial. Every one accused of a crime must be given proper notice of the charges; adequate opportunity to present evidence including their defense and challenge the evidence against them; have their charges adjudicated before an impartial tribunal (independent judges who perform their duties without political interference; no kangaroo courts); be represented by counsel and if they cannot afford one provided appointed counsel; be protected from self-incrimination (no torture or coercion to obtain a confession); have the right to an appeal and so on. We must educate ourselves in basic human rights law and defend the rights of victims of human rights violations.
Lesson No. 3: We must never remain silent when the human rights of any Ethiopian are violated. Evil thrives on silence and fear. Tyranny and oppression can only survive through the silence of the oppressed. Frederick Douglass, a former slave in America turned abolitionist who said, “The limits of tyrants are proscribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.” The cruelest lies are often told in silence. The cruelest acts are often overlooked in silence. It is the moral duty of every human being to struggle against evil. Edmund Burke said, “All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent… The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men [and women] to do nothing.” Silence may be gold but silence in the face of gross human rights violation in Ethiopia evil is complicity with evil.
The reason for speaking up in the face of human rights violations simple and personal: You are next on the list! We should heed the powerful words of the German Protestant Pastor Friedrich G. E. M. Niemöller facing Nazi persecution:
First they came for the Jews/ and I did not speak out/because I was not a Jew.
Then 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 me/and there was no one left/to speak out for me.
When the Derg came for “reactionaries”, “counter-revolutionaries”, “anarchists”, students, young people, most of us kept silent. We did not care as long as they did not come for us. We were gripped by fear and paralyzed with emotions of self-preservation when our neighbor’s children were taken out and shot in the streets like rabid dogs by kebele (local administration and neighborhood watch groups) and militia thugs. But the Derg knocked on everybody’s door when it launched its Red Terror campaign. It cannibalized even itself in internecine political warfare.
Now when the TPLF comes for the “Amhara”, we must not remain silent. We must loudly object when they come for the “Amhara” and denigrate them as “sefaris” (criminal land squatters) in their own country. We must speak up loudly when they come for the Oromos, jail them and hold them in indeterminate pretrial detention for allegedly being members of a liberation group. We must speak up when they come for the Muslims because the Muslims do not want political interference in their religious affairs. We must speak up when they come for the Anuak people to “villagize” them out of existence. We must speak up when they come for the Omotic people of Southern Ethiopia take their land, hand it over to modern-day international land-grabbing barons and bulldoze them into extinction. We must speak up when they come for the journalists, the human rights advocates, opposition leaders and bloggers. If we choose to remain silent, we will find out that there will be no one to speak when they come for us.
Lesson No. 4: The power of one. The power of few. The power of many. The power of fear. Each individual — regardless of ethnicity, religion, gender, language, economic class, occupation education or other social classification—has the power to fight for human rights. That simply means one person can make a difference in the struggle for freedom by speaking up and acting up. Massacres do not happen by accident. Massacres take place in full view of millions of bystanders who stand by or go along to get along when their neighbors, co-workers and classmates are persecuted.
Lesson No. 5. Good always triumphs over evil. Mahatma Gandhi said, “Remember that all through history, there have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they seem invincible. But in the end, they always fall. Always.” Mengistu Hailemariam seemed invincible when he strutted around smashing bottles containing red colored fluid. In the end he fell and now lives as a stateless refugee in Zimbabwe at the mercy of his brother dictator Robert Mugabe. Meles Zenawi also believed he was invincible. He was not.
I am tempted to say power is the root of all evil. Money is a form of power as is the barrel of the gun. The ever present danger of power is that it is naturally corrupting. Power is an acid that corrodes the human mind, heart and soul. It must be handled with extreme care and for a very short time. No human being has the ability to withstand the corrosive powers of power. The only way one can persist in the face of corrosive power is by fighting the power every day, every week, every year bolstered by the absolute and unshakable belief in the ultimate triumph of good over evil.
The evil that men (and women) do
What makes men and women evil? Inflict suffering on our fellow men and women? Is it destiny that makes us all slaves to evil? Shakespeare did not think so in Julius Caesar: “Men at some time are masters of their fates./ The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars/But in ourselves, that we are underlings./
But Shakespeare also understood the long-lasting power evil when he wrote, “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” But I see evilness and greatness as two sides of the same coin. Each human being is given the coin with the free will to flip it at any moment and choose his/her preferred side. Malvolio, in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” counsels, “… be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ‘em.” I say “be afraid of evilness. Some are born evil, some achieve evilness, and some have evilness thrust upon them.”
No one is beyond good and evil. We all have the capacity to become good or evil if we dare to look into the dark crevices of our hearts. That is even more true for those of us who are sanctimoniously self-righteous. There is only one thing beyond good and evil as Frederick Nietzsche declared: “What is done out of Love is beyond Good and Evil.” That I believe to be true. One of the arterial highways to love is forgiveness. But if we choose not to forgive and love, we should heed Nietzsche’s warning: “Anyone who fights with monsters should take care that he does not in the process become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”
My commemorative poem for the innocent victims of November 24, 1974.
Remember, remember, the 24th of November (1974)
Remember, remember, the 24th of November (1974)
The Derg and its ringleader
The machine-gunning executioner.
Remember, remember, the 24th of November (1974)
Those murdered in a plume of gunpowder
The victims who refused to surrender.
Remember, remember, the 24th of November (1974)
The absence of the barrister
The silence of the bystander.
Remember, remember, the 24th of November (1974)
The families of victims whose lives were torn asunder
The widows and orphans left to wonder.
Remember, remember, the 24th of November (1974)
Each of the victims who were secretly buried six feet under
All victims of an atrocious murder.
Remember, remember, the 24th of November (1974)
Remember to be a pathfinder
Don’t be a hater; be a humanity lover.
** Some of the biographical information on the executed officials was obtained and translated from the “Yihim Yalfal” by Alula Wassie.