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The Invictus in Ethiopia

June 24, 2013

Eloquently, in his extolled autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela blows identitarianism straight:

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

The enduring spirit of Mandela is all packed in this short but resonating statement. He forgives his jailers, haters, detractors alike. As he was celebrated as the microcosm of  ‘a freedom fighter’, starkly, he was also condemned as ‘a terrorist’. Upon his release, he ashamed his shamers and name-callers. He was a human who refuses dehumanization and rebel not to be second-classed.

As an Ethiopian, I’d love to get through this marvelous human’s attachment with Ethiopia, by annotating his autobiography and fusing with some later developments.

Mandela the ‘diplomat’

First, Mandela the ‘diplomat‘, come to Ethiopia. 1962. Ladies and gentlemen, Mandela got surprised. What is that? He noted his first Addis-bound flight experience as follows:

We put down briefly in Khartoum, where we changed to an Ethiopian Airways flight to Addis. Here 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, and the instant I did I had to quell my panic. How could a black man fly an airplane? But a moment later I caught myself: I had fallen into the apartheid mind-set, thinking Africans were inferior and that flying was a white man’s job. I sat back in my seat, and chided myself for such thoughts. Once we were in the air, I lost my nervousness and studied the geography of Ethiopia, thinking how guerrilla forces hid in these very forests to fight the Italian imperialists.”

The Ethiopia resides in Mandela’s heart was such a heavenly place that’s enviable by everyone. Mandela continues:

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. And he continue to imagine the meeting with the then Ethiopian emperor as:Meeting the emperor himself would be like shaking hands with history.

But, Ethiopia failed him. Ethiopia was much short of his expectations. Upon landing, Mandela remarked:

Our first stop was Addis Ababa, the Imperial City, which did not live up to its title, for it was the opposite of grand, with only a few tarred streets, and more goats and sheep than cars. Apart from the Imperial Palace, the university, and the Ras Hotel, where we stayed, there were few structures that could compare with even the least impressive buildings of Johannesburg.

Aside from the poor infrastructure that hits Mandela aback, the then political environment also was a downer for a freedom fighter. Mandela continues:

Contemporary Ethiopia was not a model when it came to democracy, either. There were no political parties, no popular organs of government, no separation of powers; only the emperor, who was supreme.

Regarding the Emperor — Haile Selassie — apart from his tiny stature, the rest was somehow impressing for Mandela:

His Imperial Majesty, who was dressed in an elaborate brocaded army uniform. I was surprised by how small the emperor appeared, but his dignity and confidence made him seem like the African giant that he was. It was the first time I had witnessed a head of state go through the formalities of his office, and I was fascinated. He stood perfectly straight, and inclined his head only slightly to indicate that he was listening. Dignity was the hallmark of all his actions.

Mandela reiterates this impression of the Emperor in the 2010 book — somehow a sequel to his autobiography — Conversations with Myself, written by Richard Stengel. Mandela told Stengel:

That was [Emperor Haile Selassie] an impressive fellow, man, very impressive. It was my first time to watch…a head of state going through the formalities… the motions of formality. This chap came wearing a uniform and he then came and bowed. But it was a bow which was not a bow –he stood erect, you see, but just brought down his head…then…took his seat and addressed us, but he spoke in (Amharic)…Then, at the end of the conference he saw every, each delegation…and Comrade Oliver Tambo asked me to speak for our delegation, to speak to him. And I explained to him very briefly what was happening in South Africa…He was seated on his chair, listening like a log…not nodding, just immovable, you know, like a statue…The next time I saw him was when we attended a military parade, and that was very impressive (whistles), absolutely impressive. And he was then giving awards…to the soldiers; everyone who had graduated got a certificate… A very fine ceremony-a very dignified chap- and he also gave medals. There (were) American military advisors… (and) groups of military advisers from various countries …And so he gave medals to these chaps too. But to see whites going to a black monarch emperor and bowing was also very interesting.

Mandela, the freedom fighter

Then Mandela, the freedom fighter come back — again in 1962 — to Ethiopia for the second time, but with a very different mission, military training. A driver called David Motsamayi was Mandela’s Ethiopian passport name:


Mandela’s Ethiopian Passport

Again in his autobiography, Mandela had something to say about the training and his personal trainer:

I was lectured on military science by Colonel Tadesse, who was also assistant commissioner of police and had been instrumental in foiling a recent coup attempt against the emperor.

Mandela (right) with his trainer, Colonel Tadesse Biru (left)

During his training, the Ethiopia that Mandela’s recalled was an embarrassingly poor and gloomy land:

The country was extremely backward: people used wooden plows and lived on a very simple diet supplemented by home-brewed beer. Their existence was similar to the life in rural South Africa; poor people everywhere are more alike than they are different.

His training was not going as it was planned. Because of an urgent call from his party — the ANC — he was forced to cut short his training and went back to South Africa. Farwelling Ethiopia, Madiba writes:

Colonel Tadesse rapidly arranged for me to take an Ethiopian flight to Khartoum. Before I left, he presented me with a gift: an automatic pistol and two hundred rounds of ammunition. I was grateful, both for the gun and his instruction. Despite my fatigue marches, I found it wearying to carry around all that ammunition. A single bullet is surprisingly heavy: hauling around two hundred is like carrying a small child on one’s back.

That was all that he has to say about Ethiopia. Later, after his release, Mandela come back to Ethiopia for the third and the last time as part of his continent-wide ‘thank you’ tour, a tour organized crediting those nations/organizations that support the people of South Africa and the fight against Apartheid — during the time of the long resistance.

Recently, upon his death, Sheger FM — a local Radio —  aired a story of one of the security guards to Mandela during his 1962 training in Ethiopia. The guard, Shambel Gutta Dinaka (76) claimed (Amharic) a never-heard story of an attempted plot to kill Mandela, whilst he was in a training camp that later foiled. If the claim is proved true, that would be an additional Mandela story relating to Ethiopia.

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One Comment
  1. Asrat permalink

    I want to read the first TPLF program please post it again.

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