By Robele Ababya
In retrospect I realize the hero I saw on the gallows in my boyhood fought for my independence to make me a proud Ethiopian.
As an elderly man now I feel deep pain for the heroine Judge Birtukan Mideksa in TPLF jail only because she stood for unity, justice & democracy for all with malice towards none.
I also feel deep pain for the young Artist Teddy Kassahun languishing in TPLF jail only because he made a clarion call for peace and reconciliation.
I have no doubt that millions of my fellow citizens enslaved in the larger prison, which their motherland has become under the TPLF misrule, are profoundly aggrieved and angered by the inhumane treatment of all prisoners of conscience languishing in filthy and congested jails.
Ugly face of political intolerance
The life of a legendry patriot was ended on a simple gallows made up of three wooden poles – two of them vertically erected with the third nailed to their ends to form a cross-bar to which the strangling noose was tied. It was a horrific scene for a kid to witness for the first time a human being put to death in an open market square in that manner. The kid has grown to old age with the indelible image of that patriot on the gallows still fixed in his memory.
Reflecting back over the past, I have witnessed increasingly harsh punishments meted out to political opponents by three successive regimes in my life time – the last two of which can be dubbed illegitimate for the simple reason that they grabbed political authority by sheer power of the barrel of the gun.
The purpose of this writing is to bring to young readers in particular how much lack of tolerance to political dissent had dearly cost us in terms of human capital, material resources and sustainable socio-economic development in a stable environment. I now proceed to share with fellow citizens, especially with young Ethiopians, just a few episodes of extreme political intolerance starting with the first one indelibly registered in my memory since I was a kid.
During the Imperial regime
It was a horrifying scene for me at my tender age to see for the first time the body of a man hanging from the gallows at an open square adjacent to the 4th Police Station in Addis Ababa commonly known as “cherk tera” – part of Mercato where vendors sold used clothing at that time.
I was walking beside my mother who took me to the market on that cursed day. I asked her what the man was doing on the wooden frame. She said that he was a famous man (nama guda) put to death by hanging for his crimes against the Emperor. I did not understand. Further on about 100 meters where she was to do her shopping in another open market square, there was another one hanged for the same reason my mother told me.
The immediate effect of that horrifying scene on me was that of seeing the image of hanged men on trees as I was walking back home at the foot of Entoto mountain range with my mum. Addis Ababa was dense with a variety of sweet-scented trees and shrubs in those days. The memory of what was on the gallows refuses to go away even now – caught in the mind of a boy and scarring me through adulthood to old age and still vivid in his imagination. I feel like I can draw the image that I saw. I never stopped publicly extolling that distinguished patriot.
The hanged man was clad in tebab suri or teferi suri (a trouser tight from the ankle up to the knee and gradually widening to the waist) and sarian jacket. I can still picture the medium-sized stature of the man and his dense dark goferai (Afro-hair). His face was gazing towards the sky because the noose was just under his chin failing to go down to choke him at his throat. In those days the body remained on the gallows from Saturday morning to Monday evening. What a horrible sight especially for kids like me who had a glimpse of the gruesome scene!
I did not understand what my mother said or explained at the time but I was to learn later as I grew up that the first man I saw on the gallows was the renowned patriot Dejazmatch Belai Zeleke revered for his heroic deeds during the Fascist invasion. The second one was Dejazmatch Mamo Hailemichael related to His Highness Ras Hailu Teklehaymanot of Gojjam Province of Ethiopia. I heard elders talk later in the evening that seventeen Ethiopians were hung on that day at various locations in Addis Ababa. Four of the guards, who assisted in the breakout of Belai Zeleke and his accomplices from prison, were hanged side by side on a single gallows at Janhoy Meda. I saw this gallows at Janhoy Meda on Timiket Celebration Day which took place six days after the hanging. Though it might have been lawful the method was cruelly repugnant. But this is our past history that we as Ethiopians should own, gruesome as it was.
Many exonerate the Emperor arguing that justice was done; others criticize the Monarch for the harsh measure against dissidents especially like the distinguished patriot, Belai Zeleke. Shegaw Belai (The Handsome Belai) was (and still is) a moving popular song of dissent against the hanging of the awesome patriot. The debate is still lingering.
I recall the issue openly resurfaced at the breakout of the Ethiopian revolution of 1974. Some who were not even born at the time wanted to make cheap political gain out of the sad episode that has haunted the Monarch throughout His reign. I was later to learn that dignitaries of Shewa were shocked and profoundly sorry to the extent that they distanced themselves from the Emperor blaming Him for not commuting the death sentence to imprisonment. That gross error of political judgment no doubt haunted the Monarch throughout His reign and caused occasional division between the Amharas of Godjam and Shewa provinces. But the fact of the matter is that nobilities from both provinces presided over the verdict to sentence Belai Zeleke to death.
Ironically, Brigadier Mengistu Neway met similar fate of being hung at Teklehaimanot public square in Merkato for his role as a leader of the coup d’etât in December 1960 to topple the Emperor. It is said that the General when he was a young officer supervised the execution of Shegaw Belai. A senior officer who was guarding the General for 93 nights said that he was in relaxed mood throughout and only regretted killing the old man, His Highness Ras Seyoum Mengesha of Tigrai at the Guenete Leul Palace. On the eve of his hanging, the General requested his keeper to make sure that the noose of the rope is well placed around his throat so that he won’t suffer in the same way as Belai Zeleke. The General’s body was up on the gallows for only one day and thank God the practice of hanging in public squares gradually disappeared.
The Derg and TPLF regimes
These two Stalinist regimes differ only in the degree of their brutalities, gross violation of basic human rights, and mismanagement of the national economy. They both stand accused for ushering in Marxist ideology to a domain of overwhelmingly peasant society with negligible industrial base and therefore to which the ideology could not apply according to its author, Karl Marx. In their lust for power, they pitted the children of peasant class in fratricidal war which claimed the lives of thousands not to mention colossal damage to the national economy and the fabric of society.
By whatever name one wishes to call him, Meles fits the description of: a traitor who has willfully dismembered Ethiopia and left her landlocked; an executioner of innocent protesters; perpetrator of genocide in various parts of Ethiopia; incarcerator of tens of thousands; robber of votes in broad daylight; jailor of victors in the historic election of 15 May 2005; perpetrator of ethnic-based politics endangering the unity not only of Ethiopia but also potentially disruptive to the policy of the African Union; guilty of the crime of ceding Ethiopian lands to the Sudan, Djibouti and dubious investors; guilty of rampant corruption; guilty of tightening the political space thus denying peaceful competition. Ad infinitum.
Meles has earned the disrepute of being the worst dictator in the world. He excels Mengitu Hailemariam by far in the magnitude of his heinous crimes and treason. Mengistu in my opinion is the most cowardly dictator who fled the country living his big and well equipped army in the lurch thus living the gate wide open for an invading Agazi forces of TPLF to enter Addis Ababa.
It seems that it is in the nature of Meles to be second to none in evil despotic practices and lust for power. As it were, power corrupts; when it is in the hands of brute dictators like him, it corrupts absolutely. The irony of it all is that some Western powers chose to condone his excesses in preference to their short-term political interest over morale imperative, thus abdicating the tenets of democracy which these powers keep on preaching to the rest of the world.
Meles is a known quantity made vivid by his heinous crimes. His crimes will increase because he has closed all avenues for a peaceful democratic change. He has therefore in effect declared in advance his TPLF party the winner of election 2010. There is no sense in contesting in an election with a foregone conclusion. There can never be a fair and free democratic election as long as long as Meles is in power. His rampant breach of his so-called constitution is the norm rather than an exception. In a nutshell, trust between the Ethiopian people and the TPLF regime with him at the helm has completely broken.
Consequently the grand question is not whether to evict TPLF regime from power in order to end its misrule; it is rather how soon and by what means to end it at same time ensuring that no more dictators will rule our country ever again. This is admittedly a formidable challenge! It calls for courageous paradigm shift on the part of opposition forces for the sake of defeating the Meles regime which has completely closed the political space for any dialogue.
History will bear me out that rivalry for power attributed to major ethnic groups in Ethiopia has caused havoc to orderly development in democratic culture and economic prosperity. The elites of the present generation have it in their power to stop the trend of such petty rivalries and political intolerance. The time is propitious for the young generation of Ethiopians to forge unity in cultural diversity.
I was told that just before about to be hanged Shegaw Belai stomped the ground with his feet and cursed the Ethiopian soil not to give birth to heroes again. It is my ardent belief that his soul has forgiven us because Ethiopian heroes and heroines are mushrooming everywhere in Ethiopia and in the Diaspora. More importantly the young generation assiduously wants independence, peace, democracy, unity and prosperity for which the renowned patriot fought and Birtukan Midekssa, Teddy Afro and thousands of political prisoners suffer in congested rodent-infested jails throughout Ethiopia.
The tide is turning in favor of enhanced respect for human rights. TPLF is panicking. The onus is on us the enslaved to keep the pressure on TPLF until it is forced to relinquish power.
God give us the wisdom and courage to learn from our past mistakes of political intolerance.
LONG LIVE THE SPIRIT OF 15 MAY 2005!
JUSTICE FOR MARTYRS AND VICTIMS OF 15 MAY 2005!
LONG LIVE ETHIOPIA!!!
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