By Amb. Kadafo Mohamed Hanfare
Sultan Ali Mirah Hanfare (1921 – 2011) was born in Awsa, Ethiopia in a village called Fursee. He was born to father, Hanfare Aydahis and mother Hawy Omar In the early 1920s. His grandfather Mohammed Hanfare Illalta was a famous king of Afar who participated in the Adwa battle with the Emperor Minilik against the Italians. He also defeated the invading Egyptian army led by Ismail Basha to conquer Ethiopian lands. Sultan Alimirah himself, as a young man in Awsa, joined the group of young Ethiopians who resisted the Italian occupation of Ethiopia. After the defeat of Italy by the Ethiopians, Sultan Alimirah together with his brother in law Yayo Hamadu were amongst the Afar people who welcomed the victorious return of the Emperor HaileSelassie in Addis Ababa.
At that time Mohamed Yayo, the uncle of Sultan Alimirah, was the Sultan of Awsa. The Afar elders, however, including Yayo Hamadu, suggested that the young Alimirah replace his uncle as Amoyta (Sultan). Emperor HaileSelassie accepted their recommendation and gave the title of Dajazmach to Sultan Alimirah and the title of Fitawrare to his brother-in-law Yayo Hamadu. He also gave them a well trained brigade from his bodyguard army, headed by a general in case Sultan Mohamed resisted to handover power to his nephew. After several days of journeying, they arrived in Aysaita in the dark of the night. They spent the night in Aysaita while Sultan Alimirah stayed behind. Fitawrari Yayo Hamadu and his followers together with the trained military officers who accompanied them, left for Hinale, where the palace of Sultan Mohamed was located. The next morning, however, the resistance they were faced with was not as expected. They found Sultan Mohamed sick on his bed. So the military officers who accompanied Sultan Alimirah took Sultan Mohammed to Addis Ababa while Hamadu stayed behind.
In 1945, Sultan Alimirah officially became the Amoyta (Sultan) of the Afar people. What happened to Sultan Mohamed Yayo, however, is a story that will be discussed some other time.
After becoming the Sultan, Alimirah was faced with several challenges. His aim was to create a peaceful and united environment for all Ethiopians everywhere, and for the Afar people, in particular. He worked to bring modern education, agricultural and economical development to the towns in Awsa. Towards the end of the 1960s Awsa became a prosperous area in Ethiopia. A lot of Afars became cotton farmers and settled in Aysaita, Dubti, Baadu and Daat Bahari. Many Ethiopians from the other regions also became farmers and settled in several areas of the Afar region. The sultan established The Awsa Farmers Association and borrowed money from the Addis Ababa bank, whose general manager, Ato Debebe Yohanes, was the his personal friend. Together they invested a lot of money in Awsa and the Baadu areas, also distributing money amongst farmers. At that time, Awsa was known as the “little Kuwait” because of its prosperity.
In 1974 when the Derg took power in Addis Ababa and invaded Awsa in June of that year, the sultan left behind over 60 tractors, 8 bulldozers and 3 Cessna planes. One of the three Cessna planes was piloted by the Sultan’s cousin, a trained Afar pilot by the name of Hanfare Ali Gaz.
Seventeen years later when Derg was defeated and the sultan returned to Ethiopia none of those things existed anymore, several people had been killed and many things destroyed. The sultan tried to start from scratch but things were very tough.
In 1972, Sultan Alimirah was invited to visit the USA by the USAID through the State Department visitors program. I was one of the 3 Afars who was fortunate to accompany his highness the Sultan. Myself, his personal assistant Ali Ibrahim Yusef, his personal advisor, Hashim Jamal Ashami, interpreter, the sultan himself and the state department escort all visited 15 states during our stay.
One of the 15 states we visited was Chicago, Illinois, were the sultan visited operation push, later called the Rainbow coalition which was led by Jesse Jackson, a well known African American activist at that time. When the Sultan arrived there, he was given a standing ovation as he talked about the Ethiopian history and his admiration of the leadership of Emperor HaileSelassie. The sultan was extremely impressed by this. The Sultan also visited, Elijah Mohamed, leader of “The Black Muslims” at that time and also met several state department officials. On our visit to Lubbock, Texas, we were given Honorary American citizenship by the mayor of the city.
The American government, and the American people we visited with the late sultan were very welcoming and greeted us with great hospitality. The sultan expressed his extreme gratitude to the government of America and its people to the United States Ambassador in Addis Ababa at that time. Very impressed with his visit, he called America the land of “milk and healthy young people.”
As we went to the different states, the sultan was constantly asking if any Ethiopians lived there. In those days, however, not many Ethiopian lived in the States, but we met many students at the several universities we visited. Forty-five days later the sultan left to visit London while I stayed behind to continue my education at the American University in Washington D.C. After His visit to London the Sultan returned back home.
In 1974, when the Derg came to power, Sultan Ali Mirah, being the reasonable man that he was, tried to reach some kind of understanding with the Derg leaders. Briefly he did succeed in reaching an understanding with the Derg when General Amman Andom was the leader. Unexpectedly, however, the Derg killed General Amman Andom and over 60 Ethiopian officials overnight. After that it became clear to him that it was impossible for him to work with them. The Sultan left Ethiopia through Djibouti to settle in Saudi Arabia, where King Khalid welcomed him and fifty of his followers.
During his stay in Saudi Arabia, he established The Afar Liberation Front (ALF) that was fighting the Derg regime for 17 years alongside TPLF, OLF, ELF, EPLF and several other Ethnic groups fighting against the Derg dictatorship.
In 1991, after the fall of the Derg dictatorship, the sultan returned to Ethiopia and attended the July 1991 Conference together with his two sons Hanfare and Ahmed Alimirah as representatives of ALF and the rest of the Afar people. I attended the conference as an Observer.
At the opening of the conference, the Sultan discovered that the Eritrean leaders did not wish to participate in the conference as representatives but as observers. This he later understood was because of their wish to create a separate nation. This was new to the sultan as he believed that after fighting Derg for so long, that they all had the same intention of creating a peaceful, democratic, united country with equality for all, but he was alarmed to see that this wasn’t the case. To argue the point with the rest of the conference members, he raised his hand to be recognized and to state his opinion. When the chairman refused to recognize his presence and allow him to speak, the sultan grabbed a microphone from beside him and said:
In my opinion this conference was not to dismember Ethiopia but to unite Ethiopia. A conference that discusses how to achieve, equality,justice,democracy and good governance for all Ethiopians. The Ethiopian people expect us to come out of this conference with a new government and democracy not two different nations.”
Isaias Afwerki, then leader of Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, stormed out of the room in anger.
The sultan then continued by saying that, “if Eritreans were allowed a referendum for their future that Ethiopians should also be allowed to decide, voices of the Afar people should have particular significance, as a part of Afar land was part of the Eritrean province. He also claimed that he never wished to see Ethiopia landlocked.”
The sultan lived everyday for Ethiopian unity and his loss was mourned by all of Ethiopia and neighboring countries.
I would like to take this opportunity as a dear family member and a dear friend of the sultan to thank all of those who have expressed their condolences through various means. I would like to personally assure all Ethiopians that we, the family of the Sultan – The Afar people, will follow in his footsteps and work for the peace and unity of the Ethiopian People!
(The writer can be reached at Kadafoh@hotmail.com)