By Ayalew Mandefro
It was in the late fifties continuing into the sixties when “the wind of change ” began to blow strongly across the continent of Africa. The sixties was a special decade because the torch of freedom and independence was cascading rapidly from one African country to the other, as the shackles of colonialism kept and continue to do so until we all witness the burial of the last vestige of colonialism with the impending independence by the fact that one eminent Ethiopian will not be around to witness when Nelson Mandela will soon be extolled at the helm of Independent South Africa. This Ethiopian is none other than great Ethiopian and an avowed pan-Africanist, who passed away last week in Addis Abeba. Ironically, some thirty years ago, when the white South African security force apprehended Nelson Mandela, two articles were confiscated from his pocket; one, was the memento from Emperor Haile Selassie and the other was a small photo of Ketema Yifru which Mandela kept from his days in Ethiopia.
Ketema’s death may evoke many different memories for everyone who remembers him, be it in Ethiopia or elsewhere. To those of us who closely followed the path of his career and worked with him, we remember him most for the brilliant achievements he garnered both for himself and for Ethiopia when serving his country as foreign minister for more than a full decade. After all, that was enjoying great respect for their achievements and visionary thinking, both domestically and internationally. Those were the days when all Africans were in upbeat mode, many of them dazed with exuberant celebrations on the occasion of their newly acquired independence. Dignitaries of all shades from every African state were crisscrossing the continent, the first time for most of them, to attend these celebrations. Ethiopia too was in the take of those happy periods; dies one remember when Prince Sahle Selassie was sent to Accra representing Emperor Haile Selassie for the occasion of Ghana’s independence celebration in 1957?
It was because of the very causes Leading to these happy events that Ketema should all the more be remembered. It was he, more than any Ethiopian foreign minister in memory, who astutely, diligently, indefatigably and with a dedicated sense of politically nationalistic support, escorted most of the African freedom movement fighters, Later turned Leader, during their trying period of political struggles en-route to independence. Taking arduous trips, from Algeria to Southern Africa or from Guinee Bissau across to neighboring Kenya, it was Ketema’s unending diplomatic initiatives in Africa, not to mention his other efforts outside Africa that helped Ethiopia achieve a most successful foreign policy during the eventful period of the sixties. His work schedules at headquarters attested to no lesser task of activities; typically, Monday might be meeting with Amilcar Cabral, a week later was Nyerere, Kaunda was on continuing on and on, as the retinue of distinguished Africans visiting Ketema’s office kept on coming.
For Ketema, these series of meetings with his African counterparts were terribly important as they served him well in shaping Ethiopia’s foreign policy. It was the cumulative experience he gained from such meetings that helped him most in playing a leading role in the African political landscape of the sixties during which period Ethiopia was crowned to seat the headquarters of the Organization of African Unity. It was an enviable prize with which Ketema was closely identified with French-backed Senegal. Needless to mention, Ketema’s diplomatic performances and participation in the non-aligned movements and in the Group of Seventy Seven are not to be underestimated for his contributions to their respective deliberations be it in Belgrade, Bandung, Cairo, United Nations, Montevideo, etc. In point of fact, for a long time, Ketema Yifru was a household name that appeared daily with high regard and affection in the news media throughout Africa. At one time, even figures like J. Wachuku, the ebullient external minister of the Nigerian Federation, had gone to the extent of refusing to greet any Ethiopian he met after hearing the news that his friend Ketema Yifru had been detained by the Derg.
It was under such background that Ketema’s professional talent and his individual character as a person came to the limelight of outside observers. To begin with, he was a great communicator with people both socially as well as in an official capacity. Apparently, his Ethiopian schoolmates recognized this in early times at Wisconsin and Boston Universities where Ketema received his higher education. In the late fifties, serving for three years as vice-minister in the politically charged post of the Ministry of Pen, Ketema distinguished himself with exceptional political acumen in Ethiopia’s intricate domestic politics. He used to say how important his work in this ministry meant to him by way of grasping first-hand knowledge that he felt to have missed in his youth and about which, his uncle, Ato Teklu, used to narrate for him on the unique traditional system of administration practiced in the Ethiopian Imperial Court. During the fascist occupation of Ethiopia, uncle Teklu and Ketema both lived together in exile with other Ethiopian refugees first, in Menchasein, Somaliland, and later at Taveta, Kenya.
As a person, Ketema always behaved in a humble and disarmingly simple manner with a special knack of imparting a relaxing gesture even to officials who are noted to personify stiff protocol. I can understand that, at times, his behavior may give away somewhat of an impatient if not flippant impression, to someone who encounters Ketema for the first time. This perception, however, is a superficial element and eludes a lot of his enduring qualities. His colleagues have watched Ketema chairing a large conference or a special political committee’s work in a ten to twelve ours marathon session without budging one bit and in perfect control of the conduct of those meetings. Ketema has also been known as an
avid reader of history. His friends could hardly cope with supplying him with reading materials when he remained under detention by the Derg for eight years. Incidentally, in spite of being robbed eight years of his productive life and the separation from his family, Ketema came out of detention, more mellowed and with no vengeance to speak of. He just looked fresh and ready to resume serving his country. However, the prevailing circumstances obtaining Ethiopia did
not offer him with such an opportunity. His wealth of knowledge and experience would have served well in the need of present-day Ethiopia. Instead, Ketema opted to serve the African peoples by joining the World Food Program of the United Nations Agency first, at the headquarters in Rome and later on in Nairobi, where he worked as an international civil servant until his retirement last October. Three months ago he returned to his home in Addis Abeba where he fell ill and passed away two weeks ago.
In bidding farewell to Ketema, all his friends and especially his former colleagues, bow to him with their highest respect and immense appreciations for his lasting contributions to the well
being of Ethiopia and to his fellow compatriots.
We, friends of Ketema would also like to express deepest condolences to his surviving wife Rahel, his sons, Mulugeta, Yohannes, Mikael, and Mekonnen during their day of mourning. May God rest their father’s soul in peace.
Ayalew Mandefro is a former Ethiopian Ambassador to the United States.