He is one of the Ethiopia’s oldest working journalists. He is the editor of the weekly English version of the Ethiopia Reporter. He heads to the Reporter’s office every Friday morning to make a final touch at the articles that come out on the paper the next day. “I edit everything that is available, whatever is presented until 5 o’clock. Later than that, I come back home. I get tired. Another editor takes over,” he says.
Yakob Wolde-Mariam had edited two dailies and three monthlies before finally leaving the Ministry of Information in September 1993 after 34 years of service. He then briefly worked for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs editing the foreign office diplomatic journal. His enthusiasm for the trade still continues freelancing for a private paper. “I’m still a journalist. I still enjoy working although newspapers aren’t the fun they used to be. I think the fun has been the best thing and working with some great colleagues,” he says.
His career spans the imperial, Derg and the current regimes and he says the leaders have all contributed their own due share for the advancement of the country. As he puts it, Haile Selassie built on modern foundation a larger land with most of the facilities of modern technological life. “Menghistu Haile Mariam, despite the human carnage associated with his name-reduced the edifice of feudalism to dust and Meles Zenawi created peace in Ethiopia for the first time in its long history,” Yakob wrote in his autobiography. His brief memoir shows he is raconteur with a constant stream of reminiscences, anecdotes and stories.
How does he respond to those who criticise him of working for the ruthless military regime and writing editorials praising the ‘revolutionary leader’? “I didn’t see anything wrong with socialism. I am still a socialist. Not a revolutionary socialism but a democratic socialism. But I have not fundamentally opposed to the system. Communism can’t be practically applied in this country. 99 percent of the people are still ignorant. Religion is strong. How can you build communism in this country?” he asks.
Yet Yakob admits that the year 1974 was marking the beginning of the decline and fall of Ethiopian journalism. He explains: ” With ‘and I quote’ and ‘emphasis mine’, the radio and newspapers were becoming the dumping grounds of trash masquerading as boringly long research papers prepared by the streetwise.”
That period was also characterized by intimidation and penalties. He recalls about an incident in which he and other editors such as Baalu Girma were forced to pay from their salary for many months for the government cars they were given as gift by the previous government. The story was this. On 23 July 1973, on the occasion of the Emperor’s eightieth birthday –and the last he was to celebrate as ruler- three dozen journalists, including most of the editors of the country, were commanded to the palace where the Emperor thanked them for the special coverage of the birthday anniversary. He told them they could keep the government cars in their possessions as a reward for the good job they had done. Yakob kept a Volkswagen which is still stationed in his compound. When the military regime took power, and looked at the matter in a different light and accused the editors for possessing the cars in a shady and corrupt way. They were told to repay the money, at a time when journalists were badly paid for their work. Yakob and his colleagues were not pleased. But they had no choice.
Many of the people who had worked with Yakob held him with great esteem. One called him ‘a true gentleman’. Another ‘a great editor’. There are others who say he is a brilliant writer but not a good journalist. He lacked simplicity and straightforwardness in his editorials and his newspaper articles. Yakob himself admitted while writing editorial for the Ethiopian Herald, he was using such “obscurant phrases” merely intended to circumvent censorship. Like the ‘Sword of Damocles’ hanging over Ethiopia and officials finding themselves in the “arms of Morpheus” in reference to the hidden famine of the 1970’s.
Yakob was born in Nakamte, Wollega, on June 19, 1929 to Wolde-Marim Shuba Leka and Wolete-Mikael Senebeto Garba, to whom he was second son. His father comes from a well-known Oromo clan, the Ghida. Yakob was brought to Addis Ababa by his cousin, who was engaged in the burnouse trade. He joined the Haile- Selassie I Secondary School Kotobe School in 1945, two years after the school was opened.
He was interested in music and he became one of the few students to attend a weekly piano class under a young Armenian lady near the Trinity Cathedral. “An Eritrean friend of mine was learning playing violin under the Italian. Both of us had at one time rehearsed for weeks a Mozart duet to be staged for the Emperor at the Grand Palace at prize-giving ceremony,” he recalls.
He said that he grew up “with no thought at all” of becoming a journalist but getting a scholarship to United Kingdom was what did it, he says. In 1950 he went to London to study electrical engineering at the Kingston-upon-Thames Technical College, living in the Surbiton neighbourhood of London, a city which, as he recalled, was stunningly beautiful. His own days were filled with studies, visits to bookshops, music and amateur theatre, and evenings spent at pubs enjoying British beer –“which is an excellent sober drink of diverse make” with compatriots debating everything from the future of Ethiopia and reading Omar Khayyam and bringing a Finish girl to his room once or twice a week.
“During my two years stay at Earl Courts, I cultivated a great love for journalism by reading newspapers. Right from my arrival in London in 1950, I had cultivated a taste for the Observer, the then Manchester guardian,”
Upon returning home, he joined the Ethiopian Herald as sub-editor in 1959 replacing an African-American journalist who was leaving for home. He succeeded David A.Talbot in 1960 to become editor-in-chief for a little over one year.
He practised writing in the Herald under his own name, mostly translating Emperor Haile Selassie’s speeches, which would come beautifully hand-written with a ‘Lion of Judah’ seal at the head of the each page. He had also written several anonymous articles praising the Emperor-or admiring constitutional monarchy – “to strengthen my precarious position in the Ministry of Information.”
However, his editorship of the Ethiopian Herald ended abruptly in 1961 when he was fired suddenly by the officials of the Ministry of Information who were unnerved by his criticism the rumour circulating in the city after the 1960 coup d’état on ‘lack of information’. He had also praised the Great October Revolution as a significant event in the history of mankind-in a signed article when the editorial was censored.
In 1963 that he joined the Voice of Ethiopia as its editor and later worked for Menen and Addis Reporter magazines. When those publications were closed, he was transferred to the publications division of the press department. “I was writing satirical articles for the Ethiopian Herald from 1971 to the first two months of 1974 simply because its editor –who had the recently arrived from the US, had begged me to do so to make the Sunday issue more popular because I had always thrived in an atmosphere,” he says.
In 1970, Yakob faced a mini revolt as two senior staff, resigned from Addis Reporter, an English-language weekly magazine, that he was editing. Addis Reporter, although not exactly his own baby, was also a very popular weekly until it set out to be a more sober monthly. First launched under the editorship of the renowned journalist and novelist, Baalu Girma, the magazine had professional journalists working on it, including Gedamu Abraha, Solomon Deressa. “Technically and professionally, the magazine was highly competent” Yakob admits. When Baalu was fired and replaced by Yakob, it was not an easy relationship with the two accomplished writers. Yakob wanted the magazine to be more sober and less critical. Arguments between them would end with the two walking out of the office. “If I were shirking my own editorial responsibilities I had, of course, nowhere else to go, aside from being thrown into the streets to explore the mortifying experience of beggary,” Yakob says.
Yakob is not a great fan of Baalu Girma, whom he said did not strike him as particularly notable editor. Yakob says Baalu was glamourizing prostitution in an article that he used to publish in Menen magazine but acknowledges that the late journalist and author was very good at organizing journalists for the production of newspapers and magazines. He regarded Baalu as a novelist who unfairly satirized his own friends and colleagues, as he did in “The Call of Red Star. Ghedamu Abraha was depicted as mad man and Kebede Anisa and Yakob himself were mocked and ridiculed. “It was pity, however, as I had said at the time, that one has to thrust one’s finger into the fire to learn that it burned-as he did with ‘Oromai’ and perished by ridiculing (Unlike journalists) those in power who were taking very seriously,” Yakob wrote.
Yakob praises Ahadou Saboure who he said was the greatest Ethiopian journalist who was wielding the most powerful pen in the country until he was shoved aside in 1961. “Ahadou made the Amharic version of L’Ethiopie d’Aujourd’hui a forum of intellectual debate by attracting versatile and provocative writers” he says.
Yakob also admired and wrote about the formidable journalist-and later novelist-Berhanu Zerihun who he said was “a man of inexhaustible ideas and energy who was taking journalism very seriously as profession with a mission.”
Asked about the current state of the media and young journalists, Yakob says he finds it hard to be appreciative. “It is terrible. I mean they (young reporters) are not even interested in learning English. You know, you edit something, you correct certain mistakes. Next week, the week after, they make the same error. They don’t even read what was written. That is the tragedy in Ethiopia.
Yakob has ten children and one of his daughters is working for the Ethiopian Reporter.