Tell me about your stay in Strasbourg where you did your doctoral studies. Being black and Jew in France, how was it like?
In France, it was different. There were strong Jewish communities there and I’ve never felt any prejudice there. There were some incidents, of course. For instance, once in Strasbourg, where there was a large Jews community, someone at the entrance of a synagogue asked me where I came from and what I was doing there. This is Jews temple, he told me. When I told him that I was a Jew, his response was, “Vous. C’est pas possible.” (You a Jew, that isn’t be possible). And I had to tell him that I was joking. For him, there were French Jews who survived from Shoah, Polish or German Jewish, but to see a black who said he was Jewish did not correspond with his vision.
So when you returned to Ethiopia, you were assigned to work at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. You said you went to see Dr. Tesfaye Gebreezgi. That was the start of your diplomatic career?
Yes. I sat for an exam with other educated people. They gave us lots of questions about the Red Sea, Eritrea’s future and Ethiopia’s role, how the country could save itself from the threats here and there. I mean, it was very interesting. People wrote three or four pages. I think in an hour, I wrote eighteen or twenty pages. It was a flow, something I knew. Particularly I put the issue of Djibouti. One issue that might bring us and how to deal with that. Dr. Tesfaye was very happy. (Dr. Tesfaye studied at Cornell University, he had a PHD from there. He was Ethiopia’s permanent representative at the UN for many years.) He brought me to meet his boss, Ato Ketema who said this was the problem that they had and told me to start the following day. I started in the African Department under Ambassador Mengiste Desta. I became the specialist related to Djibouti. I forwarded my idea that that there was nothing that said that when France left it would go to Ethiopia. But because of the good relationship, we had to make sure that Charles de Gaul understood that he was the only one who could sign an agreement with Emperor Haile Selassie or give a letter of intention or a letter of support that if there was this situation where Djibouti would become independent, to make sure that it didn’t included in Somalia. That Ethiopia had a natural and overwhelming national interest and that in the past the Vichy government of France has blocked all the armament that Ethiopia needed to defend itself against. Because of that in terms of offsetting that establishing a new relationship between France and Ethiopia, we should have that approach. And I think finally they reported that to Emperor Haile Selassie. De Gaulle already said that France’s preference was for Djibouti to become part and parcel of Ethiopia. When he resigned on 1969, he was replaced by Pompidou who launched what they called “la politique arabe de la France”, mostly motivated by France’s focus on Arab countries markets. Somalia became member of the Arab League and Somalia was claiming Ogaden and Djibouti. The French didn’t want to get involved there. So finally, we didn’t know how to handle that. At that time Ahadu Sabure (renowned journalist) was Ethiopia’s Ambassador to Djibouti. He was sending letters to Addis Ababa saying he had had enough, after five years of service there. Ahadu’s attribute was that he was half-Somalia as his mother was Somalia. He spoke Somalia. When he left, he recommended that I should replace him.
And then, Ahadu was summoned by Prime Minister Endalkachew Mekonnen and was assigned as Minister of Information. Then Endalkachew urged me to go to Djibouti as an ambassador. I would indeed be interested to go on the condition that a new policy was drafted because my worry was that the uprising against the Emperor was on full swing and the military was busy in different fronts and the country was becoming friable. When I was in the process of preparing the new policy, Endalkachew was thrown into prison. Then the military took over and at that time the Djibouti issue became urgent as Somalia started attacking Ethiopia. So it was at his time that I assumed my duties as an ambassador there.
Did the Derg officials set out a plan for the future of Djibouti?
Not actually. Some of the Derg officials asked what we would do with Djibouti. Some of them had a fixation on annexing Djibouti. Djibouti is ours, they said. I told them it was not ours yet we would try to make it ours, if we followed a very good internal policy. I really worked hard with the French to make sure that Djibouti would never join Somalia when France would grant it its independence. So what was decided was Djibouti would have a guaranteed independence, guarantee from Ethiopia, guarantee from Somalia. Each could involve in military intervention if the other should threaten Djibouti’s independence. Since the Somali population had long dominated the territory’s politics, this agreement was a triumph for Ethiopia. All we wanted was an international agreement which allowed Ethiopia to intervene in case of military intervention from Somalia. The Somalians raised hell, saying it was neo-colonialism.
When Somali declared full-scale war against Ethiopia, I was busy sending information to Addis Ababa. I established some good contacts and I had two deputies, one Issa and another Afar working for me. One of the deputies was trying to garner the support of Afar population and the other that of the Issa. Because we were telling them that Ethiopia was their ancestral home for both ethnic groups. When the referendum was conducted on June 1977, even though Somalia was overwhelming, because, many Somalians infiltrated into the country to change the result of the referendum. We did the same on our side, making the people on the border area vote but not as much as the Somalis. Finally, the country voted for independence. And the French said that Djibouti would be a sovereign state and that would be guaranteed by the United Nations. They tried to seek a more harmonious relationship between the two ethnic groups, and it was decided that the president would be from the majority, Issa and the deputy from Afar, an arrangement which is not changed to this day. That way there was a balance. Our policy was finally a success in making sure that Djibouti didn’t go to Somalia. Of course today, Somalia itself is in precarious situation.
What is your recollections of Ketema Yifru who was Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1971–1974?
Ketema Yifru was the new generation foreign minister. Young, educated, devoted to the Emperor, but with that devotion, what I saw was that, he could convince easily the Emperor to have an independent foreign policy from the Americans. He pushed the Emperor for non-alignment, not to call Washington to say shall we vote this way or that way. The Emperor by definition, by historical and natural inclination was a reactionary person and he was natural ally to America. And yet he became non-aligned. What does that mean? The country was aligned neither with the American nor with the Soviet, the two blocks. It was a great success for Ketema Yifru. It was like having the patriarch of Ethiopia pray with the Muslim head. Ethiopia depended on America on everything. Yet the non-alignment policy was not to support the Americans or the Soviets. And the Emperor liked Ketema very much. Is it because he was from Harar also? May be. But he was competent and he had an astute tactical mind. He brought Dr. Tesfaye Gebreezgi from New York to Addis Ababa. So the foreign office became an office of young intellectual people. The speeches that we prepared for the Emperor, when he was at the advanced age of 75, 80 were dynamic. There were conservative noblemen who were saying why these young people are making the Emperor say such things. Talking about his commitment to Africa and its plights. Africa this, Africa that. Ketema Yifru took advantage of the emperor to advance his pan African’s views. One example, I remember was at meeting at the Organization of the African Unity when he attacked Ian Smith of the Rhodesia (today’s Zimbabwe) who unilaterally declared independence from Britain in 1965 and for several years fought a bitter war against African nationalist guerrillas. Ketema Yifru openly condemned British government and the Ethiopian nobility who were at the meeting were flabbergasted. They went to the Emperor to let him that his minister had the audacity to insult the Emperor’s ally, Great Britain. “You’re getting old and this kids are turning you around,” one of the nobles who would say to the Emperor. But the Emperor remained firm and told the nobles that, “we have to stand with African countries.”
How long did you stay in Djibouti? Where did you after that?
Three years. After Djibouti I came to Addis Ababa and I continued working for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I served as head of the African and Middle East department for a year. After that, President Mengistu asked me to go to Rome as an Ambassador. And I asked why. Because, he said, we had problem there with Eritrean and Tigran liberation movements freely roaming there and we wanted you to establish friendly relationship with the Italian government to stop that. Mengistu said he knew I spoke Italian. It was true I studied Italian in Bologna for a while.
When was this?
So the Red Terror wasn’t over yet.
It was not. I felt very bad for the country because young people were killed left and right. I personally refused to be member of Meison (the Amharic acronym for the All-Ethiopia Socialist Movement).Haile Fida who felt anybody who put his foot in France for at least twenty-four hours had to be member of the Meison urged me many time to join the party. (Haile Fida was a pro-Derg intellectual who studied in France and served as leader of the Ethiopian Student Movement in Europe). In our student days in France, I was arguing with him and others and I was saying that Ethiopia needed parliamentary monarchy, not Marxist revolution. I argued saying that the point which rallied all of was the Emperor. But anyway I was hurt by the fact that things turned violent and this one was killing the other one, because of part differences. It was a pity.
You were transferred to Italy? Who was the ambassador in Rome before you?
There wasn’t ambassador for some time. The last one was Zewde Reta during the Emperor’s time who left the post after the change of government and decided to stay in exile.
So, I left for Rome with my wife and children. ….You know we did a good job. There was famine back home and I made sure that I got a lot of food aid to Ethiopia. Some of it was apparently sold while it was in the middle of the sea, though it was transported by Ethiopian ship.
One thorny issue was the Eritrean Liberation Front (EPLF) had an office in Rome, with its flag flying which was against the international law. When I enquired left and right, I was told that the EPLF people had some good networks in the Italian foreign office, some of the Italian officials were born in Asmara during the colony’s time.
I went to the foreign office and met the Foreign Minister to discuss with him on the issue. I first thanked him for all the assistance they provided to us. And I raised about EPLF office with its flag. Have you recognized the republic of Eritrea? I asked him and he said he was not aware of it. Then I dropped some names of his staff who were born in Eritrea and who were ostensibly backing the scessionasit movement, based on my information. Within a week, the office was closed. There was also another TPLF office, which they were using to collect money from their supporters. It was also closed. So during my stay in Rome for four years, from 1978-82, I made it difficult the free movement of the secessionist groups. Only individuals were coming and going like Isaias Afewerki who had an Iraqi diplomatic passport. I couldn’t do anything about it. Meles used to come also.
How did your term at Rome come to an end?
I had a problem with a certain cadre who was working at the embassy and was urging me join the Workers’ Party of Ethiopia, known then as Isepa. I categorically refused. I told him that I was a career diplomat and I was working for my country, and I was not obliged to be member of Isepa. Then things got serous and I fired this cadre and he went back to Ethiopia, an act that infuriated his bosses in Addis Ababa. Then a decision came from Addis that I was replaced by a loyal member of the party, a certain Girma. That was my departure with the government, who later accused me of forsaking “the revolution”.
I decided to stay in Rome and I started working for General Electric as consultant, which I did for five years. Then I was moved to New York and worked for the same company for a year. Then, I joined Hunger Project, an international NGO that works that mobilizes and empowers local people to meet all their basic needs on a sustainable basis. The projects’ board of directors was Javier Pérez de Cuéllar (the fifth Secretary-General of the United Nations for two terms from 1982 to 1991.) I started out as Director for Africa, and after two years I became the Vice President of Africa Programmes until my retirement in 2010.
(Dr. Fitigu today lives in Addis Ababa with his wife and children and often travels to New York where he keeps an apartment there. The person who arranged this interview for me was his daughter, Yodit Fitigu who herself in an interesting person. She is researcher with a background in socio-cultural anthropology working in the humanitarian and development sectors. She is an expert in migration including, labor migration, human trafficking, and mixed migration. Yodit has worked extensively in Ethiopia, Niger, Haiti, Peru, and Georgia.)
Tell me about your stay in Strasbourg where you did your doctoral studies. Being black and Jew in France, how was it like?