In our third instalment, the renowned journalist and diplomat talks about his appointment as minister of information which lasted less than three months, and governorship of the Haraghe province before his detainment by the military regime.
Minister of Information for less than three months
Finally, in 1974, in the midst of the popular uprising, I joined the cabinet of Prime Minister Endalkachew Mekonen as minister of information. When Endalkachew approached me of the appointment, I told him, I had worked in the ministry for eleven years and I had a problem with its guiding principles. The newspapers, the radio, the TV were all owned by the government and it was clearly stated that you could not criticise the government. What then was I supposed to do there? If there was not some room for us journalists, to try to make the complaints of the people heard in the media, I could see no place for me there. There were people in the ministry who were better educated and experienced than me. They could pick any of those. But Endalkachew persisted with me so long. “No, rest assured that there are going to be improvements. As UK-educated person, I am firm believer in the freedom of the press and I will see it to that will be reforms.” Thus, having been assured, I relented and took up on the offer. In my capacity as minister, I made sure that the newspaper, radio, and TV operated with the more open policy of press freedom. People were beginning to express delight over the flicker of freedom breaking then. Yet this was not to last long. Endalkachew went back on his words and said “No, we need to have a measure of control.” But I stood firmly on my stance “No, I don’t want to operate within controlled space.” He said, “If you don’t believe in for restrain, I suggest that you resign. And resign, I did. I tendered my letter of resignation to the ministers of councils and left.
Back to Djibouti
I went to Djibouti. The Prime Minister had told me to come back and see him. That was why I went. I stayed there four months. Upon arriving there, I discovered that there was a huge supply of thousand tons of wheat, sorghum, medicine, clothing and blanket for drought affected population in Ethiopia. All this was stuck at the port, waiting for somebody to pick it up inland. I soon made this known to the Emperor through telegram. I even ordered a horse drawn carts or gari to transport. Finally, I managed to lift all the grain from the port. As I completed the task, revolution swept the country and Emperor Haile Selassie was deposed on September 12, 1974. General Aman Mikael Andom was chosen as Head of State.
Call of the Revolution
General Aman called me. I knew him in Djibouti while he was officer there, Major. After our meeting in Djibouti, I used to see him in Addis Ababa and got to know each other better. He invited me to join the new government. He told me that this was a great opportunity to put our reform idea to practice and these people (the military leaders) need all the support we could provide them. He said, “If we want the change to go smoothly, we all should our bit.” When Aman offered me governorship to Haraghe, my response to him was that, no I would rather not take up the post of governorship. Since I feel more confident in handling Djibouti and Somali affairs, I prefer to act as councillor. As for Hararge, it is better if you hand it over to other people. Yet he insisted that I take up the offer. So I relented and said if I am to be appointed for the task, it will be only for years’ time. Afterward, you will have to see another person. I took the offer on these terms, and worked for ten months. Even before my appointment, I had been informed of the increasing discord between the Derg and General Aman. Incidentally, I was being hospitalized in the Defence Force hospital. An American political councillor whom I met there told me of the big difference between the General and the young officers on the Eritrean issue. They were against Aman who said that “I have talked with Gaafar Muhammad an-Nimeiry of Sudan to settle the conflict in a peaceful manner. Nimeiry has promised that he would do the best. We have to seek peaceful solutions. The young officers were of the view the Eritrean war got prolonged because Haile Selassie government was becoming increasingly weak. We had to mobilize all our forces to strike the separatists. And to strike a heavy blow on them, a mechanized division has to come from Harar. This was what caused to conflict between them. As I left the hospital, I went to Sodere for hot water spa. It was then that I heard the news military government executed the 60 officials including General Aman who was killed in a shootout at his home. I was stunned yet as I have already taken the post. I just said let me give it a try. And I stayed.
Thrown into Prison
I held my post in Harargeh for few months. Everything was going smoothly, one day I heard heavy footsteps of the soldiers on my house. I ushered them in and three or four of them said, “We have a warrant to put you under arrest and take you to Addis Ababa. I asked why. “We are obeying orders. I got dressed and when I went out the premise was teeming with armed soldiers. What I found incredible was that a swarm of soldiers would come to capture an armed individual. I was put into the premise of Prince Makonnen where I spend the night. A police officer by the name Colonel Habtemariam “We have order to bring you to Addis Ababa accosted by soldiers. «I did not think it was imprisonment. In fact it was and it lasted eight years for a reason I still don’t know till now.
(photo: Ahadou in the center with the Begashaw family photo credit Boyadjian)