History has it all; the good, the bad and the ugly
Ethiopian diplomats. He lost his life, among 60 others, in the hands of the military junta that ruled Ethiopia for 17 years. While most nations around the world treasured their heroes, unfortunately, Ethiopia is being often noted for not honoring hers.
“If by killing us you could redeem Ethiopia from poverty, we then accept your action as a blessing,” said Aklilu Habtewold, the then Premier of Ethiopia, right before being taken away and shot to death on 24 November 1974.
That act has gone down in history as one of the ugliest faces of Ethiopian past. The essence of history as a science lies in people’s ability to learn from its past; build up on the good and denounce the bad. From his early days as a student in the French school in Alexandria, Egypt to his university days in France and then back home Aklilu thrived beyond the odds of time both in the economic and political fronts, writes Capital’s Pawlos Belete, in a bid to pay tribute to the late Premier up on his 100th birthday.
The following points are reviewed from the book entitled Aklilu Remembers. It is a book produced based on a written response of the Premier to the Inquiry Commission by the then military junta Derg, while he was on trial.
Establishment of a Central Bank:
The 1942 War Settlement Agreement between Ethiopia and Great Britain gave the impression that Ethiopia was a British Protectorate. Two years later after the signing of the agreement, the British were acting as if they were given a right of protectorate over Ethiopia. There was about 12 British Advisors in Ethiopia. They wanted to relocate the headquarters of the National Bank of Ethiopia (NBE)
to London. They further suggested that the bank’s board members should meet in London and be jointly nominated by the then King of Ethiopia and the Queen of Great Britain. They also wanted the Ethiopian government to deposit its gold reserves in London so that it can finance the printing of its own currency. Aklilu and his colleagues who were aware of the British intent argued otherwise. If by any means Ethiopia discontinued its friendship with Britain, the Brits could easily nationalize all of Ethiopia’s gold reserve. Thus, they totally rejected all the proposals of the advisors. After a long diplomatic wrangling, both sides agreed that the seat of the bank remains in Addis Ababa and the board members of the bank be appointed by Ethiopia. As a result, the National Bank of Ethiopia was established and a national currency started circulating. Until then Ethiopia was using the east African shilling.
The British refrained from giving up the Ethio-Djibouti railway line under the pretext that Britain was still participating in World War II and Ethiopia did not have qualified personnel to run the operations.
Ethiopians fought back saying that they will hire trained people. The British insisted that the handover will be practical when it is proved that Ethiopia has the capacity. With the view to use the railway as auxiliary in the war, Ethiopians had to cooperate with the British until such a time Ethiopia had its own trained men. The confrontation rolls on until 1946. At last, Ethiopians took over the management of the railway line with the diplomatic discussions led by Aklilu.
Establishment of Ethiopian Airlines:
As Ethiopia did not have its own airplanes and trained pilots, Aklilu requested the establishment of a joint airline venture with the USA. However, the Americans approached by Aklilu did not accept Aklilu’s request on the ground that no Ethiopian could be a pilot. Aklilu changed his mind and requested Emperor Haileseilassie I to buy the airplanes on credit and employ Transcontinental and Western Airlines on a yearly basis for the management of the airline. His effort paid back and Ethiopian Airlines started operation in 1946. Ethiopian Airlines is today an internationally accredited airline that flies with internationally accredited Ethiopian pilots and is fully managed by Ethiopians.
Britain insisted that Ogaden should not be handed over to Ethiopia due to an agreement it had with Italy and France to adjoin the British, French and Italian held Somaliland and Ogaden in to one solid
territory that would be administered under the British Commonwealth. “Ethiopia was the first victim of fascist Italy and the first to free itself from colonial grip. How come, you the British, who were our
main ally, change your mind now and get tempted to divide our country? I strongly protest and do not accept such a proposition,” replied Aklilu when he became aware of the British plot on Ethiopia behind the curtain.
He further exposed the plot to the Russians, Americans and French ambassadors. He did that because he was determined to get back Ogaden, to knock down the British idea of Greater Somalia and expose the British conspiracy against Ethiopia to other nations.
As a result of Aklilu’s determination, the British agreed with condition to handover Ogaden back to Ethiopia as follows: “As ally of the prosecution of the war, without prejudice of her sovereignty and until the end of the war, Ethiopia accepts placing Ogaden under the British military administration.”
As Ethiopia’s rejection of the British plan was a foregone conclusion, the British handed Ogaden back to Ethiopia in 1948 after a long squabbling.
Paris Peace Conference:
The United States, Britain, France, the former Soviet Union, and China determined the number and type of governments that can participate at the Paris Peace Conference with Italy in 1944. They proclaimed that the conference aimed at settling the war against Italy that started in 1940. And only those countries which actually participated in the war on European soil could take part in the peace agreement. Aklilu was very knowledgeable that such an act would make Ethiopia very vulnerable. He was also aware that if Ethiopia opened a dialogue with Italy alone, it would undoubtedly reject all of Ethiopia’s demands.
Though the situation surrounding Ethiopia was volatile, the embattled Aklilu has to devise a mechanism that can ensure Ethiopia’s participation in the conference. To that end, he engaged in a vast discussion with the governments of the big four of the time: Britain, United States, France, and the former Soviet Union. He came up with four points he thought would ensure Ethiopia’s participation in the conference. First, Ethiopia did not sign peace agreement with the Italians since the war was not over, despite the fact that France has already signed armistice with Germany.
Second, during the five years of Italian aggression, Ethiopian patriots continued fighting with Italians while the Emperor was in Geneva appealing to the League of Nations. By then, Italy’s occupation was restricted to certain areas of the country while much part of the country was controlled by Ethiopians.
Third, if Ethiopia had not resisted the invasion; Italy would have used Ethiopia as a major fortress and passage to easily occupy Sudan, Egypt, and Kenya.
Fourth, it was due to their resistance to Italy’s aggression that in 1940 Ethiopian patriots defeated Italians with the assistance of few British soldiers.
Therefore, Akliu argued with the representatives of the Big Four to consider Ethiopia as one of the allied countries. Through his unreserved effort, he managed to convince the representatives of the Big Four thereby ensuring Ethiopia’s participation in the conference among 20 other countries. The participation of Ethiopia in the peace conference forced Italy to abandon its colonial claims over Eritrea, Somalia and Libya in the first place. Secondly, Ethiopia has convinced the conference participant that the Ethio-Italian war which began in 1940 was the first battle that erupted before the other worlds jumped in to the Second World War. Third, Ethiopia received 25 million dollars in compensation for the Italian war damage. And finally, Ethiopia was allowed to nationalize both private and state owned Italian properties in Ethiopia. This conference above all paved the way for the lengthy and tiresome process of reuniting Eritrea with Ethiopia.
Aklilu was accompanied by medical doctors, since he was not in good health owing to workload, while he was dealing with the Eritrean reunification process.