Before he resigned in February 1974, Prime Minister Aklilu Habtewold had the feeling that things could go wrong. The highly educated man acted as a simple and traditional Ethiopian. He had no arrogance. For a man who has spent nearly his entire life fighting diplomatically for his country during the Ethio- Italian war and the political stalemate with Britain, he was surprisingly not inflexible with his family members and friends as he was in the political arena. He was a shy man as members of his family and people who worked with him attested.
Aklilu didn’t usually tell much about what was going on around his office. He spoke of problems hovering around him to his family members in rare circumstances.
“I remember once he told me that in less than one year something could happen. I didn’t understand the severity and the depth of the issue he was talking about. That was a year before the turbulent 1974 movement,” recalled the 69-year old Amde Akalework, who grew up under Prime Minister Aklilu Habtewold since the age of seven.
Amde is the son of Aklilu Habtewold’s brother Akalework, former minister of Education, who was killed on November 24, 1974. On weekends, Amde used to sometimes drive the Premier then to Hora Lake around Debrezeit town. “For that matter; my uncle didn’t know how to drive a car nor did he show interest in driving. Days before he submitted his resignation letter he told me that the situation in the palace was not that good. As things went tense, he let me know that he might even lose his life,” Amde recalled.
“In the early days of February 1974, a few days before he resigned, things were changing very fast. He used to say everything went wrong. As he anticipated things went extraordinarily fast in the wrong direction,” Amde recalled.
Despite his clear understanding of the political dynamics of the time, Aklilu never considered running out of the country.
“I remember once, a well known businessman came to our house and proposed to take him to Kenya through Moyale. The Prime Minister angrily refused and told that man not to raise the issue again. He said, ‘should the worst come, I am ready to face it in my country,’” remembered Amde. It would not have been hard to flee the country then. The PM’s wife was in Paris for medical treatment. She was there for months prior to the devastating incident. So he could go have gone and settled there. The only reason he did not do so was his unwillingness to leave his country.
“They [Aklilu and the remaining cabinet members] wanted the case to be settled through the due process of the court because all had the belief that they were innocent and did nothing that could harm the people and the country. This innocence was the basic reason for them to stay in the country and give in to the army when they were called,” Amde noted.
Amde was in France working with the Dofan private company as its manager when both his father and uncle Akalework and Aklilu Habtewold were first arrested for a brief period. Dofan was a French company established for tanning crocodile skins.
“They called me and told me to come back. I returned to Ethiopia to prove their innocence,” flashed back Amde with a feeling of anguish.
In Amde’s view, the reason in the first place for the resignation of Aklilu from his post was that he was unable to carry on his duties under the volatile circumstances of the time. After that, he was arrested and first detained at Goffa military camp and later transferred to the then 4th Division detention centre. Amde recalls he visited his uncle at the Gofa base, but it was not possible to do so at the 4th Division.
The sad story was that; a day before he was killed on November 24, he sent a letter to my mother asking her to send him a black suit, a neck tie and a white shirt. He requested this, according to his letter, because they were scheduled to appear before the court on Monday November 26.
“It was so heartbreaking that they handcuffed and killed both Aklilu and my father, on the 24th of November,” said Amde in low spirit, still after so many years, feeling the pain.
“What makes me sad up to this day is that the next morning the military junta broadcasted their death on the radio but we were not allowed to mourn for them let alone to bury their body. They instructed us to not even cry,” Amde told Capital with deep sorrow.
Physical exercises, swimming and skiing over water were Aklilu’s favourite sports. He liked water ski more than anything else.
“When we were going to Hora the difficult thing for us to keep up with was Aklilu’s love for swimming. He first crosses the Lake from one end to another. We were always very much worried thinking ‘what if he faced any physical problem or even if his heart stopped in the middle of the lake,’ it would be extremely difficult to save his life. Later, his wife started following him with a boat in case he was tired in the middle of the Lake, it was possible to save him,” he reminisced.
Bulcha Demeksa who was then a junior officer at the Ministry of Finance said that the structure of the annual budget in the way we know it today was drafted and approved during the reign of Premier Aklilu. “My capacity didn’t allow me to go in to the office of the Prime Minister, but as a junior expert I was time and again called by the Premier to give professional explanation about the budget. He always wanted a professional advice. He listens to you and takes decision as per that discussion,” Bulcha Demeksa, a former MP until recently, told Capital.
In Bulcha’s view Aklilu was a charismatic Prime Minister with rich diplomatic knowledge. “I admired the way he administered the country. He gave equal treatment for people who have knowledge. Taking that opportunity, I met him many times and he always showed all the necessary respect,” Bulcha reminisced.
What surprised Bulcha at that time was the way he was received by the Prime Minister. “It is amazing to recall the respect that the Prime Minister gives to his subordinates. I was not a big official at that time. But I was among the few Ethiopians who had foreign education. When I visited his office, I was free to tell him what I know,” Bulcha said. Bulcha Demeksa was a senior expert at the Ministry of Finance during the regime of Emperor Hailesselassie. He also worked as an expert in different levels at the World Bank. He was the founding president of the opposition group Oromo Federalist Democratic Movement and Member of Parliament (2005-2010).
Many believe that the French Dofan company was Aklilu’s family property, but that is not the case. Amde was hired to manage the company because of his educational background at the Lycee Guebre Mariam here in Addis Ababa and then in France. Amde has been in the leather industry for the last 47 years.