Ambassador Zewde Reta, 77, was a journalist and a diplomat for 22 years during the reign of Emperor Haileselassie I. He was the manager of the Ethiopian News Agency before he became a counselor at the
Ethiopian Embassy in France. After working as Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, he became Ambassador of Ethiopia to Italy until the emperor was deposed in 1974. In his long years as an immigrant, he served as liaison and protocol officer at the Roman international agency, IFAD, for 13 years. He wrote a very significant book titled “The Eritrean Issue” at the time of Emperor Haileselassie in which he portrayed the role of the former Prime Minister Aklilu Habtewold. In connection to Aklilu’s centennial birthday on March 12, 2012 Zewde sat down with Capital’s Solomon Bekele and Pawlos Belete to talk about the distinguished Ethiopian Prime Minister Aklilu Habtewold. Excerpts:
Capital: Reading your book “The Eritrean Issue” at the time of Emperor Haileselassie, it sounds as though you were close to the former Prime Minister Tsehafi Tizaz Aklilu Habtewold. Please tell us about him, his personality?
Zewde Reta: T’sehafi T’ezaz Aklilu Habtewold grew up under his elder brother Mekonen Habtewold. He had a modern education. His friends such as Yilma Deresa, who served as Finance Minister, and Mekonen Desta were also well educated. All traveled abroad before the Italian occupation of five years from 1936-1941. As we know, Aklilu did not live like a rich aristocrat. He was definitely influenced by his time abroad. As you might know he first went to Alexandria, Egypt, at the age of 16 after finishing his elementary education in Addis Ababa. Then he went to France and pursued further education. He was living abroad for 18 years but he never gave up his Ethiopian values.
Capital: What made him different from others?
Zewde: For instance during holydays, such as New Year, Christmas and Easter, upper class people usually remained at home receiving guests who came and express good wishes. But in his case, after he greets the Emperor, he never received guests at home nor did he visit others as most nobles of the time did. He also did not have big lofty meals. He organized luncheons only when necessary for his close friends and rarely accepted invitations. He tended to keep to himself and was not seen at the big fancy weddings or festivities other nobility attended.
Capital: What was it like working with him?
Zewde: For people who work with him, he was very open and gave full power to carry out their duties. He trusted them very much. For a hard working person, it was easy to work with him. I could say, he was a man who believes in personal merit. He evaluated people based on their knowledge and abilities and not their blood line.
He paid very careful attention to time and kept very consistent office hours. As far as I know, he used to go to the palace to greet the Emperor at 9:00 in the morning and stays up to 10:00am to settle some duties. He then goes to his office where he can be reached up to 1:00pm. Sharp at 1:00 he would always leave his office for lunch to be back at exactly 3:00pm and work until 7:00pm. You could bet on this schedule.
Capital: It is said that he tried to introduce modern working way for public servants. Is that right?
Zewde: That is true. Ministers in those days were free to work on their own. They had autonomy and were authorized to operate with full right. Unless they faced problems over and above their jurisdiction, the ministers didn’t go to the Prime Minister’s office for petty matters. This was based on work ethics taken from the western world.
Capital: How were fellow journalists treated then?
Zewde: In general terms, at that time there was a restriction on the work of journalists. You would only write on specific and permitted areas. Usually we report on what officials said. As a journalist I have been assigned in the prime minister’s office for about 15 years. All along I never saw a different character. As I first met him, he always listens carefully. He never started answering until he fully grasped the issue. He didn’t stop the journalist from raising any question. In his office he didn’t blast at others. And once a decision was taken, he was firm on it.
Capital: You knew the Prime Minister for a long time; what was unique about him?
Zewde: He trusted people. He didn’t have personal body guards. All ministers didn’t have bodyguards assigned to them. His salary was 2,500 birr and 300 birr allowance. With the 300 birr allowance, he had
to employ the driver and cover the fuel expenses. Government houses were not given for the ministers like it is done today. The government didn’t cover the bill of electricity, water and telephone. No government car was assigned to officials including the Prime Minister.
Capital: We understand he liked going outside the city on his weekends…
Zewde: Yes, he enjoyed his weekends. Every Saturdays and Sundays, if there was no urgency in his office, he travelled to Debre Zeit or Langano. If Monday was a holiday, no doubt that he would go to Langano starting from Saturday afternoon. He liked swimming at the natural lakes like Debrezeit, Hora or Langano Lakes. This was his hobby. When he travelled to France, he usually went to Nice at the beach. At home, he liked sports exercise and yoga.
Capital: Do you know his diet?
Zewde: His diet was in most cases European dishes. He didn’t eat raw meat or raw Kitfo. Rarely did he enjoy national food like Injera with red sauce and light pepper.
Capital: His wife was a foreigner. Was his food habit influenced by his wife?
Zewde: No, no. As far as I know that was not because of his wife. His wife Madam Colette Aklilu (Coletta Valade), like most French women, liked to prepare food but her influence was minimal. But he had a preference for European dishes. They were married in 1954 by the permission of the Emperor but they had lived together for a long time before that. By the way they didn’t have children.
Capital: Was it necessary to get permission from the Emperor to marry?
Zewde: At the time, when a cabinet member wanted to marry a foreigner, they had to get permission. I don’t know whether the Ethiopian Family law forbids marriage with foreigners at that time. But tradition had it that it was not possible to wed a foreigner if you had a large social responsibility like he did. At the time it looked strange for a minister to have a foreigner wife.
Capital: Let us go back to his career. What were his great achievements while he was in office?
Zewde: Aklilu was the first post occupation foreign minister. As far as I know he was the youngest foreign minister of Ethiopia. He assumed that post right after the end of Italian occupation in May 1941 at the age of 29. Actually he began work in Paris, France as the First Secretary of the Ethiopian Embassy in 1936. At the time, the Emperor had taken refuge in London after Ethiopia was invaded by fascist Italy in May 1936. I could say he was very much focused on politics and diplomacy of the country throughout his career. His greatest contribution was getting back Gambela and Ogaden after lengthy and sometimes frustrating negotiations with the British colonial power. The unity of Eritrea with its mother land, breaking the confederation was his peak of diplomatic achievement. Of course, the Eritreans were behind him for the reunification process. Though he didn’t succeed he fought to the end for Somalia to obtain its independence before 1961. He expressed deep disappointment in the intrigues of the colonial powers for handing over Somalia to Italy. He tried this along with the Egyptian Foreign minister and his close friend Mohamed Fawze (PhD). At the time, Ethiopia, Egypt and Liberia were the only three independent African countries. But this effort didn’t bear fruit. Somalia became an Italian protectorate for 10 years. He succeeded in his diplomatic mission for the early independence of Libya in 1950. He also fought
for the independence of Sudan in 1956. The formation of the Organization of African Union (OAU) and the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) and the selection of Addis Ababa as the seat for their head quarters were because of his efforts. Of course, the role of the Emperor was really great for the OAU’s formation. When I see it in retrospect, his diplomatic achievement was really enormous. Imagine the means of communication available at the time, there was no radio or television that could connect us with the rest of the world. The colonial powers controlled the means of communication. And fighting against them at that time was near to impossible. But he did it.
Capital: Would you say he was very much focused on politics and foreign affairs, that hampered him from resolving some burning local issues like land reform?
Zewde: Aklilu was appointed prime minister in March 1961. Before he was promoted to take the position of premiership, he was deputy. By then, Emperor Haileselassie was Prime Minister. The former Prime Minister Mekonen Endalkachew was appointed spokesperson of the Senate. Until a new Prime Minister was appointe,d the Emperor acted as both PM and head of state. So, Aklilu was the Deputy Premier of the Emperor. After he was appointed Prime Minister of the country, his major duties were establishing or modernizing the work of the government. He first drafted and adopted the law of the civil servants. The rule and regulation of the civil service brought something new in to the system. Then, he introduced a new regulation that stipulated a pension for civil servants. Public Administration
law, Pension Law, Civil Law, Marine Law, Commercial Law and Criminal Code were drafted and approved one after the other during his time. The Public administration and Pension laws were exclusively for public servants. These were the basis for future reforms. The issue of land reform was thoroughly under study and discussion. According to his thought, the Ethiopian land holdings system was very intricate and complex. The north had a communal land ownership. In the south, west and eastern part of the country there were different land holding systems. There was Gult land holding, the church land, Maderia and other land holding systems. So, before taking action he wanted to have a land administration office. Many studies were made about the size of land holdings among the land lords and the church.
The land issue was very sensitive and he was not able to carry out in a way he wanted. It was not easy. When he drafted a law to administer the tenant and the land lord relationship on a contractual basis, he found it extremely difficult.
The Derg regime nationalized the land but that didn’t resolve the problem of land. As I observed the military officers didn’t see the complex nature of our land system.
They thought with one action they would resolve that intricate issue once and for all. But it is not the case and the problem of land still remains a major issue today.
Capital: In your life time you have seen three governments. If you are asked to compare and contrast the three, what would you say?
Zewde: I do not know much about the Derg and the current regimes. I know them from a distance. What I can say is that I don’t really see equally competent diplomats after the Imperial regime. In any country it is difficult to produce similar people of an equal caliber. Take for instance the four Foreign Ministers Aklilu Habtewold, Yilma Deresa, Ketema Yifru and Dr. Minase Haile; These were highly educated people. They were assigned not because they were officers or certain party members but because they were competent for the diplomatic work.
Capital: In your view what were the factors leading to the collapse of the Imperial regime?
Zewde: The Emperor had aged greatly. There was no united force working to keep the regime intact. The people around him didn’t see the danger coming against the system in general. No one sat down and discussed a succession plan. Rather the land lords, the aristocrats and the educated ones were pulling the throne in different directions based on their own interests. That means there was no unity in and around the ruling elite. For instance, look at the kingdom of Morocco. When the king of Morocco had cancer he handed over his power to his son. In the Ethiopian case, there was no such unified succession plan that was set before that big incident. Knowing that the ruling elites were disorganized, the organized military officers ousted the Emperor.
Capital: What was your reaction when the Prime minister was killed?
Zewde: When Aklilu Habtewold along with sixty other top officials was assassinated by the Derg on the 24th of November 1974, the people had nothing to express other than deep sorrow. I was no exception. It was, indeed, a shocking incident. We were all waiting for our turn. No one expected this kind of brutal action would take place. They were arrested and people thought they would appear before the court of law. They were buried with the history they themselves participated in. That is really the saddest part of our recent history.