REVIEWED BY MEKDES M. (@MEKMZ)
(Tadelech Hailemikael’s memoir “ዳኛው ማነው? የብርሃነመስቀል እና የታደለች ሕይወት በኢሕአፓ የትግል ታሪክ” (loose translation – “Who is the Judge?: The Life of Berhanemeskel and Tadelech in the History of EPRP’s Struggle”) brings to life a firsthand account of one of leading figures of the Ethiopian Revolution.
Addis Abeba, September 01/2020 – In 1970, 19-year-old Tadelech Hailemikael (“Tadi” as she is known to her family and friends) travels to Switzerland to pursue her university education. An urban girl educated in elite schools in Addis Abeba, Tadi was excited for her new life in Europe. At the time, Ethiopia was experiencing the height of the Ethiopian Student Movement, a long and sustained opposition to the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie I. For nearly a decade, university and secondary school students staged demonstrations and protest movements seeking reforms to the monarchy. The movement was supported by Ethiopians overseas who organized events and protests at embassies in North America and Europe.
Before her departure, Tadi promises her father that she would focus on her studies and avoid any political activities abroad. Soon after arriving in Fribourg, the small Swiss town where her university is located, she strikes a friendship with fellow Ethiopian residents – Dr. Tesfaye Debessay, Dr. Desta Sebhat and Akililu Hiruy. Unbeknownst to Tadi, her new friends were underground members of the Ethiopian student movement and key leaders of the Ethiopian Student Union in Europe.
One-time, Dr. Tesfaye approaches Tadi with a small favor. He asks if she can lend her student apartment to his friend who is visiting Fribourg over the weekend. In confidence, he tells her that her guest would be BerhaneMeskel Redda (“Berhane”), the prominent leader of the Ethiopian Student Movement. Excited by the prospect of meeting Berhane, she prepared her little apartment to host the special guest. Their first introduction triggers instant connection when Berhane realizes, with much delight, that Tadi shares name with his mother, Tadelech.
After that first trip, Tadi becomes Berhane’s trusted and reliable host in Fribourg whenever he visited from Algeria, where he was based at the time. By 1970, Berhane had spent much of his youthful life leading and organizing protest movements in Ethiopia. He took refuge in Algeria after him and his friends hijacked a passenger plane to Sudan, where they were imprisoned for 8-months.
What started off as a hospitality gesture evolved into something more. Their relationship, made under secrecy and extremely constraining circumstances, blossoms. She not only falls in love with the man, but also with the cause he dedicated his life for. She goes on to become an active member of the student activities in Europe and later a member an underground political party.
By 1974, while the leaders of the student movement were bracing for a long-term struggle against the Imperial government, the situation in Ethiopia took an abrupt turn. A military junta (“Derg”) co-opted a popular protest (whose grounds were laid by the student movement) and deposed the Emperor. The Derg adopts the ideological direction of the student movement and centralized its power. With the fast-changing political events on the ground, diaspora student unions and organizations resolved to take the struggle home and two prominent political parties emerged, the EPRP and MEISON. Berhane becomes a founding member and first secretary of EPRP, playing a leading role in its expansion at home.
The Derg consolidated its power by purging its real and perceived enemies labeling them “enemies of the revolution”. EPRP, the largest political party, was the primary target that met the short end of the Derg’s stick. Berhane retreats to rural Ethiopia lodging an armed struggle against the Derg, where he is joined by Tadi who left behind their two children at home. They would fight until they were captured by the by Derg’s sprawling security forces. The Derg would soon execute Berhane along with other prominent leaders- Haile Fida, Abune Tewoflos, Qes Gudina, Dr. Nigist Adane, Konjit Adane and many more. Tadi’s life is spared by the miracle of a baby she conceived while in the bushes. Instead, she was sent to prison where she would spend the next twelve and half years of her life, giving birth and raising her daughter behind bars.
[TADI] WRITES HOW SHE GRAPPLED TO ACCEPT HER SURVIVAL AND THE PAIN OF EXISTENCE AFTER BERHANE’S DEATH. LIKE ALL THE OTHERS THAT HAVE PERISHED DURING THAT PERIOD, BERHANE WAS NEVER AFFORDED A DAY IN COURT
In Dagnaw Manew, Tadi narrates firsthand account of a man and a political party that significantly influenced the course of Ethiopian history. She writes how she grappled to accept her survival and the pain of existence after Berhane’s death. Like all the others that have perished during that period, Berhane was never afforded a day in court. She asks, “Who is the Judge?” – Who decides who gets to live and who gets to die? She finds meaning in her survival by dedicating to tell the story of the person behind the personality. In writing the book, Tadi finds a catharsis of sorts.
The book, in many ways, stands out as a critical contribution to understanding the ideas, ideals and convictions of a generation of students that influenced the present-day Ethiopia.
First, Tadi’s book offers raw and unique account on the life and leadership of BerhaneMeskel Redda. Much has been written about Berhane and his influence on the student movement, but Dagnaw Manew presents significantly more. An authentic version that digs deeper into the man’s life, upbringing and formative years shaping his revolutionary outlook. Raised in a feudal household by his grandfather, Kegnazmach Redda WoldeRufael, Berhane grew up witnessing the exploitation of the Ethiopian peasantry. As a young boy, he was tasked with the responsibility of receiving crops that peasants had harvested in his grandfather’s vast farmland, often spending time with his farmer friend, Aya Muhe. One day, Aya muhe tells him that his wife has just given birth to their child but he could not afford to feed her because he must deliver all the crops he produced to his grandfather. This story would deeply affect Berhane who vows to fight the injustice and destitution of his friend Aya Muhe. Tadi writes, Berhane’s childhood experience shaped his views and inspired him to coin one of the most recognizable and galvanizing motto of the student movement – “Land to the Tiller”. (መሬት ላራሹ)
At 18 years old, Berhane’s high performance at Woizero Sehin High School in Desse would make him the only student to join Haile Selassie the I University. Much to the dismay of his grandfather, he uses the university platform to organize a resistance movement against the feudal system. He was sent to prison and suspended from university. But that would not stop Berhane, and soon he would up the ante of the struggle by hijacking with his friends a passenger plane en-route to Sudan. They were imprisoned in Sudan for 8 months until they were granted political asylum in Algeria. After the fall of the Emperor, he would bring the struggle home against the military government where he was eventually captured and executed at the age of 35. Beyond the details of his revolutionary journey, Tadi beautifully captures the story of person with a profound love to his mother, his wife and his country.
Second, a significant part of the book is dedicated to events that led to internal division of the EPRP. Tadi explains the political differences within the EPRP that led to the suspension of Berhane and his close friend Getachew Maru. Berhane staunchly opposed the proposal by his party central committee for an urban insurrection and a targeted assassination of the Derg’s chairman – Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam. Berhane and Getachew were suspended from their own party and were considered a threat to the party’s future. The party leadership issues a death warrant for both men. Luckily for Berhane, the person assigned to assassinate him would have a last-minute change of heart and helps Berhane flee Addis Abeba to Merhabete. EPRP continues with its program of an urban struggle, including a failed attempt at Colonel Mengistu’s life and assassinations of prominent personalities of the Derg. The Derg brutally retaliates wiping out EPRP and an entire generation of young people.
With direct experience and involvement of the events that took place in Addis Abeba, Merabete and Menz, Tadi’s vivid narration takes readers on the party’s journey to self-destruction and ultimately total decimation by the Derg. It also tells the devastating outcome of intra-party schisms and divisions that saw most of the key figures of the student movement killed, imprisoned and exiled.
Third, the book is a superb documentation of the role of women in the Ethiopian students movement. Through her own account, Tadi brings to the front the often-overlooked tale of women in the Ethiopian revolution. The women started a promising mass-based movement but were later weakened when the organization was absorbed with the party structures of the Derg and MEISON. Tadi tells the stories of student luminaries the likes of Martha Mebraite, Tadelech Kidanemariam, Dr Nigist Adane, Abebech Bekele and Konjit Kebede and paying homage to their efforts and contribution to the revolution.
Finally, Tadi’s book illuminates the revolutionary idealism and the unwavering commitment of a selfless generation with a singular pursuit for change. They went beyond simple demands but sought to change the way society was organized. The nature of Tadi’s relationship with Berhane depicts a story where family and friends were secondary to the cause. Strict party discipline dictated that members were comrades first before they were spouses or siblings. No information could be shared nor acknowledged. Tadi writes that she and her younger brother Tsega, both EPRP members, never discussed their membership to the party or their shared commitment to the cause. He would later be killed by the Derg. The commitment of the generations to a revolutionary cause is undeniably inspiring. But the same unflinching dogma would cloud their judgement for compromise and lead to their defeat.
THE ETHIOPIAN STUDENT MOVEMENT AND POLITICAL PARTIES THAT FOLLOWED ATTEMPTED TO ARTICULATE WHAT THEY VIEWED WAS THE MOST CRITICAL QUESTIONS OF THEIR GENERATION: THE QUESTION OF LAND; THE QUESTION OF DEMOCRACY; AND THE QUESTION OF NATIONS AND NATIONALITIES
Why Read ዳኛው ማነው?
Over the past few decades, dozens of books and memoirs have been published on the Ethiopian Student Movement by people who have survived to tell the tale. Former Derg officials, EPRP party operatives and individuals on the different sides of the political spectrum have written historical accounts of one of the most consequential periods of the Ethiopian history. Daganw Manew makes an important contribution, offering a unique and deeper understanding of the circumstances that precipitated the Ethiopian Student Movement and demise of an organization with significant accomplishments.
The Ethiopian Student Movement and political parties that followed attempted to articulate what they viewed was the most critical questions of their generation: the question of land; the question of democracy; and the question of nations and nationalities. These questions, as the main legacy of that era, continue to dominate our current political discourse. Tadi’s book and our continued reading of history from that period allows us to interrogate the follies of that generation and hopefully chart a better future of our own.
The book is a worthy read not only because of its historical significance and keeping our collective memory alive, but also in its portrayal of human perseverance. Tadi’s book is sad as it is uplifting. It paints a story characterized by love and loss, sacrifice and survival, tragedy and triumph. Positive in its storytelling, reflective in its mistakes and devoid of regret or resentment, it is, essentially, a book that inspires love of a country, courage and conviction.
In recounting a dark history that took away her husband, her brother and 11 and half years of her life, Tadi remains hopeful, reminding us the beauty in our ability to love and forgive. A triumph of the human spirit. AS
Editor’s Note: Mekdes M. is a Lawyer and Consultant at law. She tweets at