Ethiopia experienced two major political revolutions in the past century, either of which has not been successful in realising an utterly politically stable nation. Today’s political atmosphere seems to be different though in that the movement is towards a goal that both the public and the leaders can agree on, writes Ambessaw Assegued (email@example.com).
In the afternoon of December 15, 1960, the family of Yemane Banti decided to drive around and look at the military garrisons stationed around Addis Abeba by the rebel forces of the Imperial Guards.
Few understood or took it seriously that a coup d’état was brewing in the city. Yemane, a decorated veteran of the second Ethio-Italian War, was no exception. He is more interested in amusing his wife, and kids who are kept at home from school because of all the talk and the unrest. They all climb chatting and excited into the car and drive down from their home in Afincho Ber to Lideta.
By the time the family car reaches the old Princess Tsehai Memorial Hospital near the old airport, the first shots ring out from the direction of the former headquarters of the army, and spread quickly across Mexico Square, Churchill Road and into the hills around the city.
Yemane quickly reverses direction and drives towards his home as a hail of fire breaks out and pedestrians rush for cover along the streets and narrow alleyways. There are hardly any cars on the roads except for Yemane’s that zigzags and weaves as he attempts to calm his family and avoid the bullets that are flying in every direction and ricocheting against the pavements.
The fighting intensifies as the family approaches Afincho Ber where the main garrison of the rebels is formed behind the perimeter walls and gates of the Gannata Le’ul Palace. Once the family safely arrived to their home, the gates are shut and barricaded, and the men of the household are posted around the compound for protection.
The battle between the rebellious Guard and the loyalist Imperial Army rages throughout the city for three days when at last the entire episode of the failed 1960 coups d’état ends, order is restored, and the mutinous guards are routed by the opposing forces and flee into the surrounding eucalyptus forests.
Thus, begins a seminal event in the modern history of Ethiopia creating a seismic shift that still reverberates in the country. The coup attempt on Emperor Haileselassie of 1960, known colloquially as the Tahesas Gereger or the Troubles of December, has consequences that reach far from the borders of Ethiopia. It signals the emergence of militarism and strongman rule in Africa that still persists, albeit in a tattered form, in some corners of the continent.
The rebel leaders, General Mengistu Neway, commander of the Imperial Guard and his Harvard educated brother, Germame Neway, are men in a hurry rushing to unveil modernisation, equality and egalitarianism in Ethiopia. They have no time for the slow but stable processes of reformation and progress. They operate under the conviction that transformation can only be achieved out of the barrel of the gun.
It is by one fell swoop, by violent upheavals and uprooting that the country is to be forcefully wrenched out of its backwardness, and then to be thrown headfirst into the era of development and advancement.
The rebels reject the notion of organic processes of dialogue and consensus-building as reactionary and lacking in revolutionary fervour. Rather, they adopt the application of physical power to compel the citizens to silently acquiesce since they believe they only know how to deliver the masses to the Promised Land of prosperity and democracy by the fastest route.
But their Promised Land proofs to be not of milk and honey, nor ablaze with the bright lights of enlightenment and progress. What the Troubles of December have done is to unwittingly serve as an example of the turbulent and violent events that have kept Ethiopia twisting in the vines for the last five or six decades.
Although much has changed, and much water has passed under the bridge since Yemane and his family took that fateful drive in a December afternoon, a restive and anxious nation still awaits the real Promised Land.
Refreshingly, the current winds of change have lifted the spirit of the nation. These winds of change, articulated in an understandable language, and delivered by a young and vibrant leader, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD), have ignited the long-dormant aspirations of the citizens into unchartered territory – one that seems like the birth of a caring and responsible government in Ethiopia.
Building on this new paradigm of change requires the participation of both the leaders and the citizens towards reaching the goals of renewal and progress. This entails the combined efforts of the people and the government working hand in hand to build and transform Ethiopia.
To the citizen, the requirement is that they accept personal responsibilities.
This is a “complex of traits commitment to an ethic of hard work, punctuality, reliability, responsibility, and a sense of vocation,” according to a treatise by Donald L. Levine, University of Chicago, ‘‘Ethiopia’s Dilemma: Missed Chances from 1960’s to the Present’’includes.
It is this “complex of traits” that citizens need to seek, tackle and establish firmly in pursuit of modernisation.
The author struggles to find a common cultural foothold that can serve Ethiopians as does the Protestant Reformation in the Western world, the Samurai code of duty in Japan, and the Cultural Revolution in China. He finds this anchor in our enduring past, our history as a nation of multiple cultures, languages and our ways of life.
He presents a vision of a Greater Ethiopia, “as a home to a diversity of citizens and groups enjoying basic rights in an age-old and continuing multiethnic society.”
It is this aspiration and hope that is shared by many citizens, and it is a vision that Ethiopia’s new leader seems to have taken to heart.
It is the natural expectation of citizens that caring and responsible officials govern them. Caring and responsibility are expected from the clerks in a department to the chambers of the highest offices in the government. Governing by fiat, decrees and declarations may have served the short-term visions of military rebels and strongmen of the past but should have no place in the current Ethiopian narrative of changes.
As we celebrate a renewed hope for a greater Ethiopia, we ponder on a past filled with missed opportunities and missteps that can now be easily avoided. The cautious tale of the 1960 coup attempt is that without leaders and citizens working together, nations will wallow in revolutions, wars and the era of strong-men.
The rebel leader General Mengistu Neawy is captured, tried for treason, convicted and executed publicly by hanging at Tekle Haymanot Square in Addis Abeba following the coup attempt. Yemani, appointed by the Emperor, is one of the witnesses of the execution as a representative of the empire. The witnesses later return to the palace to inform the Emperor that justice has been delivered according to the law.
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