Rebel with or without a cause?
Mesfin Wolde-Maryam toyed with the notion of becoming a boxer and has had a friend give him training. But he had to give it up when he had nose bleed, which persisted and eventually forced him to quit his university education. Mesfn’s belief in the strength of his body later gave way to his growing revolutionary zeal and activism. Such stirrings started to reveal themselves at young age of 21 when he took up a teaching job at Empress Menen Girl’s High School. Witnessing the problem students faced with textbooks and sport equipment, he wrote a letter to Ministry of Education for a solution, though he was nothing more than ordinary teacher. His efforts bore some result but displeased the then school headmistress Woizero Senedu Gebru who was out of country. Upon her return, the two had a confrontational argument and Mesfin eventually left the work.
Then he was appointed as an associate director of the Imperial Ethiopian Mapping and Geographical Institute which was established as department in the Ministry of Education. The institute, then led by an American whom Mesfin suspected of having connection with CIA, was controversially given persimmon to conduct aerial survey of the Abay gorges. Mesfin was one of the employees who was included to serve on a committee that would asses the outcome of this but he felt it was futile to do so once the permission was granted to the Americans. Rather, Mesfin advised the Imperial Government to reap the benefit of the relationship and demand the Americans to train mapping personnel and equip the institute with necessary materials. All the same, Mesfin was running into trouble with his American boss and once again left the job for teaching career at the University College of Addis Ababa. He in the meantime earned his B.A from India’s Punjab University and by the time he was hired by the university, he became one of the few Ethiopian teaching personnel there. Recalling the start of his teaching career at University College, he says “I didn’t know anything about Ethiopian geography and landscape upon the start of my career. I was collecting information from the few available materials then, mostly books written in Italy. It was daunting. In this regard my students have helped me lot. I had to move around and study the country. I undertook explorations in many parts of the country in order to have a thorough knowledge of the country. Sometimes on foot, at the back of mule, on Land Rover. I went up to Semen, Mekdela, Wechech mountains. I traversed Bale, Welega, Kefa, Ilibabur and other parts of the country. I came to know the lives of the peasants. I enriched my knowledge of the countryside by discussing with farmers which aroused sympathies in me”. The subhuman conditions of the peasantry that he saw while touring the provinces and his expertise on land reform sharpened his consciousness and made him take critical stance on the feudal regime. He aired his views on various meetings like those organized by National Union of Ethiopian University Students.
Mesfin also statred to make his mark as an accomplished geographer and scholar, publishing groundbreaking studies on his field. He chose to cut a bolder swath as a passionate social activist and he became a symbol of principled social protest on behalf of the university students.In one such case in 1962, a row erupted at the University after a decision was made to cancel the existing boarding system in order to subjugate students who were thought of abusing their privileges by fomenting plot against the regime. Students were obviously unhappy and strongly opposed the decision, chief among them Eyesuswork Zafu, who was then the Vice-President of the Student Council. Eyesuswork was later denied a formal graduation after making a remark which was thought to be inappropriate for the Emperor.The Administration was dead set against Eyesusuwork’s name being cited in public and his being officially awarded the diploma by the Emperor. Convinced that it was unfair and unjust, professor Mesfin and other lecturers rallied behind Eyesuswork so that the decision would be reversed. As Eyesuswork himself narrated it in a book “Documenting the Ethiopian Student Movement” it was a successful endeavor that made his day. He also recalled that “Professor Mesfin (He was my geography teacher at Wingate school), seeing that no graduation feast had been prepared for me, and in an effort to console me, drove me to his home where I lunched and spent the afternoon.”
Randi Rønning Balsvik in her book “Haile Selassie’s Students” described Mesfin as “an outspoken critic of contemporary Ethiopian society, dedicated to the development of rural Ethiopia, and an ardent spokesman for land reform.”
Mesfin has been the principal player in the creation of the Ethiopian University Service, which was a degree requirement of Haile Selassie University and required students to do a year of national service. Balsvik wrote that it was Mesfin who wrote the proposal and submitted it to the president of Haile Selssaie University in 1961 when he was head of the department of Geography and “his ideas were undoubtedly important to the initiation of the program. He offered an answer to the questions students had raised about what they could for their country.”
According to Balsvik, Mesfin had discussed the possibilities of a service year with a few students before he wrote the proposal. The Ethiopian University Service has been characterized by the university historian Eric Ashby as “an inspiration of genius.”
Meanwhie, Mesfin continued to condemn the imperial regime and once at meeting organized by the University’s Alumni Association in Africa Hall, he made a scathing attack on the regime saying that there is no government in Ethiopia, only an association with unlimited power. Apprehensive of his radical views, the government tried to remove him from his teaching post by appointing him governor of Gimibi in Wollega. Always dedicated to reform, he attempted to modernize the administration and improve the peasantry’s position. “I had visited eleven woredas of Gimbi.I arranged for one of the hospitals to get a medical doctor that had no doctor before.There was also severe water deficiency in the town and I’ve had a new motor purchased,” Mesfin wrote in Agetuni.
Soon the revolution erupted and Emperor Haile Selassie was deposed on 1974.It was then that Mesfin joined as chairman the Commission of Inquiry into Corruption and Maladministration established by Prime Minster Endlkatchew Makonnen on April 1974.
As Blair Thomson, the then BBC correspondent, wrote in his book “Ethiopia, the country that cut off its head” the committee included six representatives named by, but not members of, the chamber of Deputies and on e each from the ground forces, the air force, the navy, the Imperial Bodyguard, the Territorial army, the police, the Ethiopian Teacher’s Association and the Auditor-General Office.
According to Thomson, at press conference days later, Professor Mesfin, blandly stated that there was no connection between the military and the Commission-except that the armed forces had promised to support it. “It wasn’t a very convincing performance,” the BBC correspondent wrote. On the advice of the Anti-corruption Commission, orders were given for the arrest of twenty–eight judges, including a member of the Emperor’s private court, “the chilot”, which on his orders could overrule the decision of any court in the land, states Blair Thomson.
The commission main objective, however, was to see the case of the 60 former high officials of the Imperial government “to find out if any of them are misdoers”.
However, the Derg didn’t wait for the verdict of the Commission and slaughtered the officials, marking the turn of the Ethiopian Revolution to violence.
The BBC journalist wrote that Mesfin didn’t survive as chairman of the Anti-Corruption commission. The chairmanship had been taken over by an appointee of the Dergue, Lt/ Com Lemma Gutema of the Navy.
(To be continued)
(Photo -Professor Mesfin at the Commision of Inquiry into Corruption’s inagural conference in July 1974, taken from from Blair Thomson’s book “Ethiopia, the country that cut off its head”)