Ketema Yifru: An Agent of Change
It was mentioned earlier that Ketema was indeed one who was yearning for change. How was a young man, with Ketema's background, begin to even think of attempting to change a system that was deeply entrenched in the country for hundreds of years? Ketema's approach to change, at first, was to work within the system to see if he could make some difference. As a high ranking official in the Ministry of the Pen, and later as Foreign Minister, Ketema, who had acquired the trust of the Emperor, would work within the system to help out the poor.
Ato Teshome Gebremariam Bokan, the former Attorney General in the Emperor's government recalls "one incident out of hundreds" where Ketema would stick up for the poor. According to Ato Teshome, the story begins, "When a woman, who had remote relations with the Emperor, was given land, which originally belonged to Ras Makonnen, through the influence of Princess Tenagnework. Ras Makonnen had permitted his shoemaker to live on that land and as a result his family had lived on it for over 75 years."
Ketema Yifru with his close and personal friend Ato Teshome Gebremariam Bokan
Ato Teshome continues by saying, "Even so the lady made her own inquiries and found out that the deed of the land belonged to the Emperor. Despite this fact, she requested that this land be given to her. Unfortunately, since both the Princess and the Emperor were not aware of the shoemaker's family, the King gave her the land. When the matter came to Ketema, who was then the Vice-Minister of Pen, he blocked it. He simply refused to write the letter of authority. When news of Ketema's action reached the woman, she asked whether it was Ketema or HIM who was running the country."
According to Ato Teshome, "Ketema brought the attention of this matter to the Emperor and made a full explanation. After all, the old shoemaker had served his father so well. It turned out that the Emperor had known the old shoemaker, he praised Ketema for his act and, of course, the shoemakers family was left in place thanks to Ketema." To add to Ato Teshome's recount on Ketema's stand regarding the poor, it seemed that some of Ketema's prized possessions were letters he had saved from his years in the Ministry of Pen and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of people thanking him for being an advocate of their cause.
Even though Ketema had made some progress in helping out the poor, he understood very well that a lot more had to be done to bring about a system that would embrace all sectors of the Ethiopian society. Ketema loved and respected General Mengistu Neway, but he was not part of the 1960 coup attempt. Again, Ketema's formula to change differed drastically from the change that was proposed by the Neway bothers.
Ketema would, however, team up with a much more formidable ally, who had similar thoughts about the need for progressive change. Defense Minister General Merid Mengesha and Foreign Minister Ketema Yifru, who had a habit of going together to the Officers Club each day in the morning, began to discuss the need for change. Even though the General was a close relative to the Emperor, he understood that the system had to be changed in order to avoid bloodshed in the future. The General, who was part of the feudal system, was willing to give up the wealth, influence and all the other perks that came along with the system. Ketema and General Merid Mengesha discussed the need to shift the Emperor's power to the people. Both believed strongly in changing an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy, where the Emperor would have a similar role as the Queen of England. The ultimate goal of the General and the Foreign Minister was to have a democratic system that allowed the inclusion of all sectors of the society. It is rumored that some of the Western countries were aware of these plans.
Ketema Yifru and General Merid Mengesha
A plan that perhaps could have avoided all future bloodshed would never materialize. September 10, 1965 is a day that would be forever engraved in Ketema's mind. The day began as usual with General Merid Mengesha picking Ketema up from his home. Then the Defense Minister and the Foreign Minister would go to the Officers Club, where the General would play ground tennis, while Ketema engaged himself in a good game of table tennis. After the end of their activities, the General, as usual, would drop off Ketema at his home. All seemed normal to this point. At the palace later on that day, however, the Emperor informed Ketema of the sudden death of Defense Minister Merid Mengesha, the man who had successfully crushed the 1960 Coup attempt.
Ketema Yifru with General Merid Mengesha
When General Merid Mengesha died, Ketema lost a friend, a mentor, and one who protected him from those who were determined to destroy his career. The General, unlike some in the feudal system, had accepted Ketema for who he was. General Merid Mengesha was the man who had in fact introduced Ketema to his future wife. A picture of the General, which was placed by Ketema in his living room around the late fifties, serves as a reminder of the respect and love that Ketema and his family had for this great man.
The 1960s was a time period in which many African countries got their independence after years of colonial rule. Unfortunately, the 1960s was also an era where the continent witnessed a number of military takeovers. Ketema, who had served his country as Foreign Minister during the 1960s, was able to closely observe the various changes of government that had taken place in many African countries. Leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Modibo Keita of Mali, Tafawa Balewa of Nigeria, Sir Milton Margai of Sierra Leone, and many others, whom Ketema had closely worked with throughout the years, had become victims of their own doing. The leaders had failed to notice the early warning signs of discontent, which were now appearing in Ketema's beloved country. At this point in time, Ketema understood very well that unless appropriate measures were taken right away, his country's fate would be no different than the rest of the African countries that were now being ruled by soldiers, who had little if any knowledge of running a country.
President Kwame Nkrumah and Emperor Haile Selassie were among those African leaders who were overthrown by the military
Thus, Ketema, who had become a close confidant of the Emperor, decided to convince Emperor Haile Selassie that it would be in the best interest for him and his country to turn over his power to his progressive son, Crown Prince Asfawossen. In 1971, after Ketema asked his friends to wish him luck, he went to the province of Harerge to deliver a letter to the Emperor. In the letter that was addressed to the Emperor, Foreign Minister Ketema carefully explained the need for change. Ketema would point out that the time for change was now, when most Ethiopian's loved and respected their Emperor. Ketema explained that the Emperor would be revered and loved by his people for many years if he should leave power today. Ketema suggested that Ata Turk of Turkey could serve as an example, because, since he had left power at an opportune moment, he was able to have that same love and respect from his people after he stepped away from power. Ketema explained that any one with power would get love and respect while they were in office, but part of being a great leader is when one receives those same affections after he/she steps down from power.
Emperor Haile Selassie with his Foreign Minister at an African Conference
In the letter, Ketema explained that Stalin was one of those leaders, who was respected and feared by many in Russia. He pointed out that many would inform powerful Stalin that he was a great leader. Ketema also explained that once Stalin passed away, the Russian perspective, regarding the former leader, dramatically changed overnight. Ketema went on to suggest that he was afraid that, even though there was a great difference between the two, His Majesty might fall into Stalin's category, if he failed to cease the moment at hand and take the appropriate measures. "There might be a day", Ketema would say, "when, like Stalin, the Emperor would not have the privilege of having a proper burial, unless he takes appropriate measures immediately."
Ketema pleaded with the King to transfer his power to his progressive son, Crown Prince Asfawossen. Ketema informed the Emperor that after the transfer of power, they would work on giving the power to its rightful owners: the Ethiopian people. Sadly, the political forces in Ethiopia, who had a lot to loose if such reforms were to take place, thwarted Ketema's pleas for change. The day after the King received that prophetic letter, Foreign Minister Ketema Yifru was assigned to head the Ministry of Industry, Commerce and Tourism. One wonders whether Ketema Yifru, who had played a leading role in the creation of the OAU and who was also responsible for having its headquarters in Ethiopia, would have continued on serving his country as its Foreign Minister, if he had not delivered that letter to Emperor Haile Selassie.
Ketema, a man who had witnessed the defeat of a number of reforms, including those reforms that were supposed to have materialized right after the 1960 coup attempt, understood very well that it had now become a hopeless situation. It was apparent that the cabinet was no match to the powerful forces that were against domestic reform. According to Ato Teshome Gebremariam, "From about this time on Ketema began to be disillusioned. He clearly began to see the beginning of the end. He started to work on the Prime Minister and the cabinet members to resign so that the Ethiopian government would be reconstituted."
Aklilu's cabinet chose to resign on February 27, 1974. Prime Minister Tsehafi Tizaz Aklilu Habtewold and his ministers had realized that the student movement was larger than anyone had figured it out to be. At this moment in time, the option that was left for the government was to quell the uprising through the use of deadly force. Most of the members of Tsehafi Tizaz Aklilu's cabinet decided that they would rather resign than have the deaths of many on their hands. Some argue that the cabinet's decision to resign was wrong. It seems that the proponents of this argument are asserting that the cabinet should have taken measures, including the use of deadly force (which was used indiscriminately by the military once they took over), to quell the 1974 uprising. Time ran out on the government of Emperor Haile Selassie, not because Tsehafi Tizaz Aklilu's cabinet resigned. Rather, it seems that time had ran out on the government of Emperor Haile Selassie because the opponents of progressive change were successful in defeating or holding back much needed reforms, including the reforms that were supposed to have materialized soon after the 1960 coup attempt.
Ketema Yifru, Tsehafi Tizaz Aklilu Habtewold, and Emperor Haile Selassie
The day after the resignation of Aklilu's government (February 28, 1974), according to Ketema's prison diaries, Getahun Tessema, Mammo Tadesse, Taddesse Yacob, Belay Abay, Seyoum Haregot, and Ketema Yifru, were all thrown in prison and were released the next day. The imprisonment of some of the cabinet members actually came months before members of the new cabinet were themselves detained when the Derg seized power.
Then, according to Ketema Yifru's diary and many other sources, including others who were there then, on April 26, 1974, Tsehafi Tizaz Aklilu's cabinet, including Tsehafi Tizaz Aklilu Habtewold himself, General Kebede Gebre, Ato Getahun Tessema, Ato Mammo Tadesse, Dr. Tesfaye Gebre-Ezgy, Ato Mulatu Debebe, Ato Ketema Abebe, Dr. Seyoum Haregot, and Ketema Yifru were all arrested and taken to the headquarters of the Fourth Division. On their way to the Fourth Division, the political prisoners were taken to the Emperor's palace, where they curiously heard a former colleague explain why they were being held prisoners. In the palace where all the influential members of the new cabinet and some members of the aristocracy were present, the newly appointed Defense Minister gave a lengthy speech explaining why former Prime Minister Aklilu Habtewold and his Ministers were being held prisoners.
Ketema Yifru and Tsehafi Tizaz Aklilu Habtewold
Following the arrest of their husbands, their wives and other family members went to the Palace to find out, from those who were in charge, of the reason as to why their loved ones were taken prisoners. One of the questions put forth to those who were now in charge was whether their loved ones had done anything different than the rest. They were told that the prisoners' case was being reviewed and that a decision will be made soon regarding this matter.
In September 1974, four months after the arrest of Tsehafi Tizaz Aklilu Habtewold's cabinet, the Derg seized power and arrested the cabinet members, who had replaced Aklilu Habtewold and his Ministers. A few weeks later, the shocking news of the arrest of Emperor Haile Selassie would reach Ketema. A small Volkswagen transported the man, whose name was once placed at the top of any worldwide function, on his way to prison.
Ketema Yifru with his close friend, General Assefa Demisse, who was killed by the Derg in 1974
Then, on November 24, 1974, according to Ketema Yifru's prison diaries, at 7:00pm in the evening, fifty-two high-ranking civilian and military officials of the Emperor's government were taken from their prison cells. The next day, officials from the Derg explained to the rest of the prisoners that they should not worry about the safety of their colleagues. According to the Derg, the prisoners were moved to a different location. That day, Ketema would ask himself why there was a need for the Derg to reassure them about the safety of their colleagues if all, as they say, was well.
Later on, Ketema would find out that, officials like Prime Minister Aklilu Habtewold, who had done so much for their country, had been murdered by the military regime. The list of those officials, who were mercilessly killed by the Military regime, included the names of the Emperor's grandson, Rear Admiral Iskinder Desta; war heroes, such as Ras Mesfin Sileshie; people of humble background, like Ato Mulatu Debebe and Dr. Tesfaye Gebre-Ezgy; and decorated Generals, such as Defense Minister General Kebede Gebre, General Debebe Hailemariam and many others, to name a few.
A few months later, Ketema would also hear about the death of Emperor Haile Selassie. The man who was once described by the American government, in a manual which was compiled at the occasion of his visit to the USA, as "having something that commanded respect", and a leader who had garnered numerous achievements for both his country and his continent, was smothered to death by some members of the Derg.
Ketema Yifru with the then Finance Minister, Ato Mammo Taddesse
As for Ketema Yifru, he, along with Dejazmach Girmachew Tekle-Hawariat, Ato Mammo Taddesse, and many others, were all imprisoned for a period of almost nine years in the wine cellars of Emperor Menilek's Palace. During those eight long years, there were times when the military government would not permit them to see their families for a period of two to three years. When they did, however, Ketema Yifru would be seen coming down the hill flanked by armed soldiers. Then, in a small room, he would sit next to the Captain, while his family members, who sat next to the soldiers, talked to him from a distance.
In one occasion where Ketema was elected to speak on behalf of the prisoners, he asked a member of the Military Junta, why they were being held for all these years. To Ketema's surprise, the officer answered by saying, "We cannot free seasoned politicians, such as yourself, because one day you might turn things around on us." Ketema's release papers, which stated that he was jailed all these years for suspicions that he might have brought harm to the revolution if he was released at an earlier date, would later confirm the officer's explanation.
Ketema Yifru days after his release from prison
On September 2, 1982, almost nine years after their imprisonment, the Derg ordered the release of all the political prisoners that were held in Emperor Menelik's palace. To quote the African Research Bulletin's September 1982 piece, "Perhaps the best known figure among those freed was Ketema Yifru, the former Foreign Minister who played a prominent role in the creation of the Organization of African Unity in 1963 and in helping to resolve several conflicts across Africa."
Ketema Yifru with his friend, Mr. Diallo Telli, who was the first Secretary General of the OAU
Following his release from prison, only after the intervention of the Cote D' Ivoire (Ivory Coast) leader Felix Houphet-Boigny, in 1984, Ketema was permitted to leave the country (Pipeline: The World Food Program Staff Newsletter, No. 5 March 1994). In one of his memoirs Ketema writes, "Left Addis for Abidjan at 3.30 pm. My first flight in over eleven years." In his stay at Abidjan, Ketema met with President Houphouet Boigny and several other ministers, including his former colleague Mr. Arsene Assouan Usher (1966-1977) and the Foreign Minister at the time, Simeon Ake (1977-1990).
After his visit in Africa, Ketema found employment abroad as the World Food Program's (WFP) Special Adviser for Africa and shortly after he was assigned as Country Director in Kenya, and Area Director for East Africa. In January 1992, he was assigned as Special Representative for Africa, a post he held since his retirement in 1993. Since then, according to the WFP newsletter, Ketema assisted WFP to organize major meetings and conferences on Africa.
WFP's Special Adviser to Africa, Ketema Yifru, meets with UN Secretary General, Perez de Cuellar
During this period in Ketema's life, whether it was in Professor Haile Gerima's documentary film, "Imperfect Journey," or through other mediums, he shared the thoughts that he had about both his country and his continent. At one point, he told a reporter that his country had a lot of problems including its share of enemies. Ketema informed the reporter that all these problems could be successfully dealt with if the Ethiopian people faced them head-on with an unwavering unified force. Ketema, who believed that he had done the best he could for his country, while he was in the Emperor's government, understood very well that this was a new time and era. Therefore, he restricted himself to only giving advice to a generation that he believed could help the country with its own brand of new ideas and approach to solving the problems that have plagued our country for so many years.
Those who valued Ketema Yifru's advise came from different ethnic groups and diverse political backgrounds. Even though Ketema was used to giving advise to those who asked for it, he was surprised when he received an invitation from a particular political group asking him to attend one of their conferences in the mid 1980's. Ketema was surprised to find a letter that was written by some members of the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front (EPLF), asking him if he could attend their conference. Even though Ketema was one who believed in hearing out everyone's opinion, he was not able to attend the conference because of the political situation in Ethiopia. Many would later find out that Ketema was willing to give advise, as long as those who seek it understood that he believed in the well-being and the integrity of his beloved country.
On January 14, 1994, after being taken ill of pancreatic cancer, Ketema passed away in his beloved country.
The following are some of the newspaper headlines which heralded the death of Ketema Yifru;
Muday Pipeline (WFP Staff Newsletter) Zena Admas
The Monitor The Ethiopian Herald