By Paulos Assefa
Ato [Mr.] Emmanuel Abraham, a prominent educator and watershed political figure during the Haile Selassie’s Government, died at the age of 103. He had a long career span as a Minister before the Derg dislodged the despotic regime from effective political power in 1974. Ato Emmanuel Abraham died of natural causes, said a relative. He was buried at the Petros-Paulos Church in Addis Ababa on Thursday 13 October 2016 – where a mammoth crowd paid condolences.
Emmanuel Abraham, fate’s favorite from day one, was born into a family of an Oromo ancestry on March 17, 1913, in a hamlet at Benti Adere in Boji, Wollega, in the house of his grandfather Malimo Gaama. He was the only surviving child of Ato Abraham Tato and Woizero [Mrs.] Quantu Malimo, whose three sibling: two sisters and a brother, all perished in infancy. His formal education was in the Swedish Evangelical Mission where he proved himself to be prodigiously clever. In 1925, as luck would have it, he replaced a candidate in Nekemte – whose mother was unwilling to let her only son go on scholarship to remote Addis Ababa, to the newly opened modern Tefferi Makonnen School (TMS). Among his contemporaries were Major General Wakjira Serada, Haddis Alemayehu, Abossey Dufera, Alemayehu Kitata, Gobenna Ayana, Bahru Kabba, Woldemariam Nemerra and Teffera Estephanos, among others. It was also here in TMS that Emmanuel, without excessive exertion, passed with flying colors all subjects, and won an award and accolades from Emperor Haile Selassie.
In his memoir, he described vividly how, after his graduation, he became a protégé of the Governor of Chercher District, Azaz Workneh Eshete aka Dr. Charles Martin, who recognized Emmanuel’s capabilities while he was a director of TMS. At the end of 1931, he took Emmanuel, when he was appointed Governor of Chercher, to the formerly called Asseb Tefferi (modern-day Chiro), a politically complicated place and diverse city, 325 kilometer away from Addis Ababa and west of Hararghe to start a modern school. Despite initial difficulties and disappointments largely placed on him from regressive and reactionary minded segments of the population, Emmanuel made his auspicious beginning with exuberant vitality and astuteness on December 1st 1931 with a cornucopia of merely 15 students ranging from 7 to 18-years old (one of whom was this writer’s father). To this day, his students recall him endearingly, and with infectious enthusiasm, as Gash Emmanuel as they relay the story of that school to their children and grandchildren, describing how Emmanuel flung himself into teaching with great gusto and skill. Outside the classroom, there was carpentry, soccer, billiards to play, songs and military marches, all new at that time. Besides Emmanuel, Tewodros Martin (the Anglo-Ethiopian), Olana Daniel, Betera Sadiq Kassa, Major Bekele Deboch and Abossey Dufera, two other teachers with unfailing patience, gave themselves generously and were always willing to help regenerate the youth.
It quickly became clear that most parents’ fear of the old religious order was in danger in that school was unfounded. The clamor for modern education was in earnest, and the numbers of students enrollment grew exponentially year after year. Also, more importantly, parents complied when asked to fund generously, while Workneh as Governor of Chercher paid from his personal accounts to cover expenses for textbooks that were bought from overseas. On top of all this, Emmanuel’s reputation as a Headmaster soared to prominence as he established a genuine rapport with the residents. A sharp change in his career occurred when Dr. Hakim Workneh took him under his wing to the United Kingdom in mid-1935 – where he became the Ethiopian Chief Minister in London.
Before the Italian invasion in 1935, besides instilling a respect for correct English grammar and rudimentary lessons in arithmetic, geography and science, the school intensely nurtured the students with a succinct roadmap and the proper mindset for the future development of themselves as individuals and of the country at large. A most telling example of this was that one of Emmanuel’s pupils, Belachew Wondimu who died heroically while defending the town against the Fascist onslaught. Others fought by joining their parents in a guerrilla war from the mountains of Chercher as patriots during the five-year occupation. In 1941, when the British King’s African Rifles (KAR) troops came as victors, these students played a crucial role in the administration as there was a high demand for English translators and interpreters. Decades later, some of Emmanuel’s fellow students became high-profile senior civil service servants, Generals, Governor, lawyers, chef de train and district school supervisors, among other things. Despite the school’s stunning achievement over a span of nearly four years, none of the teachers, foremost Emmanuel, were ever self-congratulatory. With characteristic modesty, he would unassumingly talk of his stellar achievements: the years at Chercher were among the happiest of his life. Correspondingly, he was remembered with enormous gratitude and discerning appreciation by his students.
Early in his career in London, Emmanuel carried a heavy responsibility on his thin shoulders as a secretary and amanuensis for nearly four years, taking directives from Hakim Workneh, drafting letters and memorandum to the high officials, and translating impromptu Amharic to English, and the vice versa, as the war intensified between Italy and Ethiopia. Since he was intellectually voracious, he hunted every bookstore and library for his reading, and went to plays, museums and cultural events, which were plentiful. More importantly, the defining moment of his life was when he became a lifetime member of the United Society for Christian Literature. It was at this critical juncture that, Emmanuel was noticed by the late Hiruy Woldselassie (the Foreign Minister) who had discerned his great capacity for hard work and recommended him to the Emperor, shortly after his influential patron Workneh left for India in 1939. During his stay in London, besides Amanuel Gebra Selassie, a fellow coreligionist of an Eritrean descent and an employee of the British Embassy in Addis Ababa, that was to figure significantly in his life. It was here also he met and be befriended the literary scholar Siraq Hiruy, studying in Brasenose College, Oxford, for his degree. What even more interesting was that he worked closely with the famous Ms. Sylvia Pankhurst (the mother of the renowned Professor Richard Pankhurst) as she single-handedly campaigned for public opinion against Italian aggression. After Emmanuel went through the unbearable blitz, food rationing, hardship and nostalgia, bone-numbing cold weather, the Emperor grudgingly conceded to his appeal, brought him back home in April 1943 to Addis Ababa, and to become his General Director of the Ministry of Education.
It was fairly evident from the start that Emmanuel, who was eminently qualified for that position, faced difficult hurdles like those of his predecessor, Makonnen Desta of Harvard, in the shape of Ras Kassa Hailu Darge, a notorious eugenist, arch reactionary and a Bishop of the Orthodox Church, who had habitually nursed an outdated paranoia about Oromos being in a unique and enviable political position. Nothing prepared Emmanuel for what he would confront. Employees at his Ministry bypassed him to report directly to the Emperor. It was like a never-ending grudge kept alive by hard-edge dynastic arrogance and their-too-often-willing accomplices. He refuted this stupefying charge that there were numerically less enrollments of the student population of Amharas than Oromos under the Emmanuel administration of the Ministry of Education. The problem was that none of it was true. The Emperor saw the list of students where the number of Amharas comprised disproportionately higher than any other ethnic groups combined together, he staunchly sided with Emmanuel. Best of all, as the funds from the national coffer increased, schools were accessible to all the provinces in the country. That was a significant development for the nation that was kept illiterate for centuries by priests and Shieks. He was also falsely accused of sending abroad for scholarship academically outstanding and meritorious students from poor family background rather than the patrician caste, whose academic performances were less than zero. As a matter of fact, those who had vaccinations prepared to go to abroad were replaced at the last minute by patrician families. On June 6, 1947, the Emperor knuckled under the jingoistic pressure of a group of inflexible hardliners and the Tewahado religious zealots, and removed him with back-handed compliments and kept him in limbo for two years without offering him a position. Such, at any rate, was the bane of the precarious political life under repressive feudalistic traditions.
Meanwhile, Emmanuel settled into a respectable marriage to Ms. Elleni Alemayeh of a Gonderi descent from a noble family for 55 years. She preceded him in death by fourteen years. The couple had two sons, Amenti and Dawit, two daughters, Ruth and Sarah, and grandchildren. One of his grandchildren is Ms. Naomi Eskinder, the apple of his eye, an alumnus of Swarthmore College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
During this time, Emmanuel, who hated idleness, started working tirelessly and endlessly, bringing his expertise honed by lifetime experiences to the Mekane Yesus Church (EECMY) and brought it abreast of the International Community of the Lutheran Churches. Since he had a natural vocation for writing and editing, he immediately started translating the book Diplomacy from English to Amharic – that was essential to enlighten those who were running the country’s foreign policy and the members of Parliaments, among others, and for the benefit of the nation. Prior to this, he was also one of the delegates sent to San Francisco to sign the United Nations Charter on June 26, 1945.
From 1949 through 1959, Emmanuel became an Ambassador, the Envoy Plenipotentiary to India, Italy and England in succession. With his elegance and always courtly manners, he played a prominent role in Rome where the bitter legacy of the 5-year Fascist entanglement had to be sort out. He represented the Emperor and his country with great diplomatic skills. And foreigners who interacted with him particularly in London during those tumultuous years admired him as the Greatest Ambassador that Ethiopia ever had.
After his diplomatic postings were over, Emmanuel’s star was again in the ascent as the Organization of African Unity (OAU) was in the throes of birth. He assumed the position of a Minister in his Majesty’s private cabinet from 1959-61, where vile political intrigues were rife. Then, he became the full-fledged Minister for Posts Offices, Telegraphs and Telephones for six years; the Minister of Communications for three years; and finally, the Minister of Mines for five years until the government, unsuspecting and with its hands in its pockets, was overthrown in 1974 for its bungling incompetency. He was imprisoned by the Provincial Military Administrative Council (PMAC) for nine months as a high-ranking member of the imperial government charged with neglect of duty and rapacity. He was released on January 7th 1975 with effusive apology by the military officials with fellow Ministers Menasse Lemma (an Egyptian born), Salah Hinit, Bitwoded Asfaha Woldemichael, among others.
Shortly afterwards, he served his church as the President of the EECMY for ten straight years. In this capacity also, he was a member of Executive Committee of the World Lutheran Church, where he played a significant role bringing the All-Africa Conference to this august body. In 1985, after he relinquished this post, Emmanuel, with his encyclopedic memory, decided to write his personal memoir, which had been incubating in his mind for years. The Norwegian Lutheran Church provided funds to defray the cost of publication.
Over the subsequent years, his book Reminiscence of My Life, was published in 1995 in Oslo: Lund forlag. That the reader’s reaction was staggering was an understatement. His writing style was elegant and lively in terms of a firsthand account of the imperial government from the views of a prominent Minister. The insight he brought to this picture (the outsider as the insider) is what caught the attention of this generation defrauded by Mengistu Haile Mariam, and worst of all, spearheaded by the racist views of Meles Zenawi and his cohorts currently running the country like a German Nazi concentration camp with an electronic police state. Most significantly, his memoir illuminates what has been elided from Ethiopians’ collective consciousness as a nation. The book is sui generis. The author received rave review from noted luminaries, such as Professor Emeritus Taddesse Tamrat, a preeminent authority on the Church and State in Ethiopia. Subsequently, this book was avidly read by university students and received the critical attention it deserved here and abroad. The memoir was praised for its even-handed and unbiased presentation. It was out of print, now re-issued by the Red Sea Press, New Jersey, and also translated into Amharic for the general public and published by Addis Ababa University Press
Throughout his whole long life, Emmanuel knew he was an Oromo and a Protestant. In a country predominately ruled by Amhara and Orthodox Christians for a century, this knowledge had never plagued him or turned him a disaffected man. Far from it, he was never a bitter man, unlike other non-Amhara, who converted their traditional religion and Amharnized their names to ingratiate themselves with the dominant culture, he remained true to himself – an authentic human being. Even more, he was generous to a fault. For this, I had firsthand experience while interviewing him for a book project that had taken a phenomenal amount of his time a few years ago. At times, he was victimized by some people who took undue advantage over him. One illustrious example of this: a person approached him with the legitimate grievance that he did not get a promotion for years, unlike his peers and colleagues with good family connections, which, of course, made this man even more envious and bitter. Emmanuel interceded on behalf of this wretched fellow and did his best to further his career, going so far to help him boost his self-confidence and lacerated ego. Unbeknownst to him, this man was the lowest scum and extravagantly ambitious, who could not work with others as equal. The irony of it was that this vicious Frankenstein’s Monster-like-character quickly turned to collude with Emmanuel’s adversaries and brought grave charges and imputations against him. Nevertheless, Emmanuel took this situation with inward smile and with supreme indifference.
A mother of two grown-up children recounted an episode to me in which, Emmanuel would go beyond the call of duty to help people. She was his secretary for a few years after graduating from the Commercial School in Addis Ababa. She announced to Emmanuel she was going to marry a young man within a few days. Shortly after he had congratulated her, he went to announce this good news to his wife, Woizero Elleni. On hearing this, she prepared a sumptuous lunch in honor of this bride. After the lunch was over, he excused himself to go to the bedroom to take a cat nap, and let the two ladies chat by themselves. In the meanwhile, his wife took this young lady by the hand into the kitchen and did what mothers do with their daughters advising her on with the day-to-day relationship in a married life. Finally, Elleni gave her a gift before she said good-bye to the bride. En route from his residence to the office, Emmanuel, who tended to speak carefully and laconically took a turn, advising her as he did years later with his own daughter Sahara before her marriage to Admiral Eskinder Desta. For this gesture, she always mentioned him with reverence as a father figure for his sage council since she lost both parents in her early years.
Nor was this all. Emmanuel, with great patience and good humor, put up with a social climber, who became a Minister for the short-lived Lij Endalkachew Makonnen cabinet, of an Amhara of Gonderi ancestry. This person, who had been to school in America was scandalized when he was young by the loose of sexual mores among the Oromos – where he grew up, compared to more repressive culture of his parents. Oblivious of how he was taking up Emmanuel’s time for such a trivial matter, he importuned the Minister to explain this cultural phenomenon to him. He did not turn on him in a fury. Emmanuel, the opposite of narrow-mindedness often bend backwards to be more helpful than critical, undertook patiently to explain out of compassion for this smug “scholar,” who was publishing a book for his incredulous reader.
Emmanuel, at age 102 – whose output never faltered – was giving interview as a repository of modern Ethiopian history without losing his early sprightliness. In Mesfin Fanta’s words, a Vice Minister who worked under him: “Emmanuel died as he lived, a truly great man.”