By Haile Tolla: I started reading Wore Negari: A Memoir of an Ethiopian Youth in the Turbulent 70s, by Mohamed Yimam, first copy right 2013, not only out of sheer intellectual curiosity, but also out of the years-old yearning for seeing the admirable history of my generation, of which I was a very small part, compiled carefully and objectively so that coming generations would learn valuable lessons both from our success and our failings. My pre-reading review: the back cover summary, the names I gleaned from the index at the end of the book, and the titles and subtitles in the content page raised this yearning even higher. Who will not learn something from the true story of Tesfaye Debesay, Berhanu Ejigu, Mezgebnesh Abayu, Yohannes Berhane, Nega Ayele, and the likes? And Of course, who else can write about these icons other than the one who had shared in their excitements and travails by working so closely with them, or the one who had done extensive research on their work and personal characteristics? Without a doubt, I though the author, Mohamed Yimam, was one of our leaders who, by working at various committees in the party structure had accumulated a wealth of information about the inner dynamics of the party and the people who led it. My yearning was not significantly diminished by the author’s disclaimer that he, despite ‘high sounding titles’, was not one of the leaders who shaped the path of the party (13). Then, I thought he might have researched the deeds and misdeeds of this individuals then and latter to speak so boldly about them. Half way through the book, however, disgust overwhelmed me into almost quitting reading it; clearly, neither had he worked so closely with most of those on whom he passed serious judgments, nor did he carry out any research. We, his readers, had to believe either him or the friends he claimed had told him about them, or despair, for he provides us no verifiable correspondences, diary entries, specific publications or articles corroborating the author’s bold assertions and character assassinations. The book was written mainly on the basis of hearsay, rumors, wild speculations, and to some extent, unwarranted extrapolations from the author’s limited experiences in the movement. Consequently, the author comes across as a troubled alcoholic, a drug addict, and a confused neurotic, who blames the victims – the generation the Derg had massacred indiscriminately in order to quash the EPRP, for all the pain our country went through, and for his personal failure to help his poor parents. To understand this misplaced blame, it is helpful to put the authors profile succinctly based on the author’s own account.
Mr. Yimam, after finishing high school at Weizero Sehin in Dessie, joined Jimma TTI in 1969.While in high school he was an outstanding student and a voracious reader. He read books on John F Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and Martin Luther king, developing a liking to the West (29). He started befriending Berhanu Ejigu while he was in 10th grade and Mr. Ejigu in 11th. The latter introduced the former to Marxist literature during the former’s summer recess from Jimma TTI. In his second year at the TTI the author became a student activist. He spent two years as a teacher at Harawecha in Harar after graduating from the institute, using his spare time of the first preparing for his college entrance exam, and that of the second for reading extensively Marxist literatures. In 1973 Mr. Yimam traveled to Wello on a friendly invitation of Berhanu, when Berhanu went out there to compile a report about the hidden hunger for a purpose undisclosed to the author. The same year Mr. Yimam joined what was then known as Haile Selassie I University. Not much later, he claimed to have joined a cell with membership too many, and attendances too casual to be one. Inviting one another at will, they formed a group of about 10 casual friends in what appeared to me to be a guest house (51). While still in this cell he was recommended to be a party member and he accepted it (54). Soon, he helped in duplicating and distributing Democracia. While still a member of this amorphous cell, he was assigned to work for CELU to give political education to factory workers in Wonji and Metehara, in one after the other. His assignment in Metehara cut short due to suspected exposure, he returned to his cell in Addis, found a job through his long time friend Mezy, and contributed several non controversial articles on coffee, Angela Davis, and Yekatit, and sneaked in an anti government pamphlets into an OAU summit, and, of course, his proudest accomplishment, reported on the 10th African Soccer Tournament. Still a member of a cell, he then went to Debre Zeit to pass an assesa. When the party required him to come back to Addis for party activities, he refused to comply and got assigned to the area party committee in which he attended only a couple of meetings before he ran away from his responsibility on the excuse of a threat to his life (133).
Then he joined the editorial board of Lab Ader, by then a semi-defunct party periodical, by his own admission, contributing “writings that were dry, hyperbolic, and plagiarized (99).” What was funny about this assignment was that how important the author felt receiving it, and how close he felt to the top leadership of the party, and how small he felt when he realized there was not much to be done in it. He said he accepted it anyway, for it was the least risky that matched his poor discipline, and his unwillingness to do any organizing work, and any work that required secrecy (99).
Finally, he joined the short-lived zone party committee, with his participation limited again only to secretarial and propaganda works, meaning with less risk to life and limb (143). This period was when EPRP had lost all its dependable cadres and was looking for anybody who can give it a modicum of normalcy. His only party committee assignment which the author gloats about, discounting his short lived one at Debre Zeit, thus came only at the end, after the party had lost the best and the brightest it had had.
It is with this skimpy and very troubled organizational experience that the author set out to write a book which is “…meant to be a human interest story about a group of young individuals, who in a generic sense, represent all the typical leftist youth of Ethiopia at that period (15).” What a herculean task!
Troubled I say for the author projected himself as a well-read intellectual capable of thinking for himself, while at the same time he, throughout, behaved like a cripple, fatally incapacitated by the shadows Berhanu and Mezy unwittingly cast upon him. Nowhere was this more clearly demonstrated than when the author and some of his friends were recommended for party membership for the first time and were asked for their opinion (54). Mr. Yimam writes:
Our reaction ranged from enthusiasm to muted indifference. He asked us what we thought about it. I felt the question was directed at me but waited until the others spoke. Mohamed said that he was pleased to be a member and others nodded. I probably mumbled “teru new” (it’s okay) visibly with less conviction, adding it is good we have become members (54).
The trained teacher, the outstanding university student, and the voracious reader who was well versed in Western and Eastern political and ideological thoughts meekly submitted to the party he doubted, and blamed it on Berhanu who was only one grade higher than him in high school, and one or two years older than him, if at all. After accepting his membership with no question asked he complained his recruitment was not open and fair and went on to say,
“Deep down I resented what Berhanu had done to me and to the others (55).” One only wonders what more should Berhanu have done to scotch Mr. Yimam’s latent doubts and resentments? Had he raised his doubts, he should have addressed them. Had he asked for time, he should have granted him. Had he expressed his unwillingness to get involved in partisan politics, he should have respected his decision. Absent any of these, why resent Berhanu, and thereby the party?
From Mr. Yimam’s resentment of his recruitment, I expected him to ditch the party in a matter of weeks. His assessment of the Ethiopian political situation after the Derg’s declaration of rural land distribution farther strengthened that expectation. To him the declaration on rural land distribution swept away the support of the peasantry from the party, leaving the national question as the only unresolved contradiction which the party was not well fitted to exploit (64). He went on to say that the language of the Derg, EPRP and all the other organizations became indistinguishable even for the intellectuals, let alone for the common people, and EPRP made no strategic change, fighting the government by itself (66). In spite of such dire assessment, he said, “Our cell began to assume more aggressive role in the distribution of leaflets in plants, schools, and other areas (66).” A few lines down he told us how trapped he was by his own indecision:
In our group Mesfin emerged as a leader, receiving more sensitive information from Berhanu. I was beginning to delve more and more into revolutionary activities although I was never resolved about completely committing for it. I was very ambivalent and made that known to Mesfin and Sahle (66).
Yet, he lingered with all his doubts and ambivalence; neither would he advocate any change, nor would he get out, even though he cites no physical or psychological duress to keep him in.
Besides, the EPRP believed in armed struggle from the very beginning and the author didn’t. After singing the party’s anthem that espoused violence with his fellow party members, according to him, in an alcohol induced trance, he clearly stated how he was not for the armed struggle:
I could sense some of them got emotional about this and meant it. As I lay down on the floor, staring at the ceiling, I wondered to myself if I had what it takes to take up arms. I instinctively reacted negatively to the concept of armed struggle. I did not really want to commit my life for the cause, not yet (72).
Once again, he is on the side line: neither was he decidedly inside nor outside of the party. Yet again, he did not prompt a discussion on the subject in his cell. Nor did he make any attempt to advocate a peaceful path to liberation. He could not muster the courage to quietly reject the party either. On the contrary, he harbored his negative outlook on the most crucial issue of the revolution and continued to languish in the party that had nothing he liked about. Mr. Yimam, a full-fledged adult, a well trained teacher, and a university scholar, with an experience of a student activist since his days in Jimma, had, by way of lamenting the sacrifice of another activist, the audacity to finally tell us: “He was in a sense like me, railroaded into becoming a member by the group he belonged to and identified with (83).” For goodness sake! A person of his profile railroaded into membership by the group he belonged to? Does he really want his readers to believe this and feel sorry for him and blame the EPRP?
A few pages down, when he thought he had a more appealing victim of group influence, he debunked his fiction of his being railroaded or of being unfairly recruited, and reluctantly accepted personal responsibility for a change:
When we joined the party, there was no way of knowing what was coming up, although people like me have no reason to blame the party but their own weakness. I had no illusion about what could happen to us, but was slowly being dragged, partly because it seemed a heroic thing to do, and mainly because, in my case, I was too weak to resist and too naive to believe in the goodness of our cause for our country (emphasis mine). Aya, on the other hand, had now become dependent on the group and on the subsidy of the party for his sustenance after his mother’s houses were expropriated by the government (83).
Alas! Such are Mr. Yimam’s pathetic lies, debilitating suspicions, and endless prevarications that filled his book published, heaven knows, by what kind of publisher. Beneath all these lies and prevarications lurks the troubled life of an individual who trapped himself by his own fear and opportunism in a dynamic party he never believed in and was never ready for, and who is now out to prove that all left oriented youth of that period in our country behaved like he did – functioned only with the boast of alcohol and khat, doubted their conviction every minute, lived in constant trepidation, and suffered from occasional neurotic episodes. Indeed, all these were true to the author. There is no need to cite pages to support the author’s khat and alcohol abuse. His book is replete with them. It was like he could have allayed his fear and suspicion only when he had tranquilized himself with khat and araqie. Even then, his fear and suspicion never lost their firm grip on him totally. In fact, they continued to torment him until he finally lost his mind and sought treatment in a lunatic asylum (105).
This is the checkered organizational past and the tormented personality of the author from which he draws his authority to pass damning pronouncements on so many, and wants to project his suspicion ridden, alcohol and drug addicted, and politically undecided existence to be that of “all the typical leftist youth of the time”
Bogus! Ours was the macchiato generation, the generation that condemned jolly-jackism, emphasized sobriety, and lived by revolutionary discipline of gentility, frugality, and secrecy. Our best moments were discussing our critical reading of history and revolutionary literature, or dissecting the panel discussion we attended lately, or watched on TV the night before, over coffee, in our small informal groups, in the various cafes we frequented. Drugs and alcohol, Mr. Yimam, were consumed by very few only rarely, if at all.
Our involvement was conscious and informed as it was bold, dedicated, creative, and critical. Even though both, our leaders, and we, the followers, had made some costly mistakes. We knew our leaders were not infallible intellectual giants, but dedicated revolutionaries, who, most likely, were only a few years older and a few books smarter than us. So, we criticized their mistakes, while admiring their courage, love of county, and dedication. We never thought revolution would be a walk in the park, not so, especially when we were faced with a military junta and its mindless collaborators who were determined to exterminate a whole generation in order to get to EPRP. It was not our tactical or strategic mistake that brought about the massacre of the Ethiopian youth, but the never-seen barbarity of the state and its collaborators, who mobilized all the nation’s military hardware and intelligence net work to indiscriminately jail and kill the Ethiopian youth, including under aged children, unless surrender to them. EPRP was their target; their war, however, was against all those who were older than twelve and younger than forty and didn’t prove their loyalty to the state. The only way to avoid that was to submit to the Derg, disband EPRP and cease all opposition activity. Short of that even MESON didn’t escape the scourge of the Derg.
So, when the author tells us Wallelegn was adventurous(22), when he, with no ground, suspects Mesfin to have died driving under the influence of alcohol(55), when he alleges Aya died for the subsidy the party used to pay him(83), when he tells us Berhanu might have agreed to accept his last assignment in Sidamo for he saw a better chance of survival outside of Addis(131), when he tells us he died after he had given up on what he was doing(140), when he tells us Mezgebnesh was mad at the party because of Berhanu’s death, despite the fact that she passionately continued her struggle for years thereafter(140), when he tells us Arabu was a womanizer and a drunkard who lacked courage(110), when he tells us Jale Bia was a cold-blooded traitor who betrayed the trust of his best friend by aiding and abating his murderers(158), when he tells us Tesfaye Debesay’s walking habit to save money was meaningless(109), when he tells us almost all of those who worked with him and those who didn’t used khat and araqie as their driving force, when he tells us a lot of Zemaches turned into alcohol and sex and our sisters became uncontrollable(74), etc, we, the living who very well know that generation, find his character assassinations deplorable, and his political pronouncements trivial. Fundamental fairness, common human decency, and basic intellectual integrity bar any serious author from accusing long gone defenseless souls of such damaging offenses without any supporting proofs. More than anything else, I see a serious lack of credibility, for he had had no serious, deep organizational involvement and dependable mental stability to speak with the authority he assumed.
Consequently, tarnishing the revolutionary history of our fallen heroes so nonchalantly makes this author yemoot wokash. No wonder he lacked the courage to ask the late Mezgebnesh to go through the manuscript, for his book was as much about her as it was about him. Her input would have helped him more than that of the ones he relied on. And he had so many precious years to give her this chance.
For all these reasons, this book fully exposed the tormented and demented past of the author for whom I feel deeply sorry. It, however, miserably failed to accomplish what it set out to – telling ‘the human interest story’ of the left oriented portion of that generation, as a source of lessons for the coming ones. In fact it failed to do justice even to those the author got the chances to work with closely and know better. So, after finishing reading it, I really felt I wasted my time.