Remembering the revolution
By Yemane Nagish
Born in Adwa, Tigray region, in the early 1940s, Fisseha Desta (Lt. Col.) attended his elementary education at Nigiste Saba School in his hometown and his secondary education at Agazi School in Adigrat.
He moved to Addis Ababa in 1947 and enrolled at Kotebe Secondary School and later joined the then Haile-Selassie I Military Academy (later known as Harar Military Academy) in 1952. Three years later, he joined Kibur Zebegna (Imperial Bodyguard) and was specifically assigned at the Emperor’s Palace which gave him an opportunity to observe palace activities up close. He later received advanced military trainings in the US. By the time the revolution of the 1974 broke, he was studying law at Addis Ababa University School of Law (then Haile-Selassie I University). The revolution brought Derg, which promulgating itself as the Provisional Military Administrative Council (PMAC), to power and Fisseha became a member of the politburo. After the formation of the Workers’ Party of Ethiopia and the establishment of the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, Fisseha served as deputy to former President Mengistu Hailemariam (Col.). After serving a 20-year jail term for convictions on crimes against humanity for the atrocities of the 17-year Derg regime, Fisseha, along with other former Derg officials, was released from jail in 2011 on parole. Following the launch of his long-awaited book titled ‘The Revolution and My Reminiscences’, Yemane Nagish of The Reporter caught up with the former Derg official and Vice President of Ethiopia for an exclusive interview. Excerpts:
The Reporter: Have you played any role during the revolutionary days of the early 1970s?
Fisseha Desta: At the time I was studying law at the Addis Ababa University School of Law. I was a military officer then, which meant we had strict orders to avoid politics and simply focus on our education only. Other than being a mere observer we were not able to play any meaningful role because we were also closely monitored. But I occasionally go out of campus and talk to my friends at Kibur Zebegna to assess the situation. I used to meet with some soldiers and low rank officials underground. All of us believed that there needs to be a regime change. I may not be an active player, but I was anti-feudal like every youth at the time. When the revolution broke, I was picked by fellow soldiers to represent the Third Brigade when Arategna Kifle Tor (Fourth Military Division) was established.
How come you were picked to represent the Third Brigade while you were not an active player?
The soldiers under my command had a lot of faith in me because of my leadership [capabilities] and the trainings I gave them. In fact, I initially refused. But they insisted I represent them. I can say it was bordering on the forceful. It was difficult to predict where the revolution was heading but I could not refuse the responsibility they bestowed on me. It was a difficult time and I thought I could play some role in resolving some issues.
Now that you have seen three regimes, what are your thoughts about the Haile-Selassie regime in hindsight?
It is a feudal system which was backward even compared to countries in Africa, let alone the rest of the world. The land system, the level of illiteracy, backwardness and so on were the weaknesses of the regime. On the other hand, the Emperor had some qualities. He was highly regarded in Africa and the rest of the world. But internally the country was entangled in economic problems, unemployment, illiteracy and the land tenure system. When I look back, I see the strengths and weaknesses of the regime. However, the regime failed to rectify its weaknesses in time. Also, instead of an absolute monarchy, the emperor could have established a constitutional monarchy to ensure its survival. It was a lost opportunity. Besides, it was a time that socialism was gaining prominence not just in Ethiopia but around the world. The feudal system was doomed to collapse because the young and the progressive were eager to introduce a socialist system.
Socialism was spreading like wildfire at the time. And you still seem to hold a firm belief in this ideology. Are you of the view that the faults were in the manner it was implemented?
I do believe socialism is the way to go. It is a good system that stands for the exploited mass. [Karl] Marx says socialism should come after capitalism. But I do not agree with that. As [Vladimir] Lenin said, backward countries, with the help of socialist countries, can establish a socialist system through national democratic revolutions. However, there were many shortcomings to that. The problem occurred when individuals began to exploit the system for their own personal gains. That is when the system began to go off the road. In addition, the democratic aspect of socialism is very loose. Democracy and socialism should be intertwined. How to do that may require a lot of work. But in my view, social democracy has a huge benefit. It ensures public participation as well as democracy, equality and the rule of law. That is my preference and many countries, including Sweden and other Scandinavian countries, follow this system.
Let us talk about your book. What was your objective when you set out to write this book? There are many similar books out there including the ones by Fikreselassie Wogderess (Capt.) and Mengistu Hailemariam (Col.). What new perspective or information do you think your book adds?
I decided to write this book so that young people would know and learn from our struggle, our shortcomings and strengths. I was at the forefront of the revolution and I believe that I have an obligation to tell this generation what I know. My other objective is to apologize for all the wrongs we did as progressive and young military officers at the time so that this country comes to a genuine reconciliation so that it moves forward.
Indeed your book is the first to begin with an apology from other books written by former senior Derg officials. Many people have appreciated the gesture during the book’s launching ceremony. What impact would this bring to the polarized and often heated discussions regarding the politics of the 1970s and 80s?
We have had some good things as well as some bad ones. To apologize for the wrong things, I believe, is the right thing to do. It might have started with me but I do not think it should end here. Others, who wronged the people, should also apologize. But some people may not want to do so. But I do what I believe is right. Every political organization that was in operation at the time has done some wrong unless it is a case of denying the fact that you are wet while swimming. Yes there is still political extremism. But how long are we going to continue like that? Can we not take a moment and reconcile? Should the young inherit such hatred and vengeance? I do not think so. Yes, in the past we have exchanged fire but times have changed. It is wrong to follow the same course. The world is leaving us behind. The South Africans had their national reconciliation; but we are still arguing. This has to stop.