The year 1974 was the beginning of a new era for Ethiopian politics. The Emperor's regime was replaced by low ranking-military officers known as the Derg. Led by Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam, also known as the black Stalin, the Derg and their death squads produced the bloodiest years in the country's history. They began their rule by focusing their attention on the Emperor's former officials. The Derg intensified its negative propaganda against the former regime, most of whom where now political prisoners, while at the same time deciding to create an inquiry commission to investigate them.
It was a surprise to many when Mesfin Woldemariam and Dr. Bereket Habteselassie eased their way into becoming the co-chairs of the infamous Inquiry Commission. While Dr. Bereket Habteselassie was himself a former member of the Emperorís regime, the then Ato, now Professor Mesfin Woldemariam taught Geography at the Addis Ababa University.
While their appointment to the commission remained a mystery, many, including the families of the prisoners, believed that the co-chairís investigation would be fair and one that would be carried out in a dignified manner. As it turned out, nothing could have been further from the truth. The co-chairs had their own personal agenda that was fueled by envy, personal vendetta, and a pathetic attempt to carry favor with the Derg.
Nothing was sacred to the co-chairs: they ordered the families of the captives to provide a list of all their belongings, including such items as chairs, tables, clothing, etc. Officials, such as Tsehafi Tizaza Aklilu Habtewold, were paraded in front of the co-chairs to be publicly humiliated by them. The tone that was used was extremely disrespectful, considering the age and accomplishments of some of the officials. The idea then was to hide their accomplishments and to paint a grim picture about the country during the Emperorís reign. Overnight, the co-chairs had become the attack dogs for the Derg. While such a behavior was expected from the likes of the Mengistus, it certainly was not a behavior that many expected from individuals like Bereket Habteselassie and Mesfin Woldemariam, who knew that their actions could jeopardize the lives of the former officials, now prisoners.
As part of the inquiry, the prisoners and their families were interviewed and asked to complete various forms to account for their assets and personal belongings. Apparently, it was all a public relations campaign that was orchestrated by the Derg and the co-chairs. The Commission, among other things, through the question and answer sessions, was successful in creating a highly charged environment. In the end, Dr. Bereket and Ato Mesfin effectively and successfully accomplished the Commissions objective and publicly humiliated the likes of Akilu Habtewold, who we now know had served his country above and beyond the call of duty.
On November 24, 1974, the doors of the prison cells were opened and soldiers began reading the names of 60 political prisoners, all of whom, including Aklilu Habtewold, were executed the very same day. In a book titled, ďThe Memories of Colonel Mengistu,Ē former President Mengistu Hailemariam, stated that when asked about their investigation, the co-chairs had said that the guns held by the soldiers were greater than their pens. Regardless of whether Mengistuís claim is valid or not, it is important to understand that those two individuals had played a major part in sealing the fait of all the prisoners, those executed as well as those imprisoned for many years.
The transformation of a man, who had once headed the infamous Inquiry Commission, is, to say the least, astonishing. Mesfin Woldemariam, known for persecuting those defenseless prisoners, ironically, founded the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO) and became a human rights defender. During the trial of the former Derg officials, Mesfin Woldemariam surprised the entire nation when he made a statement that exonerated the defendants of all charges, including the murder and imprisonment of innocent civilians. Mesfin Woldemariam, whom some will consider a political liability, is now a high ranking member of Kesete Damena, a political party that was formed in opposition to the ruling party in Ethiopia. Mesfin Woldemariam, who headed the commission that was created to humiliate and create a false image of Emperor Haile Selassieís former officials, is now seen praising the Emperorís regime. To quote Professor Mesfin Woldemariam, ďThe achievements of the Atseís regime are quite substantial and cannot even be compared with those of the regimes that succeeded it.Ē Mind you, this fact never occurred to him while he was publicly humiliating Aklilu Habtewold in 1974. Now that the Emperor's government is getting favorable reviews from the Ethiopian public, one is not surprised to see Mesfin Woldemariam, a shameless opportunist, jumping on the bandwagon.
History has a funny way of resurfacing after being hidden for so many years. While the likes of Aklilu Habtewold and his colleagues are long gone, all aspects of their history, including their harrowing experience with the infamous Inquiry Commission, will never be forgotten.