#Muhe Abdo: the Versatile Man, the Architect of “Nationalities Question”

BY Tullu Liban


When the issue of the question of nations and nationalities is raised Woelelign Mekonnen immediately comes to mind. “On the Question of Nationalities in Ethiopia” was, in fact, presented in X-Mass hall of the Haile Selassie I University by Wolelign and published in the student movement’s journal “Struggle” (Tagel) in November 1969. The article was a hallmark to change the narrative of the political struggle in Ethiopia. There is a long-held belief that Wolelign Mekonnen was the author of the document.

True, Wolegign was an upfront figure in the Ethiopian student movement and he was the one who led an airplane hijack operation in 1972 as one part of the struggle to abolish the rotten the imperial system of Ethiopia, of course, it was during that operation that he and his friends were killed.

When it comes to the Manifesto of “Nationalities Question in Ethiopia” Muhe Abdo was the architect of the document. Before the issuance of the document, revolutionaries who believed the struggle against the outdated monarchial system should take another dimension from the common mantra of “Land to the Tiller” were engaged in thorough discussion among their clique. They wanted Marxist Leninist Ideology to address nations’ self-determination. Muhe was the ghost figure in this school of thought.
Therefore, the radical circle set up a committee of 15 people (some say the number was less) and discussed how to frame the new line of struggle and bring to light taking in to account tangible realities of Ethiopia. Muhe Abdo, as a front runner proponent of the ideology, who was also respected among the university community for his deep knowledge of Marxist Leninist philosophy was tasked with the drafting of a breakthrough manifesto that could fundamentally change the political narrative of the country.
Given his political stature and fortitude to do so, Muhe Abdo successfully accomplished the assignment and tabled it for debate among comrades.

(Muhe told the development process of the document to his cellmate and comrade Demissie Kebede Serda during their detention at Maikelawi and that the “Question of Nationalities in Ethiopia” was written by himself delegated by the committee of few activists. He also told Demissie the reasons why Wolelign was delegated to take the responsibility of authorship.

(To attest that the document was a group project than a single person’s work, I recommend to readers to watch Dereje Haile’s interview on Arts TV with Mr. Gizaw Zewudu (November 24, 2019). It is recommended also to listen to SBS radio interview with Dr. Melakou Tegegn, Ex-EPRP leadership member (January 16, 2016). The former implies that the document was a group work and the latter proves how utterly the nations question discourse was influenced by Oromo political leaders such as General Tadesse Biru. According to Melakou Tegegn General Tadesse challenged Wolelign when the two met in prison).

To come back to the manifesto discussion, after Muhe finalized “the Question of nationalities in Ethiopia”, the next question was who should read it out in front of the university community which was hungry for change and in constant war with the feudal system. Some comrades wanted that Muhe should present the document he prepared as a principal owner.

Muhe didn’t want to accept the suggestions. The following three obvious reasons were analyzed to pass the document ownership to Wolelign. In the first place, Muhe didn’t want to send the impression that the issue was advocated by Oromos. Secondly, he didn’t want to allow as well the impression that the nations’ issue in Ethiopia was a Muslim issue. Thirdly, Muhe was not an orator in the spirit of the day. He was rather a reader, a thinker, and a philosopher who speaks less and listens much. The perfect fit to avoid all the suspicions impressions was the outspoken, and brave activist Woleggn Mekonnen.

By the way, even though he didn’t claim it in public, Wolelign was quite aware that he was from the Oromo roots in Wollo. He told an Oromo friend who was in the same school of thought that his father told him his genealogical line when he was on school break during university days. However, his father’s mother was an Amhara who never wanted her son to speak about his Oromo identity. One day when Wolelign was discussing his dad’s origin, Mekonnen’s mother overheard the discussion between the father and the son and she severely reprimanded the dad that he taught the son about his Oromo identity.

#Muhe as a Mentor

Muhe Abdo was also a vanguard member of the Haile Selassie I University Students Union (USUAA) leadership. He was one of the designers of movement agendas and an Oromo guru in the nationalist circle. He deliberately stayed on campus for long time (a decade) for he believed the university setting was the best haven for the struggle against the tyrant system and a suitable place to mentor and groom revolutionaries. In those long years, he was a counselor of revolutionaries. Many people Muhe to none in the depth of knowledge he possessed. If there was Haile Fida was his parallel. Both were the true disciples of Marxist Leninist ideology studying it by heart. Others also put Berhanemeskel Reda in this category. Muhe Abdo was a voracious reader, a mature politician, (a student of pedagogy and political science by trade) who was gifted to cultivate followers.

He was such a versatile thinker who also understood layers of oppression imposed on peoples of the Ethiopia bearing multiple identities: being a Muslim, an Oromo, a Worji clan member, all who are victims of the system. The Worji clan was denied landownership by design. The Worji Oromo clan were evicted from their ancestral land in Sendafa area because of their fierce resistance to Minilik’s army during the annexation process. As a result Muhe’s own family were internal refugee who fled to Arsi from Shewa. Muhe was also aware of the status of Muslims in Ethiopia.

#Muhe Abdo and Tilahun Gizaw

Tilahun Gizaw, the icon of student struggle who was assassinated by the Haile Selassie regime intellgence was not successful to be elected president of USUAA when he contended in 1968. He narrowly lost the election for the presidency of the Union of Students of the University (USUAA) to Mekonnen Bishaw. The contest was perceived as the struggle between commitment to the Ethiopian masses, represented by Tilahun Gizaw and reactionary reformism, represented by Mekonnen Bishaw. The regime sensed the contest as a fight between fanaticism and reason/moderation. Disappointed, Tilahun Gizaw withdrew from the university for one year. Upon his return, he had expanded his knowledge of revolutionary literature and its application in the Ethiopian context. He was close to the activists during the troubled spring of 1969. The man behind Tilahun’s success was Muhe Abdo. He mentored Tilahun for candidacy in the way the latter could outsmart his competitors.

In November 1969, (whilst he was a third-year political science student), Tilahun Gizaw was elected President of the USUAA. He became president in the same month as the ultimate challenge to the regime appeared in the student paper “Struggle” (the status of, and policy towards, nationalities of the country).

#Activism in Labour Union

As there were on and off times during his university days because of turbulences related to student protests, Muhe had no leisure time for himself. He was engaged in voluntary service for All Ethiopian Trade Union capacity building. He wanted to see a viable working class in Ethiopia. He was in close touch with AETU representatives.

After the mysterious killing of Mr. Abera Gemu, who was seen as a father of AETU (for he tremendously campaigned to for the formation of the trade union during Haile Sellassie regime) which was followed by disbandment of his colleagues, the leadership of Ethiopian Trade Union was taken over by Eritrean natives. This leadership was more consumed advocacy for Eritrean liberation than defending working-class rights. In reaction to this carelessness, a trade union named as Addis Ababa and Environ Workers Trade Union terrifically guided by Muhe Abdo. As he was mindful of the international situation, he corresponded with Warsaw Solidarity Trade Union (Socialist Countries International Union) and registered the Addis Ababa and Environ Trade Union in the socialist camp.

★See you with Muhe’s contributions in the Oromo resistance struggle in the next part

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