By Haile-Melekot AgizewÂ
Recently the Ancient Ethiopian Patriots Association, AEPA, voted for Lij Daniel Jote Mesfin to replace the former President of the association. Lij Daniel served the association for over seven years in various capacities. He feels that AEPA is strong enough to continue carrying out its mission under the new leadership together with its members, patriots as well as young and dynamic executives. He is the son of one of the prominent Ethiopian patriots of the second Ethio-Italian fascist war, Ras Mesfin Sileshi and the grandson of Jote of Wollega. The Ethiopian Herald made conversation with Lij Daniel during when they discussed a range of issues including the Battle of Adwa and the status of Ethiopian Patriots Association.
Herlad: Can you introduce yourself to our readers?
Lij Daniel: My Name is Daniel Jote Mesfin. I was born in Illubabaor Gore in 1936 to my father Ras Mesfin Seleshi and my mother Woizero Yeshi-Emebet Kuma. I attended elementary school at Miazia 27 School in Jimma, where my father was a governor. When my father moved to Addis as a Minister of Interior, I resumed my education at Teferi Mekonnen High School.
After attending 10th grade at General Wingate School, I left for England in 1962. In England I did my A and O levels of education. Then I got a chance to move to San Francisco, USA, where I joined San Francisco State University to do my first degree in Economic Development. In 1971, I came back to Ethiopia and started working for the Ethiopian Industrial Agricultural Development Bank which was then called AID Bank as a research officer. I worked there for almost four years until the military junta came and killed seven members of my families, including my father. On January the 7th, my four brothers and me had to flee to Kenya where we took refugee.
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Herald: What were you doing in Kenya?
Lij Daniel: While I was in Kenya I worked for Kenya Motor Corporation for one year. From Kenya I had to move to Europe because an assassination squad was sent to Kenya to kill the family of Ras Mesfin. The attempt was unsuccessful with the help of God and our long resistance. Moreover, the Kenyan government gave us a twenty-four hours protection. A month later, we were very fortunate again to have been accepted as refugees by the British government, where they issued us a passport to fly out of Kenya under very close security so that nothing would happen to us during the transit. When I reached England, I was again fortunate enough to be introduced to some Ethiopians which helped me to be part of a political organization to fight the communist regime at home.
Herald: Could you please tell me what you were doing abroad apart from your involvement in politics?
Lij Daniel: While I was involving in politics, I managed to get enrolled at Reading University in Oxford Shire to do my second degree in Agriculture Economics. Unfortunately, being a refugee and not having a government to support, finding job was not easy. I then decided to go to the United States because there was more opportunity for people like myself to indulge to many ventures. While I was in America, I was mainly doing feasibility studies for different companies. At the time I edited a book titled, â€œExotic Ethiopian Cookingâ€. It tells the culture of the country, the history and also its culinary art. I was again fortunate enough to have reprinted three editions of the book and 40,000 books were printed and sold for 20 USD.
I believe I have made some contribution in introducing and also expressing what Ethiopia was and still is. Ethiopia is not a country of famine. Ethiopians are diligent and hard working but because of the military junta, the economics of the country had been disturbed.
Herald: So when and how did you get back home?
Lij Daniel: When the sun rose in the horizon of Ethiopia, I was very fortunate to be one of very few that came back to the motherland to see what was left from the military rule. When I boarded the Ethiopian Airlines, I really felt something inside me that made me cry. I didnâ€™t know I was crying. The only time I remember was when I took out a handkerchief and cleaned my face. That was when I said I am home and I will come back with my wife and my family which I did in 1995. Ever since I came here, I was not looking for a job. I was trying to create a job. I came to Ethiopia and I managed to participate in an auction to buy a brick factory. I won the auction. I never got the title deed till today. The idea of my coming back was to build home for the citizens at the cost of a hundred birr per square meter which was very viable. During that time the bureaucracy was so harsh, so difficult, and it was even worse for the people who came from the United States. I managed to survive it with very little damage to myself that is why today I am here as you see trying to help the Ethiopian Patriots Association as President.
Herald: What was the main reason for the departure of the former President of the association? Some people say that corruption was the main reason. Do you agree on that?
Lij Daniel: You know, in any institution there is what we call a binomial curve in economics. Thatâ€™s something which comes up has to come down. The Ancient Ethiopian Patriots Association has been working together with quite a lot of dedicated Ethiopians. Because of lack of understanding of the needs of the patriots, the crack started to open wide and whatever little the patriots were getting was not reaching to the end user. I have been involved in the Ethiopian Patriots Association for seven years. I was participating as member of the development committee. We have been very instrumental in coming up with new ideas. However, only 5 per cent of those new ideas were implemented. The association by itself, like I said, needed to be changed. And a change came from within. It didnâ€™t come from outside. Like we say when two elephants fight it is the grass that suffers. In our case that happened when the president and vice president were at loggerhead one another. Definitely, the association was hurt. The patriots were hurt. As a result the government came to the picture to make sure that election took place and I was elected with the vast majority of the patriots.
Herlad: I believe it is very difficult to talk about patriots without mentioning the victory of Adwa. Who are members of the association now? Are there any mechanisms to bring more members form the new generation? If so, how?
Lij-Daniel: We have today close to 45,000 members. We also believe that there are another 10 or 15 thousands that are not registered and did not bother to come and claim what is rightly theirs. The present activity of the association is divided into two. One is to make sure that those forgotten especially; those that are staying in church compounds and on main streets or sometimes under bridges, are taken care of. We want to bring them into the association and give them what is rightly theirs. We will give them food or money and shelter. Out of the 45,000 letâ€™s say 5 per cent are at the age of early and late 90’s and they need to be taken care of. The association believes that its continuity depends on the new generation not in the number of patriots that diminishes as time goes .What the association is trying to do is to make sure that the torch of freedom to be passed to the young generation. In such a way, they will always be remembered. They have a strong character and strong determination of self reliance and rule. If we cannot transfer the torch to the new generation, the history of Ethiopia will be half read. Yesterday is something we will never see again. Today is something that we are seeing today and we all live. Tomorrow is the future which we donâ€™t know. Itâ€™s only if we remember and when we have the clear understanding what took place yesterday that we can have a clear picture of tomorrow. Its only then we will be able to stand today and continue tomorrow. Our younger Ethiopians, who live abroad and at home do talk about the valor of their parents, their relatives and the whole Ethiopian population. However, I donâ€™t think they have a deep and clear picture of what took place simply because the Patriots Associations of the past did not manage to do the right communication to the youth. Today, our main goal is to hit the drum of peace and reconciliation, not the drum of war. We want to beat the drum to call on all Ethiopians to work together. The Ethiopian Patriots Association can play a big role in doing this. If you multiply the 45,000 by four, then you are talking of close 200,000 people which is a big force by itself. That force can be used for the economic development of the nation. That force can be used to tell stories of the ancient empire. It will make the younger generation to look forward to seeing larger and stronger Ethiopia not just in the sense of armaments, but also in economics. We have seen Japan after the Second World War; we have seen Indonesia; we have seen Malaysia. Ethiopia can do that. In fact today Ethiopia is now being referred to as tomorrow’s Japan or Korea. This tells you something is being done. That is said by economists and states all over the world. That shows to you that we are on the right track and thatâ€™s where the Ancient Ethiopian Patriots Association is trying to make sure that the torch is still lighting. The association is talking about a new era of reconciliation. This is a new concept to the association. The drum of war has stopped. Ethiopia has become a country that sends its troops to sustain peace and democracy elsewhere in the continent. That is the role of our government today. The drum of war has to stop as far as the Patriots Association is concerned.
Herald: As the president of the Patriots Association whatâ€™s your view towards Italy at this moment of the celebration of Adwa?
Lij Daniel: We need to be able to talk to the Italian government to help us alleviate the dire needs of our patriots. Italy is a very benevolent country. Just because Bennito Mussolini had the fascist regime, tried to conquer Ethiopia with all their ill plans does not mean that the whole Italy was behind them. The manifestation was they hanged him in front of his own public.
Herald: Today is the 118th commemoration of Adwa. Whatâ€™s your feeling about this day? The anti-Menilik II views are currently entertained by some scholars and artists. What role you association could play on these inflammatory words that divide the public?
Lij Daniel : Adwa , the 1896 defeat of Italy by the barefooted Ethiopian gallant warriors has a big blessing in the world history. Emperor Menilik II, I prefer to call him â€œEmeye Menilikâ€ was very diplomatic Emperor that has managed to request the lords of the time to participate in the war by sending troops or money. For example from Wollega Dejazmatch Jote was asked to stay there and protect the boarder. He was, however, requested to send troops. It was the same with Kumsa Moroda of Nekempte. Others from Gojjam, Gondar, Shewa, Tigray and Harar were in the frontline. That war changed the history of the black people all over the world. There is no question about it. Anybody can say whatever they want to say but it has become the pride of all black people. If you look into the American history or the African history, 1896 was a turning point of all blacks to believe that one day they would be free. Today, in the White House they have a black President. In Africa we have now the United Africa. In South Africa even though, they came late into the picture of freedom, they finally made a black man who was in prison as the first President. The victory of Adwa in 1896 was the reason that we want to keep the torch for the future Ethiopians.
Herald: You mentioned that the Ethiopian government is understanding the interest of the patriots. How ?
Lij Daniel: You know the government of Ethiopia today is on the right track in the sense that it remembers from where it comes. It has not forgotten all the gallant warriors that have brought this country to where it is today. For example Adwa, Yekatit 12, and Miazia 27 are being celebrated in the sense that the government has recognized the immense sacrifices paid by patriots. Whether that share is enough or not thatâ€™s something else. The present government has assured the Ethiopian people that those days will be celebrated and patriotism will continue. What the association wants to do is not to convincing the government about the significance of the victory days because it is already convinced. It is however important that the celebration should be in such a way where the different parts of the Ethiopian states are involved. The celebration should take place with the government behind it. Each state has shouldered the historic responsibility of celebrating these days. The municipalities and all other members of the administration should take part in it. This is something a lot of Africans donâ€™t have. The only way we can make ourselves proud of our history is by making sure that the celebration is also supported not half way but all the way. We are already trying to stage a celebration which is going to be better than what was during the time of the Emperor. We want to involve the military. We want to involve the Korean Group and the Congo Group. We want to involve the scout . Itâ€™s a couple of hours affair. We hope the FDRE President will come. I am sure he will come. We hope members of the army will attend, core diplomats and military attaches and all the respected. What will make this celebration transpire into the hearts of everybody, you the newspaper guys. I will guarantee you the city will be a place of festival. We should not only focus on what is taking place today. We should show a little bit of the past so that we know where we come from. This country was built with the bones and blood of our ancestors. Emperor Tewodros started it; Emperor Yohannes continued. Emperor Menilk did Emperor Haile-Sellasie continued, and FDRE is doing the same. Today we are fighting anti-democratic forces. We fight AIDS, poverty, joblessness â€¦.etc. We can win all this if we stand on yesterdayâ€™s history and work together. Todayâ€™s patriots get six birr. Not even 1 USD a day which is about 200 birr a month. Meanwhile, the price of sugar, onion or salt has gone up. We want to increase that to at least 20 to 30 birr a day. We are going to ask our government to look into the matter. We also have plans to become self-sufficient. If the government of Ethiopia gives a tax exemption to people who help us, I will guarantee you a lot of businessmen will start stretching their arms. These are the things that we are trying to communicate with our government, and I know that the authorities will look into this and give us a quick and positive response. We are that much confident.
Do not forget that we are claiming what has been ours, the Blue Nile. And nothing strong will stop us. The Dam is being built by Ethiopians of today. And these Ethiopians came from Ethiopians of yesterday.