African powerhouse lived to see change in Ethiopia
She was Hannah Yilma, an Ethiopian legend whose story has the makings of a Hollywood movie. In her retirement from the UN as a former spokesperson for UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, she became an institution in Pretoria - within the diplomatic corps, government circles, and among organisations committed to social upliftment.
Yilma came from the Ethiopian intelligentsia, her grandfather having been a renowned Oromo oral historian, and her father having served as the finance minister and foreign minister to the last emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie.
Selassie was the 225th emperor of a 3000-year-old Ethiopian dynasty, and while presiding over a monarchy earned the respect of the anti-colonial African leaders such as Kenneth Kaunda and Jomo Kenyatta, as he convened the first meeting of the OAU in 1963.
When Mengistu Haile Mariam overthrew Selassie in an exceedingly bloody coup in 1974, his henchmen assassinated the emperor and most of the cabinet at the time, save for Yilma Deressa, Hannah’s father.
He was spared as he had been instrumental in the formation of the modern Ethiopian military, and the rank and file would not have accepted his killing. Instead he was imprisoned and died of cancer five years later.
Mengistu headed the military junta, or the Derg, which ruled Ethiopia with an iron fist until 1991. The worst period of brutal repression became known as the Ethiopian Red Terror, and by the end of Mengistu’s reign it is estimated that up to 2million Ethiopians were killed.
It was from this brutal dictatorship that Yilma and some of her closest family members escaped in the early hours of one morning after the coup.
A handful of relatives and young children hid in the long grass on a deserted air strip on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, while a small light aircraft flew into Ethiopia under the radar from Nairobi.
The escape was planned in secret over months, with the assistance of Nairobi-based journalist Mary Anne Fitzgerald, who went on to become famous for her international war reporting and opposition to Daniel Arap Moi’s regime.
Mengistu had sent assassins to both Kenya and later Sudan to eliminate Yilma, because she was considered a political threat to the regime.
On one occasion she had managed to corner the assassin sent to kill her, managing to convince him to escape Ethiopia and start a new life.
Yilma embarked on a long journey of resistance in self-imposed exile, from where she organised radio broadcasts from Sudan, and an underground network to smuggle persecuted Ethiopians out of the country.
Later based in London for over 20 years, Yilma succeeded in getting countless Ethiopian refugees into the UK who had fled the regime. She became a legend to the persecuted - the mysterious woman who worked tirelessly in secret to save a human chain of Ethiopian asylum seekers.
In the modern history of Ethiopia there had never been an Oromo leader until February this year, when 42-year-old Abiy Ahmed was elected prime minister, ushering in a sea change in the country’s political trajectory.
In the space of seven months Ahmed has unravelled the authoritarian system built up over the decades since Mengistu took power. He has done everything that Yilma fought for quietly behind the scenes over the past 40 years.
Ahmed has released thousands of political prisoners, made peace with Eritrea and Somalia, unblocked hundreds of websites and TV channels, and promised to usher in truly democratic elections in 2020.
Ahmed has even started to dismantle the intricate patronage network that has kept the EPRDF in power for decades.
The irony is that Ahmed’s rise to power came as Yilma began her short but difficult fight against cancer. From her hospital bed in recent months she praised Ahmed’s lightning reforms, and insisted that Ethiopia was on an irreversible course towards genuine democracy.
For the first time her anger towards Ethiopia’s governing elite dissipated, and it was clear that Ethiopia’s political change gave her the peace she needed.
Hannah Yilma was a proud African and a true Ethiopian patriot, and now that her country is finally charting a new course it is hoped that Ethiopians will embrace her legacy and contribution.
* Ebrahim is the group foreign editor for Independent Media.