Commentaries | Jun 05,2021
Dawit Yohannes was a reader. He loved all things political, as might have been evident from the fact that he was the first speaker of parliament with the advent of the federal republic system.
He loved reading to the point that he took up four books at a time. He would read one at his personal library; another at the dining table during meals; yet another during coffee breaks; and whenever he had time at home, or while on vacation, he would sneak in a fourth.
“He was not an emotional person, but very rational,” says a family member who declined to be named. “Discussions on political issues with him were very interesting.”
Dawit, who passed away on January 28, 2019, in New York, of complications from diabetes, did more than read about politics. He partook in it.
Born in Addis Abeba in 1956, he went to Teferi Mekonnen School. By the time he was four, political resistance was already brewing with the coup attempt on Emperor Haile Selassie under the Neway brothers, lighting a path for the decades of rebellion that would follow.
As Dawit came of age, finished high school and enrolled at Addis Abeba University to study law, a political crisis had already hit the fan. The Emperor was deposed, and a far more brutal regime had been installed. A bookish youth who had already experimented forming political groups in college, Dawit would join other urbanites who were none too pleased with the military junta.
The mid-1970s was a dangerous time for youth that lived in Addis Abeba, especially for those that were around during the Red Terror. He was forced to flee Ethiopia and journey along a path that would bring him into contact with political heavyweights and an opportunity to play a crucial role in the post-1991 Ethiopia.
He escaped out of Ethiopia through Sudan together with three other people, one of whom was Berhanu Nega (PhD), later a prominent politician. Dawit was the first to get a job in exile, thus had to take care of his fellow countrymen, according to the family friend.
True to his form, Dawit, a father of three, is described as caring for friends and family, not shying away from supporting those he could. He once took in a philosophy graduate relative of his, who had become mentally ill and ended up on the streets and her family broken up. He found her in a church after returning from over a dozen years of exile to Ethiopia, took her into his home and raised her children.
An admirer of the musicians Tilahun Gessese, Muhammad Ahmed, Aster Aweke and Rahel Yohannes, he was just as glad to see those that were close to him become happy. At a post-wedding reception he hosted, he was gleeful enough to roll up his sleeves and serve plates to guests, almost 100 of which were present.
Dawit himself was married in 1995 to Haymanot Kebede. It was a fateful time, for - aside from tying the knot - he had his first child, Lina, and was elected as speaker of parliament, which he served as for over a decade.
Before becoming speaker, he was a member of the Constitutional Commission of the Transitional Government of Ethiopia, serving as its secretariat. He had joined the EPRDF in its early years and took part in the founding congress of the coalition in the early 1990s.
It was the victory of the rebel forces that defeated the Derguethat allowed Dawit a chance to return to Ethiopia and play a part in its politics. The years before were spent in neighbouring Sudan, Europe and North America.
Having lived in Italy, Belgium and the United Kingdom before he was able to enter the United States, he continued his studies in Washington D.C. He went to Southeastern and Georgetown universities, the latter of which has notable alumni such as former President Bill Clinton and the late US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. He got his master's degree from the University of Amsterdam.
“My father put in as much effort as he could into everything he did,” Lina says.
Close friends also agree. Known as a patriot, one of the credits he is given is for playing a critical role in persuading members of the former Organisation of African Union that Ethiopia was stable right after the fall of the Dergueand summits should continue to be held in Addis Abeba.
After a decade as House speaker, he was appointed the permanent representative of Ethiopia to the United Nations, a position for which he was believed to have been well attuned.
“He had a good knowledge of world politics, and his chief source of information was the BBC,” the family member says.
He left the position four years later. Later a senior adviser to Ethiopia's mission to the UN, he continued to reside in New York until he passed away last month at Mount Sinai Hospital.
His funeral was held at the Holy Trinity Cathedral Church on February 3, 2019, which was attended by current Speaker of Parliament Tagesse Chafo and Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen.
PUBLISHED ON Feb 16,2019 [ VOL 19 , NO 981]
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