We live in tenses. ‘Is’ becomes ‘was’, ‘are’ becomes ‘were’. The future becomes present, and then it becomes past. And life is full of commas, colons, asterisks, dots, dashes and full stops.
But there are some who defy the rules of nature, grammar and punctuation. Even if they are not here with us, their presence is always felt. After their passing, their legacy speaks with us. It is hard to put a period or an asterisk at the end of their life stories or to narrate their good deeds in the past tense.
Like his legendary peers Tilahun Gessese, Laureate Poet Tsegaye Gebremedihn, Bealu Girma or Berhanu Zerihun, among many others, Mulugeta Lule is one such giant Ethiopian whose rich legacy will live on. He is gone without a farewell but remains to be one of the most influential and brighter journalists in our history. It is very unfortunate that Ethiopia doesn’t have something like a Pulitzer Prize or a lifetime award for distinguished public service.
The guaranteed prize for distinguished and courageous service is mostly either being locked up in the dark dens of injustice or being forced into exile, even if you are lucky to escape the killing fields and torture chambers. So many journalists have gone through hell for just telling the inconvenient truth that tyrants hate to hear. Mulugeta has experienced, seen and witnessed it all like a horror movie.
When I met Mulugeta Lule for the first time, I was just testing the waters of journalism. At the time, he was the founding editor of Tobia, one of the leading political publications in the country. He was also Vice President of the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists Association (EFJA). Veteran journalist Kefale Mamo was the president at the time. Both of them used to encourage and inspire those like me to take up the challenge.
It was evident for me from the start that there were no opportunities but dire risks and threats. I went to his office in 1996 to ask if he had a vacant position for a cub reporter. He paused and thought for a moment. Then he said my writing in English was so good that I should rather work for an English publication.
He called a well-known Ethiopian who was running an English weekly news digest. The person he spoke to happened to be Dr. Hailu Araya ,who was the managing editor of Press Digest. It was published by Phoenix Universal Plc., a joint venture formed by Dr. Hailu, Ato Amha Dagnew, and Ato Girma Beshah, who was arguably Ethiopia’s most multi-lingual linguist who spoke several local and foreign languages.
Mulugeta fixed an appointment for me. I went to Dr. Hailu’s office the next day which was located around Meskel Square. As soon as I arrived, he asked me if I was sent by Mulugeta Lule. I nodded in agreement.
He told me to sit down gesturing toward a chair. He continued his work for a few minutes and then he picked up his keys. “Let us go. Follow me,” he said and I obeyed.
I was wondering where he was taking me. I was supposed to have an interview. After driving quietly for about fifteen minutes, he explained to me that I should pass a test before he made a decision to take me or not. So the test was at the then Russian Exhibition Center, which was located behind the city hall. I passed his tests and was hired for 700 birr a month, which wasn’t bad for a fresh graduate. Even if I didn’t stay long as I got another job, Mulugeta was actually the one who got me that job.
After a year or so, I heard that he left for the U.S. permanently. The reality was that the whole Tobia publication and its journalists were under siege for a while. They had so many pending court cases, a systematic way of giving legitimacy to repressions, and Tobia’s journalists were routinely in and out of jail. When I met Anteneh Merid, one of Tobia’s editors and writers now living in Ottawa a couple of years ago, he and his wife remembered those dark days with great sadness. The trauma was too evident to miss. Exile is a harsh punishment by itself.
After so many years, I met Mulugeta again in Washington DC at ESAT. Surprisingly he did not change much. He was still a journalist, his spirit was still fresh and youthful. His recollection was razor sharp. He started journalism over fifty years ago. But he never got too old or tired for journalism. It was his life.
I used to call him whenever I needed his wisdom or help to connect me with someone. His extensive network was amazing. He had so many plans including finishing a book that he started a while ago. Though he has written so much and chronicled the good, the bad and the joyous events in Ethiopia, his truly amazing life story was not written and told in full.
He edited and wrote for the the leading newspapers and magazines in the country. He was an extraordinary witness to history who memorized detailed events, people and speeches. Well-read, deeply knowledgeable, humble and sociable, he never looked down on others. He was everyone’s friend. Age, gender, education, ethnicity or religion never mattered to Mulugeta. He talked and joked with everyone.
He has repeatedly advised me never to give up on journalism. He wanted me to plough ahead despite the difficulties and hardships of being an Ethiopian journalist persecuted and chased away like so many others. The profession we have chosen is a calling for endless sacrifices.
I remember his excessive joy to witness my challenge against Meles Zenawi. He told me several times that it was one of the happiest moments of his life to see the tyrant swallowing the bitter pills of truth in humiliation.
“That coward looked like a rat out of water. He couldn’t even muster up a reply,” he said laughing heartedly.
One of his favorite quotes was what Edward G. Bulwer-Lytton said: “The pen is mightier than the sword.” How true is that to a man who used his mighty pen to terrorize the coward tyrants that out of fear of the truth continue to persecute those who raise pens that will ultimately bring them down.
Mulugeta has passed away but his enduring legacy will live on. We do not need to shed tears for this man as he has touched, inspired and enlightened so many hearts and minds. We must celebrate and pay tribute to his legacy. He has inscribed and breathed powerful words that will continue to speak to us and to generations to come. There is no past tense, full-stop or inverted coma in his life.
Mortal men and women need a break at some point in their lives. The only people that can justify their sudden passing with no regrets are those who have given and served so much. The born penman fought for and served his nation to the last breath. His sudden departure is not unjustified. It is just a time to rest and have a proper break. What a life!
Mulugeta has inspired and touched so many hearts. His last public speech was about the legacy of heroes and heroines. He reminded us that we Ethiopians are only good at sacrificing our heroes; not at celebrating and honoring their sacrifices. Sadly, it is our tradition to celebrate our distinguished citizens after they are gone. Mulugeta Lule’s lifetime achievement award should be preserving his legacy as a bright light in the darkest hours of our nation. That must continue until the bells of freedom ring and the gates of prison are wide open.
In his own words, a country without freedom and dignity is not yet born. Let there be freedom and dignity to make the dreams of our forefathers an enduring reality. Let us all fight for the full birth of our country, where everyone of us gets the dignity, equality, rights and privileges we deserve as citizens of a nation.
For that to happen, he advised, tyranny and its loyal servants must be destroyed once and for all. Amen!
May Almighty God rest his soul in eternal peace!
Tsegaye Gebremedhin’s poem