19 March 1975, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
(aged 55 years)
Tadesse Birru (circa 1920 – March 19, 1975) was a Colonel General of the Ethiopian Imperial Army and an Oromo nationalist. Initially a strong proponent of Ethiopian unity, Tadesse eventually became an activist for the empowerment of the Oromo people in the 1960s. His advocacy turned into repeated attempts to overthrow the government through a coup and later through a military rebellion. He was eventually captured and executed by the Derg regime. He is considered to be the father of modern Oromo nationalism.
Tadesse was born in Salele, in the Shewa province of the Ethiopian Empire during Emperor Haile Selassie’s reign. His father, Birru, was killed by poison gas during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War and his mother died of grief three months later.
Left without a family, Tadesse joined his uncle, Beka, as a member of the Arbegnoch, a guerilla army of Ethiopian patriots who fought Italian occupation. He was eventually captured and sentenced to life in prison with hard labor in Mogadishu, Somalia where he remained until the British captured Mogadishu in 1940. Tadesse was freed and given military training in Kenya and returned to Ethiopia in 1941. In 1942, Tadesse was promoted to the rank of the second lieutenant and enrolled into the national military academy at Holota, where he served for years as an instructor.
In 1954, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and he moved from the military to the police force and was in charge of modernizing it. He was made a commander of the “Fetno-Derash” (Rapid Force), the Ethiopian Special Forces, and was instrumental in crushing the attempted 1960 coup by proving the conspirators wrong through his loyalty to the Emperor. It was also as commander of the Fetno-Derash that he trained Nelson Mandela, the South African anti-apartheid activist, in guerilla warfare. It was him who gave Mandela his famous lost Liliesleaf pistol.
Tadesse Birru was promoted to Brigadier General in early 1953 by which time he was commander of the Fetno-Derash, the deputy commissioner of the National Police Force, the commander of the Territorial Army and the chairman of the National Literacy Campaign.
Mecha and Tulama Self-Help Association
Despite initially rejecting the nationalist sentiments that existed among his people, the Oromo, General Tadesse Birru’s views were changed during a talk with Prime Minister Aklilu Habtewold. As chairman of the National Literacy Campaign, Tadesse held a meeting with the Prime Minister during which Aklilu, not knowing Tadesse Birru’s heritage, suggested that it was unwise to educate or recruit Oromos to the military. This is the comment that is believed to have influenced the general’s decision to join the Mecha and Tulama Self-Help Association in early 1963, an Oromo social movement in which he went on to become a prominent figure.
His public image helped elevate the association’s status and his organizational capacities and leadership qualities transformed the self-help organization into a pan-Oromo movement. Through the organization, Tadesse Birru, advocated the empowerment of Oromos through education and an emphasis on self-reliance. Following his example, many Oromo military officers, civilian officials, professional elites, businessmen and religious leaders joined the association. Many of these people had hidden the fact that they were Oromo before joining the association and joining it was seen as a reaffirmation of identity.
Opposition to government
Tadesse Birru’s decision to join the association and the elevation of its status had angered the Emperor and his officials. Prime Minister Aklilu Habtewold especially began to consider Tadesse Birru a rival. The prime minister used a bombing in Addis Abeba and a rebellion started by Oromos in the Bale province as a pretext to ban the organization. Many of its members were arrested, killed, or exiled. Tadesse escaped the worst of repercussions but was put under house arrest from which he escaped after three years. He then plotted and attempted an unsuccessful coup in 1966 along with other high ranking Oromo soldiers during which they planned to assassinate the Emperor. He was arrested and severely tortured despite his old age, his death sentence was later committed to life in prison while many of his comrades were killed.
Tadesse was eventually released from prison and put into house arrest in Gelemso. It was during that time that Tadesse was visited several prominent Oromo leaders such as Baro Tumsa, Elemo Qiltu (Hassen Ibrahim), Ahmad “Hundee” Taqi and the legendary Shaykh Bakhri Saphalo.
In June 1974, Ethiopia was in turmoil as the imperial regime began to weaken. Tadesse took this chance and escaped from Gelemso and returned to addis Ababa. The Derg, which was the military regime that took over the government, asked Tadesse to become Minister of the Interior which he refused. After a second refusal, the police were sent to detain him from which he escaped began to organize an armed Oromo rebellion in Shewa. He was joined by Colonel Haile Regassa, Major Abebe Gebre Mariam and eventually General Jagama Kello, former military comrades of his.In respect to the defunct Oromo army of the late Elemo Qiltu, Tadesse Birru’s forces operated under the name of the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA)/ Oromo: Waraanna Bilisummaa Oromoo (WBO).
Tadesse Birru led the rebels until he was captured along with Hailu Regassa. They were tried and were sentenced to life in prison but this was changed to execution by the Derg. Tadesse Birru, Hailu Regassa and a host of other Oromo leaders were executed on March 18, 1975. The OLA continued to operate and it became a part of the Oromo Liberation Front in 1976.
Tadesse Birru is considered by many of Oromos to be the father of modern Oromo nationalism. His lectures about Oromo identity and nationhood inspired an entire generation of Oromos and led to the reaffirmation of the Oromo culture, language and identity as well as the development of the Oromo independence movement.