Ethiopian officer recalls training Mandela


Gen Fekade Wakene. Picture: ELISSA JOBSON
Gen Fekade Wakene. Picture: ELISSA JOBSON

ADDIS ABABA — “He was extremely tough, extremely vigilant, intelligent and loveable. So loveable,” says Col Fekade Wakene of the late Nelson Mandela — the student he schooled in guerrilla combat in July 1962.
“The training was so rigorous and he never complained, every time smiling. Other soldiers I trained would get so angry, but Mandela was always charming.”
Col Fekade, now aged 77, sits quietly and solemnly in the front room of his modest home in Addis Ababa’s Little Mogadishu area. He straightens his scarf which is striped red, gold, white, blue, green and black — the colours of the South African flag. It was a gift from South Africa’s minister of arts and culture, he says. “Every time I think about South Africa, about Mandela, I always want to wear this scarf,” Col Fekade explains.
Nelson Mandela's Ethiopian passport
Nelson Mandela’s Ethiopian passport

In 1962, he was a sub-lieutenant in the Fetno Derash, a special battalion of the Imperial Ethiopian Police. He had received special commando training in Israel and Germany and had the skills Mandela, as commander-in-chief of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the African National Congress, was seeking.
“The training lasted 28 days, both day and night. It was very intensive,” Col Fekade says. “We started with individual field training and completed all that was relevant to become a company commander, including proficiency in armoury, rifle shooting, defence, (engaging) enemy combatants, and battlefield combat.”
Mandela was a first-rate student. “He learnt very, very quickly. He excelled in everything that we gave him. His stamina and his strength were much greater than his instructors’. Sometimes we would get tired during training, but he was so keen to learn. You could tell he was going to be a great leader.”
When they first met, Col Fekade was convinced that Mr Mandela had had previous military experience. “He looked like he had already had some training.” But except for some time spent in boxing school, Mr Mandela, in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, admitted to having had little exposure to combat.

“I felt myself being moulded into a soldier and began to think as a soldier thinks — a far cry from the way a politician thinks,” Mr Mandela wrote of his time in Ethiopia, and Col Fekade agrees that the training had a huge effect on the political activist. “There was definitely a change. We could see it in him. It was so exhausting for Mandela, so taxing for him, but he graciously took it all and he came out a different person.”
Before his training was completed, Mandela was called back to South Africa — he was supposed to remain in Ethiopia for six months but stayed for only eight weeks. The armed struggle against apartheid was intensifying and he was needed back home.
Col Fekade recalls that he was summoned to the office of Col Tadesse Biru, assistant commissioner of police. “I didn’t know why I had been called in by this big, towering commander.”
“The colonel said: ‘We have a big man here who has come from South Africa, a respected guest. He will be spending some days with you. You have to start preparing military training.’ Mandela was there and I was introduced to him. But the name he gave wasn’t Mandela.”
It was obvious that the “respected guest” was very special indeed — the order to train Mandela had come directly from Emperor Haile Selassie himself. But this was a highly confidential mission and Col Fekade was instructed not to inquire about the man or his being in Ethiopia.
“During the training everything was veiled in secrecy. It was only through time that I came to know that it was Mandela I had trained,” Col Fekade admits. “News didn’t travel fast like these days and when I heard his name I was surprised. I feel honoured today to have been able to train a man like Nelson Mandela.”
Col Fekade is clearly moved by his death. “I have not switched on my TV. I have not seen any reports of his death. I just didn’t want to watch. My heart is broken.”


  1. A Great Ethioian who trained one of our time Hero and Icon of Resistance for Injustice-Madiba. And I am very much proud of being Ethiopian. We are proud of our forefathers and fathers who made us resistance for Injustice.
    May God bless Ethiopia and rest Madiba’s soul in Peace in Heaven.

  2. God bless Oromiyaa for producing honest and brave men like Col. Fikadu Wakenne ,Gen. Tadesse Birru, Captain Guta , Captain Fikadu Dibaba.

  3. Thank you Ethiopia for your warm welcome to our Madiba and all that you taught him. You played a huge role in the making of the Mandela legend.

  4. Thank you colonel for everything you did on behalf of Ethiopia.What makes me angry nowadays are people like …….Oromya. Mandela was trained by Ethoopia, General Tadesse, col.Wakene were Ethiopians, Ethiopia made them who they are/ were, not the imaginary dream land of Oromia. Their will neber be a country called Oromia, pure and simple.

  5. @god bless oromiya
    የእነዚህን ጀግኖች ስም ዝም ብለህ ከማይረባ ነገር አታዛምዳቸው። እነሱ የሀገራቸውን ክብር ብቻ ሳይሆን የሌላውን የአፍሪካ መብት እንዲከበር ያደረጉ ናቸው። እነሱ ሲሰሩ የነበሩት በአህጉር ደረጃ ላለው ለሰው ልጅ ነው። አንተ አሁን የአለብህት ደረጃ፣ ድሮ እኛ ከወንዝ ማዶ ያሉትን ጉዋዶቻችንን የቡሄ ለትን ጠብቀን ለመጋረፍ ጅራፍ የምናጮኸውን አይነት ነው። እነዚህ ጀግኖች ደሞ የአንተ ጎሳዎች አይደሉም፣ አንተ አምታቺ ከፋፋይ ወያኔ ነህ። ክላሲካል የሆኑትን ኦነጎችን አውቃቸዋለሁ፣እነዚህን ጀግኖች ጎበናዎች ነው የሚሉአቸው። የእነዚህ ኦነጎች አስተሳሰብም ቢሆን ከዘላንአሰተሳሰብ አያልፍም። የዲክታተሮች መረማመጃ ሆነው ነው የሚያልቁት። ኢተዮጵያዊነት የሆነ አስተሳሰብ ነው ሁልጊዜ የሚያሸንፈው።

  6. These Oromo soldiers were part and parcel of the Ethiopian army at the time. We cannot re-enact this situation today. But if it were to happen there would be no Oromos training Mandela. The Tigreans have made it sure that there are no senior Oromo soldiers under their occupation. It is a re3markable backward journey for all other ethnic groups except the Tigreans.

  7. Rest in peace in heaven the great librator of the, then oppressed peaple of South Africa’s native black peaple and other peaple of color. I feel honored to know that my beloved country Ethiopia has played such a significant role in training Madiba to lead his peaple to freedom. My admiration also goes to the farsighted and visionary leader of the great Ethiopian government of that time, his majesty Emperor Haile Selasie. May God Bless Your Soul Too. Amen

  8. Great!
    But I knew Gashé Feqadé well before he joined the police.
    He was a teacher in Chencha, Gammo Gofa. The things that I remember about him most was he was so handsome and always neatly dressed

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