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Ethiopian officer recalls training Mandela

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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.”