Portrait of the mystery lady- Madame Colette Habetwold

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This is a tribute to Colette Valade, one of the most distinguished French citizens who, among her compatriots, protested Fascist aggression when Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1933. Valade entangled herself in the fate of the country when she married Aklilu Habetwold, an Ethiopian official who later became the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Prime Minister of Ethiopia. Valade became Aklilu’s closest confidante and ally in promoting Ethiopia’s cause for independence. Together, they established two French support groups in Paris and launched a periodical, Nouvelle d’ethiopie, with the aim of bringing the Ethiopian struggle to French public. As part of their activism, Valade and Aklilu cycled long distances to make speeches and pleas throughout Europe. Valade’s tireless support and strong network played a major role in Aklilu’s influence and fundraising activities for the nation. Valade defended Ethiopia with determination, centering the plight of Ethiopians to the French and worldwide with remarkable devotion.
During the occupation, Aklilu was an Attaché in the Ethiopian legation in Paris (1936-1940). He was educated at the French Lycée in Alexandria before coming to Paris to obtain his law degree, which he completed in 1936 at Sorbonne. As Secretary of the Ethiopian Delegation Aklilu argued for the Ethiopian cause at the League of Nations, flying frequently between Paris and Geneva along with the Ethiopian Minister in Geneva, Fitawrari Tekle Hawariat Wayeh, leader of the delegation.
Aklilu met Colette while he was studying at Sorbonne. She was a tall, charming young woman, often smiling brightly, in one photo seen with her arms akimbo. The handsome young man with huge cinnamon complexion began pursuing her for a date. He wore his black wavy hair just below his ears, European style. There was an immediate attraction, even though a love affair between Europeans and non-Europeans caused a stir. They had lived together for 24 years until they were married in 1953. Colette’s parents reportedly gave their blessing for the union.“It was she who always stood by me when I was studying for my undergraduate in law and political science at Sorbonne, and at the Faculté de droit,” he would write later. “While I entirely committed myself to perusing my county’s affaires, my main support concerning daily routines, accommodation, and food was provided by my girlfriend Mademoiselle Colette. She had just completed her studies and was teaching. I relied on her for financial backing. She earns a modest salary and also received monetary support from her father,” Aklilu wrote on his posthumously published memoir “Historical recollections from a prison cell.”
After the defeat of the French government and the occupation of Paris in June 1940, the young diplomat had to flee on a forged passport under the name of Thomas Woldu. He left his passport with the American ambassador in Paris, requesting him to send it to him to his destination. He took leave of his lover and partner, Madame Colette, and slipped into Portugal with a Colombian identity. He received his passport on arriving in Lisbon, thanks to the American Ambassador and Colette.
Following the restoration in 1941, Aklilu returned to Ethiopia, joined the Foreign Office and served in several senior-level diplomatic positions, including vice-minister of the pen (1942-1943), vice-minister and then acting minister of foreign affairs (1943-1949) and minister of foreign affairs (1949-1958). During this time, Aklilu played a key role in the complex process that brought Eritrea into federation with Ethiopia.
For several years, Colette stayed back home while Aklilu was busy serving the Ethiopian government until 1950, waiting for the Emperor to grant him a permit to tie the knot. Naturally, the Emperor was not enthusiastic to the idea of one his top brass marrying a foreigner. He had to relent knowing Akilu’s commitment to her was no passing fancy. Eventually, they got married with the imperial blessing in a simple ceremony in Addis Ababa in 1953 at his brother’s Akalewold’s residence. Their mize, or best men, were minister of the Pen (Tsehafi Tizaz) Wolde Giorgis, Tsehafi Tizaz Tefera-Werque Kidanewold, Col. Kifle Ergetu, Asrat Yinesu (later ambassador). She was devoted to her husband, who was equally devoted to her. She would later tell friends that being married to Aklilu and seeing Ethiopian politics so close up had been a privilege for her. Not content to stay in the background and handle domestic matters, she started taking part in different causes. She even had her own newspaper column at a French language daily L’Ethiopie d’Aujourdhui, which in 1966 later became Addis Soir. She took on official duties and attended lunches or dinners, mastering the kind of showmanship that was required for the occasion. And there were plenty of foreign dignitaries then. We see her in black and white photographs beside her husband greeting Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia, Nikita Khrushchev of the then Soviet Union, with Shah Reza Pahlavi of Iran, and of course her county’s president, De Gaulle who visited Addis Ababa in November 1966.
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The two couple’s love for one another was not always received by the race-conscious Ethiopian elite and their own lives were languid games played under the old, traditional rules. Aklilu himself was seen as a wild card with a foreign design who had appeared in familiar deck. Christopher Clapham in his book Haile-Selassie’s Government (1969) says that Aklilu as Prime Minister in the 1960s has become responsible for much of the government’s policy, and is probably the most influential politician in the country. However, he said his foreign connections are a source of suspicion to many, and his social background provides no traditional base for authority. “He is regarded by some more French than Ethiopia; certainly his administrative methods are rather more European than those of most of his contemporaries,” Clapham wrote.
John Spencer, who served as a legal and foreign affairs advisers to the Ethiopian government, in his book Ethiopia at Bay: A personal account of the Haile Selassie years wrote that Aklilu was in many ways the most Europeanised of all those surrounding the Emperor and at the same time, he was resented for his greater knowledge of European psychology, wiles, and designs and for the favouritism the emperor showed him.
Madame Aklilu’s unscripted part of first lady was not to last long.Emperor Haile Selassie, by then a tremoring and aging patriarch, was to be a victim of a social earthquake. When student protests, and an economic downturn turned into a popular uprising against the government, calls went out for Aklilu to be dismissed. In February 1974, he resigned as prime minster, thus paving the way for the military accession. On 24 November 1974, Akillu along with other 51 other leading political and military figures was executed without trial. Madame Colette, who was in Paris for medical treatment, couldn’t make much sense of what has happened. As much as she insisted upon a political justifications for her involvement with the country, it was her burgeoning passion for Aklilu that cemented her devotion to the cause. Their ill-fated love ended in ruin. She decided to remain there. They say her sadness accompanied her to death. She died five years ago at the age of 95. The couple never had children.
(Ato Amde Akalework, Aklilu’s nephew passed on some important information included in the article.)

Arefayné Fantahun
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4 Discussion to this post

  1. According to credible sources, PM Aklilu Habtewold had a child from an Ethiopian woman. This child of his is still alive and resides in the United States.

  2. Alem says:

    This is fascinating. I hope someone takes up the story from here on. Thanks Aref.

  3. this guy really amaze me;despite his extreme love and loyalty for his country he got married to a foreigner.He is really one in a million but we murdered him in cold blood and now nobody appreciates what he did for this country.

  4. Mehari Gizaw says:

    Perfectly portrayed the true History of PM Aklilu Habte-Wold .., However “very sad indeed”…

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