By Barry Malone and Tiksa Negeri
ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – Tsegaye Tadesse, a former Reuters correspondent in Ethiopia who had a front row seat to history and a knack for being in the right place at the right time, has died at 92.
An avuncular presence, easily recognisable with his trademark pipes and fedora hats, Tsegaye covered every aspect of Ethiopian news: from the imperial splendour of Emperor Haile Selassie through the brutal rule of the communist Derg regime and the ruinous famine of the 1980s.
He later reported with pride on the country’s more recent economic transformation, relishing the chance to write about an Ethiopia reclaiming its place as an African powerhouse.
He recently suffered a heart problem and died early in the morning of July 1, surrounded by loved ones, according to a family statement.
Tsegaye was born in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa in 1930 and after graduating high school, trained as a teacher.
But, though he enjoyed the classroom and dedicated himself to it, the voracious reader and news junkie harboured the ambition to become a journalist.
That dream came to pass when he joined the Ethiopian Herald as a fledgling reporter in 1961.
He built a name for himself as a writer with an enviable command of the English language, eventually becoming the state newspaper’s first ever parliamentary correspondent.
But it was at Reuters news agency, which hired him in 1975 and where he would work for almost 35 years, that Tsegaye believed he did his best work.
He became so associated with the wire service over the years that many in Ethiopia came to know him simply as “Tsegaye Reuters”.
Funny and charming, he could talk his way into almost anywhere and used that gift to access government buildings, VIP lounges, palaces and anywhere else he could dig up a story.
HARASSMENT AND INTIMIDATION
Early on the morning of May 22, 1991, acting on a tip, Tsegaye set off for Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa.
He talked his way past the armed guards and was able to watch as longtime dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam boarded a plane and quietly fled the country as rebels closed in on him.
Tsegaye was on the phone to the Reuters regional office in Nairobi as the aircraft took off, filing what would be a world exclusive.
A year later he was on the scene as the body of former Emperor Haile Selassie was exhumed from its burial place under a toilet in his former palace.
He would later recall the moment he saw the iconic ruler’s skull – instantly recognizable – and how he had said out loud: “That’s him. That’s the emperor.”
Tsegaye faced harassment, intimidation and death threats during the early years of his Reuters career, but he always insisted the Ethiopian public had a right to the truth.
“You can kill me,” he once told an official who threatened his life. “But you can’t kill Reuters.”
That belief, that the truth would eventually come out, was paramount for him, as was the fairness and accuracy of his reporting. He often referred to it as his “code”.
A mentor to local journalists and to colleagues at Reuters and other major media outlets, many referred to Tsegaye using the Amharic word “Gashe”, a term of respect for elders that translates as “my shield”.
To those who visited Addis Ababa during Tsegaye’s decades as a correspondent, he was a welcoming and encyclopaedic presence, quick to offer wisdom on everything from Ethiopian politics and history to the best place to get a good whiskey.
A proud Ethiopian, he cautioned foreign journalists against resorting to clichés and being excessively negative when covering the country, despite knowing his advice would not always be heeded.
He was clear-eyed about its failings, sometimes speaking of his terror the morning he awoke to find his son had been abducted by security forces during the Derg regime. He drove from police station to police station that day before finally finding his boy, and convincing his captors to release him.
Perhaps recalling his early days in the classroom, Tsegaye often urged young people to read widely.
One man recalled on Facebook how the journalist had shown up at the Addis Ababa grocery store where he and his childhood friends were watching football on TV and told them reading would be a great benefit to their future.
Another Facebook user recalled how he would use his vintage white Mercedes Benz, a well-known sight around the capital, to ferry people from his neighbourhood to hospital appointments.
“He was the backbone of our community. His door was open for anyone,” the post said.
Tsegaye is survived by his wife, eight children and three grandchildren.
(Barry Malone, Deputy Editor In Chief at the Thomson Reuters Foundation, served as a Reuters correspondent in Ethiopia from 2007-2010. Malone reported from Dublin and Tiksa Negari from Addis Ababa; Writing by Malone; Editing by Alexandra Zavis and Daniel Wallis)