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Sahle Sellassie: Firebrands

The theme of Selassie’s novel is corruption and he drives this point home throughout the book. The story focuses on two brothers, Bezunch and Worku. Bezunch, the older of the two, has been working for the past eight months as an auditor for a state corporation, where his job is to root out corruption. Worku is a firebrand student. At the start of the novel, Bezunch learns that his boss, Kebret, has just received a promotion from director to managing director and vice minister. We learn that this promotion has been achieved with the help of Dejazmach Azbete, a governor general of a province, but was not universally welcomed by those in power, not least because Kebret is still considered a bit young (in his forties) for the post. Indeed, even the Emperor himself made that point when telling Kebret of his appointment. However, Bezunch feels that he has to go the party celebrating this appointment, at Kebret’s house, and is dragging along his reluctant brother.

Bezunch has been involved in a bid for a new fleet of lorries for the corporation. Two of the main bidders are at the party – a well-to-do foreigner called Richardson, and a local man who is a Muslim (and therefore not a part of the inner circle of Orthodox Christians). The next day at work Kebret tells Bezunch that the bid will go to Richardson’s company, despite the fact that they were the highest bidder and the Muslim Ethiopian the lowest. Bezunch is horrified and complains but is told Richardson has reduced his bid by one per cent. Bezunch thinks this is dishonest as the other bidders have not been given the opportunity to alter their bids. Bezunch later learns that Richardson has reduced his bid but also given a generous bribe to Kebret. On his own initiative he gets the Muslim to lower his bid and awards him the bid. Kebret is, of course, furious. Bezunch is even more annoyed when he finds out that his report on corruption within the corporation has been buried by Kebret as the four main corrupters are all well connected. Things go from bad to worse when Kebret calls on Bezunch to resign for lack of cooperation and when Bezunch refuses to resign fires him.

From here on, the novel moves into a more violent scenario, with the overthrow of Haile Selassie and the military takeover. We follow not only the fate of Worku and Bezunch, with Worku very much part of the student riots against the corrupt old ways, but also the fates of Kebret and Dejazmach Azbete, who are seen as symbols of the old, corrupt ways. Dejazmach Azbete has been a resistance fighter against the Italians and had been tough and ruthless and remained so. In the meantime, he had amassed a lot of land, not necessarily by honest means. When he sees his time is up, he does not go out easily. Selassie leaves us thinking that the bad old ways have gone and, thanks to the like of Worku and Bezunch, there are better times ahead. Sadly, his optimism might have been misplaced.

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