DP: Popularity saves Bob Marley’s best friend from execution

Death Postponed: Guns blaze, several killed while 'Skill' Cole sweats in Ethiopia

BY HG HELPS Editor-at-Large helpsh@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, August 26, 2012

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This is the 26th in a series on close encounters with death by Jamaicans, some of whom are prominent members of the society. ALLAN 'Skill' Coke jumped from the proverbial frying pan into the fire when he decided to resettle in the easternmost African country of Ethiopia in December 1976.

The move was prompted by a feeling of disgust, following a failed assassination attempt on the life of his best friend, the Reggae great Bob Marley late that same year, by men said to be from West Kingston, although no one was ever charged in connection with the incident which occurred on the eve of the bloody 1976 general election.

Cole, 61, regarded by many as the most talented and skilful (hence the nickname 'Skill') football player to have emerged from Jamaica and the wider Caribbean, was made to sweat profusely in a hotel room, south of the second most populous African country of 84 million now and the world's most populous landlocked nation, while shots rang out in the worse period of Ethiopian life at the height of a civil war that saw 1.285 million people killed, by official estimates, between 1974 and 1991.

Before his trip to Africa where he played professionally for the Ethiopian Airlines team for three years, Cole had dazzled many with his fancy footwork, deft swerves and body shifts. There was even a saying that he was so good that he shifted a packed Jamaica National Stadium, with spectators going the wrong way, following a swerve that also left his closest opponent in disarray.

Cole played 'Colts' (Under-16) football for Kingston College and would have been a regular starter on KC's all-conquering Manning Cup teams of 1965 and 1966, had he not left, initially for Campion College where he spent almost a year, and later Vere Technical where he made his name in the rural area daCosta Cup competition.

He remains the youngest player to have represented Jamaica, still a boy aged 15 years and four months, when he donned the black, green and gold against Brazilian club Atletico Portugueso, and America Football Club, wearing the big number eight in 1966.

Throughout all those years as a boy growing up and later on in his early years, fear and danger were foreign to Cole.

He also became the first Jamaican too, to have taken up a professional contract offer in Brazil, playing for Nautico Football Club from 1972 to 1973, jumping at the opportunity to show off his skills in the headquarters of world football, after the first man who could have created history, Neville Oxford, another KC stalwart, declined a similar invitation by division one club Americo in 1966, on the advice of his mother.

Cole is still listed by the Internet-based encyclopaedia, Wikipedia, as one of the Recife, Pernambuco-based Nautico's notable players of the 1970s, with the Jamaican flag pasted next to his name.

When Marley was shot as he rehearsed for the much-publicised Peace Concert in December 1976, Cole was not in Jamaica. He had gone to New York to have dialogue with American singing legend Roberta Flack, and was having dinner with her at a restaurant in the borough of Queens when news of Marley's shooting broke.

Flack was due to perform at the show, but cancelled after the shooting and Cole had had enough of the violence in his homeland.

"I just decided to leave Jamaica right after Bob was shot," Cole told the Jamaica Observer in an interview last week, as he continued his preparations for the launch of his book titled The Bob Marley I Know, which he anticipates will be a best-seller and should be on shelves in all parts of the world by year-end.

The book will, among other things, outline the close association between the two. Marley, it is said, expressed the view that he wished he could sing as well as Cole could play football.

But after settling in Ethiopia, Cole had to wear his shirt of caution, as the civil war, which began on November 28, 1974, was in high gear. It resulted in the ouster of Ethiopian leader Emperor Haile Selassie, who is still regarded by some members of the Rastafarian community as their king.

The Marxist group, Derg, which staged the coup against Selassie, ruled the country until 1991 when the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, a coalition of rebel groups, overthrew it.

Mengistu Haile Mariam, the most recognisable officer of the Derg, who was said to have killed Selassie by suffocating him with a pillowcase in 1975 and who fled to Zimbabwe in 1991 after his movement was defeated, ruled Ethiopia with an iron fist.

Mengistu's troops were killing those opposed to the regime left, right and centre, and one fateful night, Cole saw his number being played right in front of his eyes, as soldiers stormed the hotel in which he was staying, in search of dissidents.

"One night I was in the hotel sleeping and I heard some shots. Cold sweat started to come out of me, because this was about three o'clock in the morning," Cole recalled.

"It was scary, I swear that they were going to shoot me, so I was just sweating and fretting," Cole said.

"The government soldiers came to the hotel entrance, and the hotels are usually gated, when I heard boom, boom, boom, going on. Although you had the revolution, the hotels were still open and those types of things didn't really go on in the hotels. You will hear men shooting and killing on the road but not in the hotels.

"Apparently the soldiers came in, went to the front desk, and then they started going to the rooms, starting on the first floor, taking out people. You heard gunshots that made you wonder if they were executing people. Cold sweat started to wash me again," Cole said.

The soldiers moved to the second floor where they extracted those who were not desired and when they reached the third floor where Cole's room was, his world began to cave in.

"It was a serious time in Ethiopia at the time and because I really didn't know what was going on I didn't know what to expect," he said.

"The sheet that I was lying on and the towel that I had were soaking wet. Apparently the soldiers had a list of people that they were looking for, so they were combing the place and taking out people they wanted. They apparently knew that I was there. I had become a celebrated person in the area, because at that time the football was getting big, but I didn't know that I would not be touched.

"The only thing that I could say is that the soldiers knew that I was in a particular room and they didn't bother to come in there, because some of them knew me from football. When I came outside in the morning, I had to shake my head. You were hearing all kinds of stories about people being taken away and people were killed. The revolution was of such that you didn't know the next step, you just had to have faith and believe that everything would be alright. But when you talk about gunshots, it was right around the hotel that night," Cole said.

Despite the detention of some of his players from the Ethiopian Airlines team, a handful of whom were charged with various offences, and the tension that existed in Ethiopia, Cole stuck around for a while longer before he rejoined Marley's management team on a tour of Europe in 1980, a year before the Reggae great died of cancer at age 36. The Jamaica national footballer, who also represented Santos and Boys' Town football clubs in the local leagues and served as player/coach of Port Morant United, and coach of Arnett Gardens, opted for a change of environment.

"How the revolution was run, sometimes a man would not like another man and he would set him up," Cole said as he outlined one of the things that he did not like about the system there.

Ethiopian Airlines, one of the few companies to make a profit during the revolution, won the Ethiopian Winter Football League in 1977, as one of its major accomplishments.

Now Cole is looking back at what could have been, as he prepares to let the world know about some of the things that affected his life and the lives of those close to him, over the last half-a-century.

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