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A generation which lost the future: Is feudalism worth glorifying?

A generation which lost the future: Is feudalism worth glorifying?

Yohannes Aberra, PhD



My paternal grandfather was a nobleman with the rank of a grazmatch in the court of RasSeyoum at Yohannes IV's palace. He died of illness soon after he fought in Maichew. I only have his story as told by my father. My maternal grandfather who also was a nobleman in the same court was killed by the Italians. Such are the glories that hit the march of history hiding other gruesome things considered "normal" in those years when feudalism prevailed throughout the land.

Although how Grazmach Ayele was so brave in war and so kind in social life were the dominant bedtime stories for me there was something that my father told me about which torments me until this day. In my grandfather's compound in Mekelle there was a "hidmo" which was used as a detention center for lost and found slaves from all parts of Ras Seyoum's rule. My grandfather was given this as additional income source for himself as a reward by Ras Seyoum. Slave owners pay money to claim their slaves and take them back to their unpaid hard labour. This is one of the ugly faces of feudalism. I cannot curse my grandfather for what he has been doing to fellow men and women, from wherever they came from, because the system had established this cruelty as a norm accepted even by the Church. BUT I cannot praise him for what he has done. The only option I have to move forward is to leave that to history just only as a lesson to learn from. It would really be unhealthy of mind and even sheer cruelty to take such gruesome violations of basic human rights as acceptable and even heroic.

It was such stories of brutality to fellow human beings and the ability of the perpetrators to go away with it with dignity and honor that triggered the 1974 spontaneous mass uprising in Ethiopia. The oppressed people of Ethiopia were so fed up with feudalism that few cared to lament the downfall of the Monarch and his brutal eventual death. People still flaming with anger about feudalism did not react negatively to the murder of the 60 members of the HIM's aristocracy. I was in utter disbelief about what I saw with my own eyes, Meskerem 2/1967 E.C at around 10:00AM, an hour after the overthrow of the Monarch was announced by the Derg. I went to the National (Jubilee) palace to see what was going on and I saw crowds throwing flowers to the soldiers on the tank that blocked the gate of the Palace. It was not unthinkable that people would see the downfall of the centuries old feudalism as the happiest day of their lives.

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It was not only the poor and the oppressed that contributed to the downfall of feudalism in Ethiopia there were sons and daughters of high ranking members of the nobility, like TilahunGizaw, GirmachewLema, and many others who were on the lead in the struggle against feudalism. That generation of the anti-feudal struggle is now in its 60s and 70s. Much of the young and politically active generation of the present has almost no idea about the dreadful face of feudalism. Those who get information about it do not get it from impartial sources.

There are at least two major narratives about feudalism which are diametrically opposites in most respects. One is a narrative that is passed from the side sympathetic to and even enthusiastic for feudalism to the present generation. It skillfully and attractively displays to and inculcates in the minds of the young generation only the brighter side of feudalism selectively. The selected bright side is blown beyond proportions and blinds the young generationdenying it of the power to balance. Romanticizing feudalism in the forms of love stories of princes and princesses are told and even acted by children even in kindergartens. Worse still is the Holly Wood movie about the exciting life of kings and queens in Medieval Europe, all the grandeur of castles and dazzling palaces.  While watching these poisonous movies people do not care to ask questions such as: At whose expense were the feudal families and their entourage living such a lavish life? Indian film watchers are addicted to watching with love and admiration the Maharaja and Brahmin movies that are pumped out in hundreds every year from the Bolly Wood. It is puzzling to say the least for descendants of the oppressed people to watch the movies displaying the suffering of their ancestors with smile and admiration.

There were rulers who led the people to victory against external aggression but at the same time oppress and brutalize their own people who willingly followed them to war. It was hard to see the difference between what bad things the external aggressors could have done to the people if they invade Ethiopia, and what those feudal rulers did to their "own" people. If a Country is liberated from a foreign invader, but the internal oppression continues it is hard to understand why Miazia 27 was celebrated as liberation day during the feudal years. It was only a day where the foreign enemy of people was replaced by honorably restoring the domestic enemy of the people. Those that run the "patriotism of feudalism" narrative turn a blind eye to the real meaning of liberation. Liberation does not mean keeping oppression for oneself by denying access to a foreign competitor!

The second narrative on feudalism is the "oppression and brutality" narrative of feudalism. Horror stories of amputations, mass exterminations, conquest and enslavement, displacement and land grabbing resonate more loudly than the deceptively appealing side of feudalism. As Ethiopia was evolving into its current shape within the socioeconomic and political context of feudalism its unification was not as happy process as the formation of the United Nations was. Some were terribly harmed as others were unjustifiably benefited. It would be sheer injustice to consider Ethiopia's enlargement and unification as if it was done by devine intervention in which those who opposed it and fought against it are condemned as sinners and haters of Ethiopia. It is not what happened that angers people running the second narrative, it is the denial, justification, and glorification of it that drives them crazy. In Ethiopia it is preferable to agree to disagree on many issues, such as political ideologies. However, when it comes to many of the things that we must be obliged to admit that a spade a spade, it has to be done in the open.

The two narratives seem never to come into terms because the first narrative is trying to conceal the ugly face of feudalism while the second is persistently trying to uncover it. I cannot help taking sides because I cannot bear the thought of feudalism being justified and even glorified. The most notable proponents of the first and the second narratives are the Amhara and Oromo politicians respectively. As the former callously celebrate feudalism the latter take unwarranted revenge on innocent people who are accused of being descendants of feudal rule over the Oromos. Both are becoming irrational to say the least. As the Oromo politicians complain about the 19th Century the Amhara politicians are complaining about the 16the century. Each are talking past each other. When Prof. Merara elaborated the second narrativethe mood turned into unhelpful tit for tat. In the hall the two opposite narratives started to sling mud at each other as usual to the deteriment of peacful settlement of conflicts in Ethiopia. There is better than harm in admitting wrong deeds in the past on both sides although this generation cannot be blamed for what was done centuries ago. Drowned in the narrative-clash about feudalism this generation of Ethiopians has lost the future because it is blinded by the past.


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