On the Recent Debate About Emperor Minilik’s Legacy

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On the Recent Debate About Emperor Minilik’s Legacy

 

Emperor Milinik was a great man who created the economic, political and institutional foundations of modern Ethiopia and defeated European colonizers at the battle of Adwa. However, just as for all other great people in history, Minilik’s legacy is not immune of controversies, as is evident from the recent debate. It all started when artist Teddy Afro dedicated his new album to the Emperor. Oromo interest groups protested and even forced the firm that was to sponsor Teddy’s concert tour to cancel the planned sponsorship. The groups (probably including regional politicians) alleged that Minilik’s military operation in Oromo areas had caused mass displacement and killings, as well as oppression and exploitation in the decades that followed.  This provoked some in the Ethiopian Diaspora to follow up arguing that the whole affair was deliberately orchestrated by the Ethiopian government and its supporters to discredit Minilik and his legacy. I am writing here to shade some positive light on this controversy, as I find the issues involved to be important as indictors of a developing democratic culture in Ethiopian society.  

History is a narration of past events, experiences, failures, successes and other phenomena. It must be interpreted and understood by successive generations to serve as an inspiration for promoting societal goals regardless of whether the historical deed was good or bad (a bad deed also provides a lesson). The tricky aspect of this is that the acceptance or rejection of history is a generational issue, since the values of contemporary society are different from those societies of the past. For example, these days in the West one may question the bible, whereas centuries ago doing so would have been considered as heresy (why the physicist Galileo was persecuted by the Roman church). In ancient times, and until the modern era, warring armies pillaged villages and massacred innocent civilians. Today this is punishable by international laws, even though we see it happening from time to time (as in South Sudan, Syria or Central African Republic). One TV program psychoanalyzing the characters of great military leaders in history gave Alexander the Great the highest score (worst), higher than Hitler and Stalin! The young Greek warrier king might have continued to inspire generations with his military skills, but, judged by today’s standards, he had serious weaknesses including brutality and dictatorship. The founders of modern democratic America once owned slaves. Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, and all other great men and women of high moral standing had both strengths and weaknesses. Emperor Minilik should not be treated differently, so that  anyone who criticizes him must not be labelled as an anti-Minilik or a “Woyane agent”.  

It is not useful to dismiss any claim or allegation of the negative impact of Minilik’s military operation in Southern Ethiopia as part of his tremendous efforts to assert territorial control and prevent colonial encroachments. The better way will be to engage in an open civic dialogue to address the issues. Did Minilik’s military plan result in bloodshed? Where exactly did it happen? Was the military confronted with stiff local resistances (igniting bloody fighting) or the Minilik government had a policy of deliberately targeting certain groups? Where are the historical evidences? I am sure everyone knows that the whole Oromo population is not implicated in this controversy; in fact, the Oromos in Central Ethiopia have been the major beneficiaries of the policies of successive governments in the post-Minilik Ethiopia, because of closer geographic proximity to the centre of power, Addis Ababa. Instead of outright dismissal of claims of historic injustices, we should listen to the voices and learn about our collective past.  In my lifetime in Canada, I have seen commission of inquiry after commission of inquiry launched to address historical injustices against Aboriginal peoples.  In the 1990s, a group of Canadian soldiers killed a young Somali when they were stationed in Somalia for an unsuccessful peacekeeping mission.  If I recall a media report correctly, the painted picture of that young man was included in the new Canadian War Museum in order to ensure that a historic lesson was learnt from this incident. A democratic and open society like Canada’s addresses injustices like this and moves on, flourishing.  

The Ethiopian constitution allows individuals and groups in society to explore their local histories and express them according to their own worldviews. It is important to recognize that there are differences in narrations of histories between insiders (people or communities affected by history) and outsiders (scholars, politicians and other interest groups). The notions of experiential research, experiential learning, experiential education and so on, in contemporary social science research reflect the recognition of limitations of top-down traditional narratives of history and other discourses. If a student or faculty member writes a PhD dissertation about Gragne Amhed arguing that Gragne was a nation builder (not a destructive jihadist), should we engage in a debate to advance scientific arguments and identify lessons from history or initiate a campaign of character assassination to discredit the scholar?  One major limitation is that many of us have changed little in our feudal outlook, in spite of all our pretentions and posturing of modernity, sophistication and superior experience and knowledge of civic dialogue. We must restrain from condemning groups who are exploring and interpreting their own social and cultural histories in peaceful ways. Minilik was a great man and he will remain a great man in history.  However, the present generation of Ethiopians have to build a modern society in their own image.

Equally, it is important that the Oromo groups change the ways in which they articulate the issues. For instance, Minilik’s  army was a multi-ethnic force that included Oromos. The whole notion of Amhara brutality during the Southern military operation originated from hate-mongering groups like OLF. Second, historical oppression and exploitations of Oromos are attributed to Amhara feudals (neftegnas), while knowing that there were notorious Oromo feudal lords who subjugated the Oromo peasant masses and surrounding minority groups. Finally, every individual, community and ethnic, religious and linguistic group in Ethiopian society had suffered from decades of misrule by the successors of Minilik – the case of Oromos is not necessarily unique. In the more recent past, millions of Tigreans and Amharas died of famine, poverty and disease caused by war and social, economic and environmental destructions resulting from prolonged armed struggles by various opposition groups that were based in Northern Ethiopia, vying to topple the Dergue. All these represent important historical facts that must be considered in analyzing Ethiopians’ collective history.

The sensitivity to any criticism of Minilik also has to do with the fact that political discourse at the centre remains centered around his legacy. Basically any negative comment about Minilik is considered as blaspheming his legacy, while it is always OK to smear Emperor Tewodros as a bandit (he united Ethiopia) or Emperor Yohannes as a religious fanatic (he died fighting for his country). The Minilik generation –  a small tightly knitted clique composed of Shewa Amhara, Oromo and Gurague – has lost power and with it loss of control of Ethiopian institutions that ensured the dominance of top-down and one-sided narration of history. Our man in the Diaspora Alemayehu Gebre Mariam thinks that the EPRDF government (or Woyane) is trying to discredit Minilik in order to promote Meles Zenawi’s legacy. It is not that simple! Deeds determine historical legacies. Emperor Haile Sellassie had been promoted for decades as the Lion of Judah, the son of God, son of this, son of that, yet today there is nothing on Ethiopian soil that bears his name, because there is nothing to remember about him other than oppression, exploitation and humiliation. There will always be people who love Meles and those who hate him, but his overall legacy (judged by the next generations) would much depend on the record of positive outcomes of his work for society. He died as a national hero.

To conclude, as the world progresses, humanity in general has become more and more aware of rights issues. Dominant discourses everywhere are being challenged, because of popular awareness of history and societal issues aided by new information communication technologies that provide access to information and knowledge. This is also true for today’s Ethiopia.  The awareness of common experiences of oppression and exploitation has brought all Ethiopians together to build an egalitarian national society. Lineal, cultural and historic ties among Ethiopia’s diverse ethnic and linguistic groups are getting stronger and stronger, because of increased cultural and political interactions, social unions (marriages) and national optimism ensuing from rapid economic growth.  Minilik was a great man and he will remain a great man in history, but his political legacy has gone forever.

 

Getachew Mequanent

Ottawa, Canada

January 26, 2014

 

 



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