On Ethiopian Millennium Celebrations: Reflections of a Southerner – By Channito Galitto
Warning: this writing calls a spade a spade. By not mincing words and avoiding political correctness, it intends to evoke healthy reflections.
In a lackluster speech celebrating the dawning of the new millennium, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi categorized Ethiopia’s past into two — the first one thousand years in which Ethiopia was a rising superpower and the second one in which it took a nose dive. In the same breath Meles Zenawi declared that, thanks to his “wise leadership”, the downward slide has been arrested and that in the new millennium Ethiopia’s lost glory will be restored.
Listening to the speech two implications come to mind. One is obvious and the other one is a bit subtle. Let me start with the obvious one first. Meles Zenawi wants to be remembered as the great leader who stood firmly at a crucial historical juncture to halt Ethiopia’s downward spiral and launch the country’s ascendance towards a glorious future. This desire to be seen as Mr. Nice Guy and a towering figure is also evident from his recent Time interview.
Ethiopian leaders are known for their lofty, albeit empty, statements of vision. Even more so as they approach their demise. Haile Selassie billed himself as the great modernizer. Mengistu craved to be the great revolutionary hero who single-handedly, not to mention out of scratch, built “the only proud socialist country in Africa”— “be Afrika bichanyawaa genaanaa sooshalist hager”. Holding a big vision, even if only a slogan, is one thing. All kinds of human and material resources are unwisely expended in the service of these grand goals.
To declare a vision is one thing, to see to it that it gets fulfilled is quite another. For example after a good start, Haile Selassie’s autocratic methods stood in the way of his stated goal of modernization. Even worse, by clinging to power while growing virtually senile, he paved the way for the emergence of a brutal dictatorship. At the outset Mengistu aroused the sympathy of the peasantry, especially in the South, mainly due to the land proclamation. His later actions however ended up enslaving the very peasants this proclamation helped liberate. It is his brutality coupled with the misguided policies of forced conscription, collectivization, villagization, and endless campaigns against many real and imagined enemies more than anything else that sealed his doom. Assuming that the rock bottom had been reached, many thought that whoever replaces the Dergue could not be any worse. It did not last long before this false hope begun to give way to utter pessimism. Today TPLF is even more discredited politically than the Dergue was in its decaying stage.
Let me now go to the second, and most important, not to say most worrying, implication. As today’s Egyptians appropriate the pyramids and the Pharoas who built them solely to themselves, for Meles the first millennium, based as it was in Axum, must have been a period of Tigrean dominance. In an often quoted comment in a 1991 TV debate Meles asked: “What does the Axum monument mean for the Walaita?”. He self assuredly answered “Nothing!” to his own rhetorical question. He would not say it openly today, at least not in this speech, but the inference is that the 2nd millennium in which Tigreans lost supremacy to the Amhara represents Ethiopia’s dark age. Since Tigreans are once again in full control, the 3rd millennium is therefore a time of greatness.
In other words, as the center moved South, Ethiopia’s imminence faded and its civilization degenerated. Stopping the relapse required reversing this trend. This view has many proponents, including Hagai Erlich, the author of a book on Ras Alua, the guy from whom Meles sought advice upon assuming state power.
The Millennium Celebrations have helped to bring to the fore some deep social and political divisions in Ethiopia. The first divide is between the two groups claiming ownership of the official history of Axum — the Amhara and Tigrean elites. Whereas the Amharas make up close to one-third of the population and Tigreans 7%, the latter wields a virtual and highly resented hegemony.
While the lavish celebration at home was attended predominantly by the new Tigrean elites, the ones in the Diaspora smelled, looked and felt more like an Amhara festival. Although both events were billed as “Ethiopian”, each side could vividly see the ethnic undertones in each other’s work. A comment by Tecola H. Hagos drives this point home when he wrote “What is now billed as the Ethiopian Millennium Celebration at Howard University and later at the DC Armory is not a celebration of Ethiopia at all, but an orgy of self congratulatory aggregation of individuals blinded by hate and moved by narrow ethnicism.” By the way the ethnicity Tecola is referring to is none other than Amhara. Despite the attempts by the likes of Nuguse Mengesha and Mesay Kebede to have the audience see both sides of the debate, diatribes by false prophets like Asefa Negash left many simply disillusioned.
The question as to who— the Amhara or Tigreans— are the proper heir to the legacy of Axum legacy forms the first fissure. For purpose of brevity let us entertain elsewhere the debate as to whether the Kushites or the Semites are legitimate claimants to Axum. However, it is important to note here that the argument as to “who is the most authentic Ethiopian?” is still in contention.
The second divide is the divide between the Northerners (Abyssinians is a better term than Axumites) and the Southerners. The latter—which incidentally forms the majority of the population in Ethiopia— includes the Oromo, Afar, Sidama, Ogadeni, Walayita, Gedeo, Kaficho, Yem, Janjaro, Anyuak, and the over 70 other ethnic groups that straddle the East, South, West and center of Ethiopia. Although politically a periphery, the South is for all practical purposes the real center and heart of Ethiopia.
Unlike the Northerners who are predominantly Orthodox Christian, the South is truly diverse religiously, culturally and linguistically. As such their views on some political and social issues could be in sharp contrast to their countrymen from the North. For example, a Muslim Ethiopian Somali, Affar, Adare, or Silte might follow the Islamic Calendar and find the designation of yesterday as a universal Ethiopian Millennium at best difficult and at worst an imposition. The same is true for an Oromo who adheres to the cosmic-based Gada Calendar. For many in the South the issue of which Millennium is authentic is not just an academic one but fundamental to who they are as individuals and people.
However hard they looked, these groups could not see themselves in the history narrated by both elites about the 1st and 2nd millenniums. To them no grand vision or celebration means a thing unless it entails an end to their continuing marginalization. The millennium discussion did not produce a better recognition of their bitter experiences. It did not address their current grievances. Nor did it lay out a more inclusive alternative narration to make them believe that their marginalization would end anytime soon.
The Millennium was a non-starter for many. For example the large numbers of Oromos, Ogadenis and Anyuaks who live in the Midwest and throughout the US did not hold any celebrations at all. Perhaps with the repression and atrocious crackdown underway at home weighing heavily on them they just could not see a reason to celebrate. It is doubtful if the mood at home is any different.
The audacity by some Amhara elites to narrate a reading of the past as if it is an all-inclusive and balanced history of the whole country is mind bogling. Likewise the Tigrean minority’s wish to forever dominate the country by blaming all evils of the past on the Amahara elites while giving deaf ears and blind eyes to their repressive rule of fifteen long years is also puzzling.
This takes me to the third divide, which is the one within the South itself— my own backyard. After experiencing one brutal military crackdown after another and waging a protracted liberation struggle, the Ogadenis are sure that the old Ethiopia that is being glorified by Amhara and Tigrean elites did and does not embrace them. The Oromo, demographically and culturally the most important constituency for the very survival and future of Ethiopia, also see themselves slighted by some of these openly biased Axum-centric accounts of history.
Politically other Southerners seek self-government but are afraid of going it alone. They sympathize with their Oromo, Ogadeni and Sidama brothers and sisters as far as ending marginalization and the desire to enjoy the rights of self-government are concerned. While agreeing with the adoption of self-determination as a constitutional right, they are mad as hell that this did not translate into genuine self-government and remained an unfulfilled promise. While concurring with those emphasizing the importance of respect for individual rights under a just system, they worry that the relentless assault on “collective rights” may lead to the country’s breakup rather than its unity.
Now enough with the “divides” and back to the commentary on Meles’ speech. There was a muted expectation that he would use this occasion to offer an olive branch to his opponents. Those who knew him maintained he is just like all other Ethiopian leaders of the past who come to power by the gun, cling to it until it is too late and then either die fighting or get killed, a fact abundantly made clear by his behavior in the aftermath of the May 2005 elections.
Despite their deep disappointment a few held on to the tin hope that he would not squander this last chance that comes once in a thousand years. However, true to his form, Meles failed to use the occasion to start a credible process of reconciliation. By so doing Meles lost a golden opportunity to leave the legacy that he so desperately longs to leave behind in his speech. On the contrary by alienating major political forces— such as OLF, CUD and ONLF— from the political process, he ensured that the fragile political experiment that he put in place may not last his tenure, let alone the next century or millennium.
The question now is who else would come up with a more uplifting, all-inclusive and unifying message. Obviously and naturally this issue is bigger than any single organization, be it OLF or CUD. Frankly speaking we are fed up with the zero-sum game of either this or that. AFD’s proposal of a win-win formula goes a long way to fill the vacuum. However to become a vehicle for transformation AFD needs to put its acts together as a matter of priority.
Granted the road ahead is an uphill one. Luckily there are things we could do to make this journey less treacherous. The first step is for the elites of all stripes to stop relying on narrow readings of history as a foundation of political discourse. Ethiopian politics needs to be forever divorced from this poisoned chalice of biased history and geared towards creatively addressing current and future challenges. The more we look back, the more we are stuck in the past.
The second step is to end the hypocrisy and arrogance, both implied and explicit, about the role and contribution of the marginalized peoples, who need and deserve to be accorded more stake in Ethiopia for the latter to progress. This is important for three reasons. One, since democracy is the wave of the future and it means majority rule— with equality before the law for everyone and equality of all votes— talking as if these people do not exist or count is simply unacceptable, not to mention untenable. Two, the values of tolerance and accommodation so vital for democracy to blossom are amply found among these peoples. Three, these communities field some formidable organizations and highly mobilized constituencies that can no longer be ignored. To disregard them and their legitimate grievances is to put Ethiopia’s future in great peril.
The writer can be reached at: ChannitoG@yahoo.com