Demonizing Ethiopian history
By Professor Alemayehu G Mariam
January 13, 2014
One need not be surprised by the volume or vehemence of the propaganda attack on Atse Menelik or the regime’s methodical and organized campaign to incite hatred and ill-will by trotting out Menelik’s Ghost. The fact of the matter is that the real issue is not about the demonization (making a devil) of Menelik but about the canonization (making a saint) of the regime’s late capo di tutti capi (boss of all bosses) Meles Zenawi.
Demons Demonizing Atse Menelik II
The vehement demonization propaganda campaign being waged against Atse Menelik II is a futile attempt to re-write, miswrite, overwrite and un-write Ethiopian history with the hagiography (tale of sainthood) of Meles Zenawi. They want to unwrite Menelik’s history and write up Meles’ history as the greatest African leader of modern times. They want to mythologize Meles, the “new breed of African leader”; Meles the bringer of developmental state democracy; Meles, the African leader on Global Warming and Climate change; Meles, the African leader who rubs elbows with leaders of the G-8 and the G-20; Meles, the chairperson of the Beijing Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation; Meles, the destroyer of Somali jihadists and terrorists… By demonizing Menelik, they want to canonize (make a saint) Meles. Why demonize Menelik? Because he created a modern African nation from petty feuding fiefdoms, kingdoms, princedoms and chiefdoms. He is demonized because he stood up and whipped on the battlefield one of the great European imperialist powers and permanently secured Ethiopian independence and sovereignty. He is demonized because he was a true African leader. By defaming Menelik and degrading his legacy, they seek to give fame to Meles and sanctify his legacy.
The regime wants to completely overwrite the history of Atse Menelik. Menelik was the first African leader to build a railroad. They want to overwrite that history by claiming Meles was the first to bring a magnificent long distance and light rail system to Ethiopia. Menelik was the first African leader to introduce the telephone and telegraph on the continent. When the first telephone was installed in Menelik's palace in 1889 thirteen years after Alexander Graham Bell patented his “apparatus for vocal sounds”, anxious clergymen asked him to remove it as the work of Satan, which he declined. Within a decade, Menelik had inaugurated a telephone line connecting the capital with the eastern city of Harar. They want overwrite that history by claiming that Meles brought the most modern communication system to Ethiopia. The truth of the matter is that the first African country to have telephone and telegraph service today has the worst mobile telephone and internet service in Africa. Last week, The Wall Street Journal reported that while farmers in Ethiopia have cell (mobile) phones, “The trouble is, they have to walk several miles to get a good signal.” Ethiopia has the second worst internet service in Africa.
They want to miswrite history by depicting Menelik as brutal king who lopped off women’s breasts. When it comes to brutality, is there anyone more brutal and cold-blooded than Meles Zenawi? Meles personally ordered the massacre of hundreds of unarmed protesters in 2005. Meles’s own hand-picked and appointed Inquiry Commission reported that police and security officials under Meles’ direct personal command and control intentionally and deliberately massacred 193 unarmed protesters and severely wounded 763 others. Meles personally ordered the massacre of over 400 hundred civilians in Gambella, in western Ethiopia in 2004. Meles personally authorized the bombing and strafing of villages in the Ogaden. Under Meles’ personal command, his troops in the Ogaden committed gang rapes, burned villages, conducted “demonstration killings” including public hangings and beheadings intended to terrorize the population. Steve Crawshaw, the United Nations advocacy director for Human Rights Watch described the crimes against humanity committed in the Ogaden as “a mini-Darfur.”
They want to rewrite history by depicting Menelik as an enemy of the Oromo people. There is more than sufficient evidence to prosecute Meles, if he were alive, and members of his gang for the untold and unspeakable crimes against humanity they committed against the Oromo people. The international human rights organization Freedom House in 2012 reported that Meles and his regime engaged in widespread discrimination and repression against Oromo people. Meles has banned the Oromo Liberation Front and jailed untold numbers of suspected members and leaders without due process of law. According to former Ethiopian President Negasso Gidada, when he left office in 2001 “roughly 25,000 people were in prison on OLF-related charges throughout Oromia and in Addis Ababa.” Meles’ former comrade and defense minister Seeye Abraha ironically observed: “Kaliti Prison speaks Oromiffa, and 99% of one of the camps housing hundreds of inmates at Kality Prison are Oromo. Many of the detainees don't know their charges but have counted years as OLF suspects.”
Meles invaded Somalia in 2006 on the bogus pretext that jihadist were taking over that country and that he had been “invited” by the Somalis to intervene. In a televised address Meles said, “Ethiopian defense forces were forced to enter into war to protect the sovereignty of the nation and to blunt repeated attacks by Islamic courts terrorists and anti-Ethiopian elements they are supporting.” On December 27, 2006, Meles’ troops and tanks stormed into Mogadishu. By August 2007, Meles’ troops were bogged down in Somalia and the human cost was proving to be horrendous: Tens of thousands of Somali civilians had died and over 870,000 were forced to flee their homes in Mogadishu, a bustling city of 1.2 million people in 2006. After Meles’ invasion, international human rights organizations described Somalia “as one of the worst humanitarian situations in Africa.”
Menelik fought defensive wars against Europe’s imperialist aggressors and won. It is undeniable that Menelik was the first African leader in history to decisively defeat a mighty European power in battle and send them packing back to Europe with their tails between their legs. Menelik whipped the Italians at Amba Alagi and Mekele and delivered the final blow at the Battle of Adwa in 1896. No European could have imagined that an army of “black African savages” could defeat a mighty European imperial power. Menelik was a brilliant military tactician and despite his extreme disadvantages in modern weaponry, tactics and resources, he prevailed triumphantly crushing once and for all the ideology of white superiority and supremacy. Through trickery and deception, various European imperial powers sought to carve out pieces of Ethiopia as colonial territories. In 1889, Menelik concluded the Treaty of Uccialli with Italy with respect to certain territories in the north of the country. When he found out that the Italian language version of the treaty, in stark contrast to the Amharic version, had rendered Ethiopia an Italian protectorate, he denounced the agreement.
They want to rewrite this history by showcasing Meles as the regional and international leader who made Ethiopia a regional power. They want to portray him as the man who defended Ethiopian territorial integrity and sovereignty. The facts show otherwise. Meles fought the Eritreans in 1998-99 over a border dispute in Badme, secured a military victory at the cost of 80,000 Ethiopian lives and promptly agreed to turn over Badme to the Eritreans in international arbitration. Never in the history of warfare has a victorious army turned over its victory to the vanquished so willingly. After defeating the socialist military junta in 1991, during transitional negotiations moderated by the U.S., Meles refused to accept the port of Assab on the Eritrean coast as Ethiopia’s outlet to the sea. Meles is singularly responsible for making Ethiopia a landlocked country. Through secret treaties Meles has given away Ethiopian territory to the Sudanese without so much as perfunctorily consulting his rubber stamp parliament. Meles has pawned off millions of hectares of the most fertile land in the country to underhanded fly-by-night operators.
Menelik united Ethiopia and inaugurated the modern Ethiopian state. Meles brought the illusion of modernization. He built hospitals without doctors or medicine. He once said we don’t need doctors. He built universities without competent professors, books, libraries or modern technology. He built buildings without sewers. Menelik opened Ethiopia to Western civilization. Meles took Ethiopia back to Oriental despotism with his ludicrous theory of the “developmental state”. After taking power in 1991, Meles fragmented the modern Ethiopian state and promptly proceeded to balkanize the country into so-called kilils, or apartheid-style bantustans or kililistans. Despite Meles’ completely bogus claims of double-digit economic growth and exhortations of of Ethiopia as the “fastest for a non-oil exporting country in Sub-Saharan Africa”, Ethiopia atually became the second poorest country in the world as I documented in my commentary, “Why is Ethiopia Poor?”
Menelik was a “renaissance” Ethiopian leader. He took important steps to strengthen and modernize his country. He eagerly embraced modern technology and brought new communication systems to the country. Menelik introduced the telephone and telegraph and a modern postal system. He introduced electricity to Addis Ababa. He imported the first motor car and even tried to introduce a modern Ethiopian currency replacing the Maria Theresa thaler, the silver bullion coin that had been used in world trade at the time. Menelik always placed Ethiopian sovereignty above all else. In 1894, Menelik gave the French a concession to lay rail lines from Djibouti to Addis Ababa. The same year, the European imperial powers held the Berlin Conference and carved up Africa for European colonialism. When the French tried to pull a fast one to divest Ethiopian sovereignty over the rail line, Menelik shut them down cold and relented only after reasserting Ethiopian sovereignty in 1906. They want to rewrite that history by writing a bogus narrative of Meles, the Renaissance Leader, the Builder of Hydroelectric Dams Unseen in African History, the Builder of Bridges, Roads and Railroads…
Menelik may have presided over a feudal kingdom. He is an African leader who did what he could under extreme domestic and international conditions. He left a legacy of an Ethiopia, one nation under God, under Allah. Meles’ enduring legacy is that he created the first true thugtatorship in Africa. As I explained in my Huffington Post commentary, “If democracy is government of the people, by the people and for the people, a thugocracy is a government of thieves, for thieves, by thieves. Simply stated, a thugtatorship is rule by a gang of thieves and robbers (thugs) in designer suits. In a thugtatorship, the purpose of seizing and clinging to political power is solely to accumulate personal wealth for the ruling class by stealing public funds and depriving the broader population scarce resources necessary for basic survival.”
The fact of Meles’ thugtatorship is amply documented not only in the records but also in the eyewitness testimony of his former comrades-in-arms. From the inception in the bush, Meles and his comrades set up a kleptocratic system of administration. They diverted tens of millions of dollars earmarked for famine relief in Tigrai region in the early 1980s to buy weapons and enrich themselves. Recent reports have shown that over one-half of the Ethiopian economy is controlled by Meles’ officials, supporters, cronies, friends, comrades and others. Corruption and theft of state resources is so endemic in Ethiopia that the World Bank singled out Ethiopia as a case study of corruption in its nearly 500-page report entitled, “Diagnosing Corruption in Ethiopia”. Thugtatorship shall be the lasting legacy of Meles.
They just love to hate Menelik
Hate is a symptom of a terminal sickness of the soul. Hate is irrational. The scientific literature on hate shows that haters hate because they are afraid, insecure, jealous; or because they hate themselves; or because they want to become the very object of their hate. Above all, haters hate themselves because they feel inadequate, powerless, hopeless and helpless.
Mandela said, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate.” When I think of those in power in Ethiopia today, I wonder and ponder if Mandela is right in his philosophical assessment. He added, “If they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” I really want to believe that Mandela’s principle would apply to those in power despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
As a matter of principle and practice, we must strive to live by Gandhi’s rule: “Hate the sin and not the sinner.” When we hate the haters, we become their mirror images. We are who we hate. If we hate Meles or his gang as a human beings, we become them. If we must hate, it must be their acts and not them as human beings.
Hate is a powerful force. The hate spread by the Nazis destroyed entire nations. Hate in Rwanda destroyed the lives of millions of Rwandans. In Darfur, hate destroyed the lives of millions of Sudanese. Thousands continue to die in Nigeria and the Central African Republic because of religious hatred today. We must never, never give into hate.
I believe there are two types of people in the world. There are those who follow the golden rule “love thy neighbor as thyself.” There are others who live by what I call the “copper rule”, “hate thy neighbor as thyself.” Haters think they can overcome their own helplessness, insecurity, guilt and inability to change their circumstances by hating. They hope to raise their feelings of inferiority and low self-worth by hating others. Those who hate Menelik do not really hate Menelik; they hate themselves and wish they could be Menelik and whatever he symbolizes.
I pity those in power in Ethiopia today. I really do. I feel sorry for them. They think they can sanctify their late leader and their two-decade history by demonizing great Ethiopian leaders and tearing down Ethiopian history. They think by tearing down Menelik and Haile Selassie they can build up Meles. They think that by removing Menelik’s statutes from public places and plastering cheap posters of Meles at every street corner they can elevate Meles to the status of a deity. Meles fought tooth and nail to make sure H.I.M. Haile Selassie’s statute would not sit next to Nkrumah’s on the grounds of the African Union in Ethiopia. Yet Nkruma himself said there would have been no Organization of African Unity but for the relentless efforts of H.I.M. Haile Selassie.
Despite prolonged reflection on the nature of the hate practiced by those in power in Ethiopia today, I find no rational explanation. Most people fear and are apprehensive of the future because it is unknown and unpredictable. I cannot fathom people who fear the past, the distant past, the Nineteenth Century Ethiopia. In my professional experience, I have learned that the only people who fear and dread the past are criminals fearful that the crimes they have committed in the past will eventually catch up with them. I have also come to the conclusion that those in power hate to cover up and conceal their abuses and misuses of power and use hate to divide and rule. They use hate to create fear and loathing among Ethiopians of different ethnic groups so that they will not be the object of scrutiny and accountability. Hate mongering is used to distract people from their economic problems.
Love thy hater as thyself
The golden rule says, “love thy neighbor as thy self.” I say, “love thy hater as thyself.” It is better to love than to hate. Hate is like a boomerang. It goes out and comes around to the hater. To paraphrase Mandela, hate is a poison of the soul. When haters hate, they are drinking poison and expecting those they hate to die. There is also a strange dialectics to hate that those in power should heed. Hate often transforms the hated into an object of love and admiration. Those in power in Ethiopia today should learn from the experiences of their apartheid soul mates in the old South Africa. The apartheid masters sought to diminish Mandela’s humanity, leadership and reputation for decades. They put out all sorts of propaganda about him as a terrorist and communist and never released a single photo of him during his years of captivity. However, the law of unintended consequences prevailed. As time passed and the anti-apartheid movement grew, Mandela's invisibility only added to his mythic status and helped transform him into an international icon. The lesson is that the more they try to demonize Menelik and Haile Selassie, the more Menelik and Haile Selassie will be popular in the imagination of the younger generation. The more the older generation will reassess its views about these leaders as they become the objects of unending and relentless campaigns of vilification.
We must go beyond hate to love. Dr. Martin Luther King and Mandela have taught us about the unconquerable power of love (agape) of humanity and community; the power of healing a society afflicted by the cancer of racial, ethnic and religious hate. Mandela had every reason to hate and exact revenge. For 27 years Mandela’s name was Prisoner no. 46664. When he emerged from the prison gates that February morning in 1990, he beamed with that million dollar smile of his. He did not have a single hateful thing to say about the masters of apartheid who jailed him for 27 years and separated him from his family. He taught us a great lesson: “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison.” Mandela was never a prisoner of hate. The prison was apartheid hate itself and the inmates were the wardens and masters of apartheid. Mandela left prison to liberate the real inmates of apartheid chained behind their walls of hate, fear and revenge.
If those in power in Ethiopia today continue with their hate, they will find themselves in much the same situation as those who were in power in apartheid South Africa. The "free" whites during apartheid stayed up all night thinking about what the black Africans they had repressed for so long could do to them when inevitable majority rule comes. The hatred they had for black Africans not only denied them sleepless nights but also destroyed their heart, minds and souls, their humanity. They became zombies; the walking dead unable to enjoy the comforts of their wealth; their exclusive neighborhoods became virtual prisons gated and surrounded by electric fencing and prison-style razor wires. They live in virtual armed camps.
There is a better way. Rather than responding with more hateful vitriol, we should be more determined to find out the truth. We should bring out the truth about Atse Menelik II, Atse Haile Selassie, Colonel/President Mengistu Hailemariam and Prime Minster Meles Zenawi. Let us learn from their mistakes not to hate them but to make sure we the living do not repeat their mistkes. Let us learn from their errors not to engage in recrimination but to find ways of reconciliation and to correct their mistakes. We should band together with Ethiopia’s young people to build the New Beloved Ethiopia where no man or woman has to identify him/herself by his/her ethnicity but his/her humanity, Africanity and Ethiopianity. Let us build a New Beloved Ethiopia where no man or woman feels so secure in his/her powers that s/he can order the massacre of unarmed citizens and innocent civilians and get away with it. We must work together to create a society that respects the dignity and rights of every individual regardless of his/her ethnicity, faith or language. That is how we must build a future, not by tearing down a past that has long faded into the fog of time.
Let us not get offended or angry by the rhetoric of hate. It serves no useful purpose. Let us expose the demonization campaign, debunk the myths, and defend against the demonization and molestation of Ethiopian history. Let’s us not throw ourselves in the mud and muck with the haters. We should never forget George Bernard Shaw’s admonition, “I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.” Exchanging hateful words with professional, and possibly born haters, haters is like wrestling with pigs in the mud.
Changing hate to love
Let the haters hate and lie. There is not much we can do about that. What is within our power is the ability to change ourselves from hating to loving; we have the capacity to transform negative energy into positive energy. We should change from hating to loving not because it is easy but because it is exceedingly difficult. Love, whether of self, others, community or nation requires a lot of work.
Let us learn from Gandhi and his way of Satyagraha or “truth force”. Gandhi explained, “Truth (satya) implies love, and firmness (agraha) engenders and therefore serves as a synonym for force.” The aim is to convert the hater not to coerce him or her. In practical terms, the aim is to convince the hater that the hate in his/her heart, mind and soul will destroy him/her; that his/her only salvation is love of self, community and nation. Let us use Satyagraha to make lovers out of haters.
We should learn from Dr. King: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” He taught that “we must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.” Forgiveness and reconciliation are the antidotes, the cure, for hate.
We should even learn from the greatest comic of modern times, Charlie Chaplin: “The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish.” Liberty will outlive all haters. Let us close ranks regardless of ethnicity and reaffirm our basic humanity in our Ethiopianity and Africanity. Let’s leave no room for haters; we should crowd them out.
Message to those in power in Ethiopia today
My message to the hate mongers in power in Ethiopia is simple. The hate you propagate today will boomerang back to you. Today you smile and snicker at the statute dedicated to show Menelik as a breast lopping brute. Those who are told to hate Menelik today will be told to hate Meles tomorrow. The day is not long when your great visionary leader Meles will be commemorated in stone and marble as the Second Coming of Rodolfo Graziani in the Ogaden, Gambella, Addis Ababa and elsewhere. Those you hold as friends today will be your mortal enemies tomorrow. Those you demonize as your enemies today will be your friends tomorrow when the chips are down and you are on the receiving end. That is the dialectics of history. Learn from history.
Atse Menelik II was neither saint nor demon; he was neither divine nor a demigod. He was an African king who tried to unite and modernize Ethiopia when the rest of Africa was on the chopping block of European imperialism being sliced, diced, spiced, spliced, priced and sacrificed. Let Menelik II be judged by only one measure: The Truth. Historians should tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about Menelik. In his centenary commemoration, I submit the testimony of the Belgian explorer, Baron de Jarlsburg, given to the New York Times in 1909 as part, and only part, of the historical evidence to be used in pronouncing judgment on Atse Menelik II:
Menelik has since accession to the throne, twenty years ago, transformed Abyssinia from a semi-barbarous power to a State modeled on the lines of a European constitutional monarchy… The sovereign, who styles himself somewhat pompously, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Juda, Elect of the Saviour, King of Kings of Ethiopia, shattered Italy's colonial ambitions by his victories at Amba-Garima… When Menelik was crowned Emperor of Ethiopia on Nov. 4, 1889, after King Johanne's death, he was far from being the accepted ruler of all the States which constitute the Abyssinian empire. It was only after much hard fighting that Menelik finally succeeded in subjugating those rebellious chieftains who did not recognize him… Since then, Menelik's one aim has been to introduce European civilization into his country. The Emperor, after abolishing the feudal laws still extant in the empire, and emancipating the slaves, established compulsory free education throughout his dominions. As a result in another generation education will be as widespread in Abyssinia as in several European countries.
Menelik is himself an altogether unique figure among African potentates. As a diplomat, as a financier, and as a soldier, he can hold his own with the most up-to-date of his brother sovereigns. As a soldier and a diplomat, he showed his worth at the time of Italy's defeat by the Abyssinians. In late years, however, it is particularly as a financier that Menelik has distinguished himself. He had a natural bent for finance, even as a young man, before his accession to the throne, and at that time went for stock speculation on the Paris Bourse to a considerable extent. These youthful speculations proved successful, and were only interrupted by the events which followed Menelik's accession… The Abyssinian ruler has extended the range of his financial operations to the United States, and is heavy investor in American railroads. With his American securities and his French and Belgian mining investments, Menelik has a private fortune estimated at no less than twenty-five million dollars.
The most striking fact about Abyssinia's dusky ruler is his versatility. An accomplished linguist, he speaks French, English, and Italian fluently. Notwithstanding all the time he is compelled to devote to state affairs, he still finds the opportunity to keep up in current European literature, and is rarely at a loss when a new author is mentioned. At Adissaba Palace - to give him the title by which he is known to his subjects -- he takes particular pride in his library of ten thousand volumes, collected by himself. Menelik's chief hobby in the way of books are works dealing with the ancient civilizations of Africa and Asia.
Offering Menelik haters a square deal
I offer Menelik haters a square deal: If you stop lying about Menelik, I will stop telling the truth about Meles!
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