Published on December 19, 2013.
In 1990s most people, regardless of their ethnic background, remembered Hailesilassie for the despotic ruler that he was, as a king who oppressed millions, starved Wallo and held the country in perpetual darkness. That began to change in less than a decade. All of a sudden, newspapers, magazines and songs began transforming him into a glorious king whose deeds, big and small, must be inscribed in stone and made present for posterity. His remains were exhumed and given a public burial; his crimes were erased from public discourse. With vocalist Teddy Afro as a leading of revivalist voice of the Solomonic dynasty, Hailesialassie’s sanctification reached its climax. He was accorded a status of not just a caring Emperor of Ethiopia, but also a unifying father of Africa.With his revival in public culture, those who suffered under his authoritarian rule rendered even more invisible and inaudible.
With successful completion of Haileselassie’s remaking, the next project is the difficult task of portraying Menelik’s legacy as the most shining not only in Ethiopia but also in Africa. The Adwa victory has always been celebrated but now all of a sudden it began receiving a heightened emphasis in media, academia and the arts. The historical significance of the war in the black-white racial divide is now given special attention and Menelik is refashioned as a hero of all black people around the world (despite the fact he himself denied being black, telling the black rights activist Benito Sylvain “I am not a Negro at all; I am a Caucasian”).
To further advance this tactic of cleansing Menelik, small slices of credits were thrown for his commanders such as Habtagiorgis (Qusee) Dinagdee and Balcha Safo. This credit sharing was meant to spread the blame around so that the massacres committed during the war of conquest in the South would be reframed as a war of unification waged by the unified leadership of all nationalities, not just the Amhara onslaught on the rest. The aim is to turn the bloody massacre of millions into a blessed holy war, as declared recently.
Now we are observing the beginning of an attempt to sanitize the not so distant dark memory of Mengistu Hailemariam’s rule. A two volume biography by a talented writer and autobiography are followed by choreographed interviews on noble issues such as the future of Ethiopia and Mandela’s legacy! It’s a matter of time before we start seeing picture of him on t-shirts and banners.
The question then is this: why are Amhara elites laboring so hard to rehabilitate the image of past tyrants at the cost of antagonizing the rest of the nationalities? The answer is that they are undertaking a fundamental shift in their political strategy from the Pan-Ethiopianist narrative to a plain Amhara ethno-nationalism. Masking the Amhara partisan interest under the garb of pan-Ethiopian rhetoric required deemphasizing the past. However, as a result of the robust transformation in the national consciousness of other groups over the last few decades, neither hiding the past nor masking partisan interest in the name of unity is selling well. In fact, the past has been dug out and being used as a roadblock to the ambition of restoring the Amhara hegemony. Moreover, the effort to bury the past in order to keep the increasingly less profitable pan-Ethiopian narrative floating has split and weakened the Amhara base. The division is between those who want to openly advocate for Amhara interest and those who want to stick to the masking. Now it seems a consensus is emerging in favor of the modified version of the former.
As mentioned above, the indignation and violence committed by the Amhara elites in the past have been used to delegitimize the ambitions of the current generation of Amharas. Hence, they feel that their effort to distance themselves from the legacy of these rulers has not worked. Thus, in rehabilitating past tyrants, Amhara elites are trying to turn historical legacy of those men from political liability to asset. They aim to do this in two ways. One is by denying, minimizing or rationalizing the heinous crimes committed by their past rulers; thereby developing a narrative that provides post facto justification for it. If that past is successfully reframed as unfortunate but justifiable and largely positive undertaking, men like Menelik would no longer be liabilities but assets whose credit in ‘unifying the country’ could be cashed out by the current generation. Once the war of conquest is turned into a civilizing mission, it then would enable Amhara elites transform the discourse from defensive to offensive, attacking their adversaries as ‘ungrateful savages’. Note the common utterance that goes ‘had it not been for Menelik, you would have remained naked and enslaved by European colonialists’!
The second tactic is to embrace the legacy of the past rulers as a way of turning them into unifying and motivating historical figures for the Amhara base. This is particularly important at a time when the Amhara political community lacks any contemporary unifying figure due to being scattered into countless rival factions. While Menelik can be rebranded as a unifying figure, the rehabilitation of both Hailesialssie and Mengistu would also help to heal the wound caused by the split of the Amhara base in the 1970s in support of or opposition to the monarchy and the revolution.
As effective as this strategy of rehabilitating past rulers to advance contemporary politics may be, it carries serious risks for the Amhara political agenda. By promoting these past rulers, Amharas will obviously face two problems. Morally, it becomes hard to justify their criticism of Tigrean domination or point out crimes committed by leaders like Meles Zenawi while glorifying their own. Second, by rehabilitating these rulers, Amhara elites might be benefiting from a unified and energized base, yet at the same time they further antagonize the rest of the nationalities—consequently facilitating recreation of a unified opposition to themselves, the type that brought down their past hegemony.
Finally the shift in Amhara politics from the pretension of speaking for others and hiding behind the Ethiopianist mask towards openly advocating their partisan self-interest is an encouraging development. But they have to seriously think how best to articulate this transformation. No doubt that these past rulers could be considered heroes in the Amhara community. After all they brought about and sustained their socio-economic domination that lasted almost a century and still persists. But they were also a brutal war criminals who devastated other nations; turning them into a socio economic underclass. Hence using these rulers as central heroes of the emerging Amhara nationalism would be scratching old wound and putting the Amhara political community in perpetual tension with the rest of the peoples in the region.