During a visit to Addis Abeba University’s Institute of Ethiopian Studies (IES), in a building known as Ras Mekonnen Hall, I heard about a shocking historical event. The head librarian recounted an incident that occurred in the aftermath of the downfall of Emperor Haileselassie, where librarians were ordered to deface or get rid of books that had illustrations of the emperor on them.
Ethiopia has a rich history. There have been times of peace and war. Certain parts of this history are a source of pride, such as the battle of Adwa, while others are a source of shame, such as the existence of slavery.
Unsurprisingly, such historical facts have been prone to distortions by governments. The education system has fuelled such a dynamic, with successive regimes nitpicking various stories for celebration while undermining others. The victory of Adwa has not been different in this regard.
A historical analysis cannot be made on the basis of ifs and buts, but Ethiopian history has become an old coat that can be cut and patched quickly. And with the coming of a new regime, another history will be authored. As a result, consecutive generations will be drone to developing a distorted understanding of their country and identity.
Unfortunately, instead of writing their own chapters, Ethiopian leaders are usually more preoccupied with previous leaders. The current regime has not been much different. It has preferred to measure itself against past regimes by demonising the previous government, against whom it fought before assuming power, while commemorating others that fit the current political agenda.
But history is not an overcoat that we take off when it is hot and put back on when we feel cold. Rather, it is a signifier of who we are and where we are heading. As science-fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein has said, a generation that ignores history has no past and no future.
Discrediting immediate predecessors has been one of the most typical characteristics of Ethiopian leaders. The last emperor of Ethiopia, Haileselassie I, reportedly did not like hearing about Emperor Menelik II. Emperor Haileselassie was not only swayed by his own divine imagination about his monarchy but also convinced that Ethiopia had no future without him.
This tradition of embellishing one’s accomplishments by minimising the predecessors’ continued into the rule of the Dergue. Mengistu Hailemariam, unsatisfied with his assumption of power was obsessed with his version of the new Ethiopia. The Dergue was more concerned with history than human rights.
In another historical parallel, recently, the National Archive & Library Agency had been removing historical books from its collections for the sheer justification of space problem.
A change of regime in Ethiopia always results in starting from scratch. Youngsters that were fortunate enough to survive the bloody white and red terrors during the Dergue regime had to undergo the tremendous cultural shock of reorienting their ideological alliances. They made the jump from Marxism-Leninism to semi-capitalism.
It must have been even more disorienting to have to make the shift from the Emperor’s capitalist regime to a regime of the far left. At least there is some comfort to be found in that religion and tradition have remained dominant and have overshadowed political ideologies, cushioning the psychosocial effects of such drastic paradigm shifts.
Almost three decades after the fall of the Dergue, it is unfortunate to see the public media, political leaders, and activists engaged in the effort to bring about a new order. Everyone wants to start over, which may be well and good, but they should not erase or distort what took place before. Indeed, this tradition of starting over has created a scenario that can best be described by Napoleon Bonaparte’s claim that history is a fable that is agreed upon.
In a nation where there is much history to study, what sufficient justification is there to shut down the Department of History at Addis Ababa University?
Everybody seemed joyful during the celebration of the victory of Adwa last week, which is nice, even if some of it seemed superficial. The victory is a significant one. It is where Ethiopians stood up for their principles and tried to protect their way of life. But it should not be used to forward political agendas. It should not be made into a rallying cry for patriotism or into an emblem of one single cause, leading it to be shunned by the other group.
Thus, we need to commemorate the victory through symposiums and the establishment of museums dedicated to it and other such historical achievements.
We need to learn to give our entire history its due, not just the ones that make us feel better or ones that fit into contemporary politics. Not every chapter of our history is free from moments we prefer to forget. Whatever our ancestors may have or not have done, however, should be taken as a lesson for current and future generations. We cannot undo the past, but we have everything at our disposal to make a better future.
The government too needs to learn from history and to respect the past, such as recognising the scars made by our forefathers. There should be no double standard, for that would be the same measurement that will be used to evaluate us by future generations.
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