The debate and the root of the idea
A perennial view of Ethiopia as a nation of one culture and one ethnic owner suffered a serious blow by, among many, the 1974 revolution and the emerging Qube Generation. As a result of these severe blows, the old claim to owning Ethiopia seems to have been reduced to a claim of sole custodianship of Ethiopia. For this newfound moral comfort to have some psychological validity, the image of Ethiopia needed to be redefined, and friends and enemies re-compartmentalized. In the process, heroes and antiheros, visions and altruisms, virtuous and evils … got entangled in a manner that can be truly confusing for an outside observer. A centennial death of emperor Menelik, a leader known for his brutality during his wars of expansion in the 1880s, is widely debated among Ethiopians in the context of this obscured paradox.
The paradoxical debate about Menelik is between those who take him as a national hero, and those who take him as a brutal emperor not worthy of any tribute. Those who preach his greatness are quick to point at his victory over the Italian army (1895-1896), a case which was propagated as a victory of a black race over a white colonial power, i.e., garnered some international attention. The astute emperor who had access to adventurous European advisors also jumped on some nifty opportunities becoming the first to introduce a railroad, telephone, telegraph, electricity, and a motor car to his primitive kingdom. The cost of these imports was covered by income from slave trade from the newly garnered territories of the South, now within Ethiopia.
Those who think Menelik is unworthy of a tribute count his merciless and excessive brutality (even for those days), such as cutting off the hands of young men suspected of re-joining resistance wars, chopping off breasts of young women – to severe further reproduction of the resisting ethnic group, or arresting of large numbers of people for sale at the Djibouti port which was recently equipped with a rail road access to facilitate such exports.
The current debate is taking place in the backdrop of Ethiopia’s continuing attempt to unite both the grandchildren of those who inflicted the pain, and those who suffered the injury. Obviously, peace is fragile here, and tension is floating amiss.
More accurately, the current tension is triggered by Amharas, Menelik’s ethnic group, who propose to build a statue for the 100th year of the death of Menelik, close to the site where the breasts of women of the occupied ethnics were chopped. The tacit purpose of the commemoration might also be to undermine the existing statue at Annole, a statue in memory of women who lost their breasts.
In addition to Menelik’s success against Italian occupation, as a justification, the proponents of Menelik’s statue also argue that Meles is just as brutal, and yet he is given imperial attention and recognition. The poorly argued zero-sum game has only aggravated the people of Southern Ethiopia, modern subjects of Menelik’s expansive war. The supporters of the statue also point out at a fact that Menelik has attempted to modernize the country, despite lack of effects of his modernization as Ethiopia is still a poor country trailing the 3rd World. Let us accept Menelik’s performance as a modernizing agent, however tiny the changes may be in the overall scheme of things. Also, for the sake of this argument, take Menelik as a ‘uniting’ force that created a map of near-modern Ethiopia. So, carefully assessing the logics on either side, one is left with one serious question: should these accomplishments of Menelik have precedence over his brutality to citizens of Ethiopia?
The proponents of a statue of Menelik on the occupied lands believe the brutality of Menelik is past, part of old history, and that there is no need to bring it to modern politics. But the primary purpose of building a statue hundred years after Menelik’s death is exactly to do the same, to bring the memories of Menelik’s accomplishments, knowing that memories of his excessive brutality cannot be filtered out. These century old glories are then used to affirm Amhara greatness and mobilize Amhara citizens against others. It is dirty politics and I see no other benefit.
The proposers of the statue are not envisioning a statue of Menelik on the side of the great Annole statue, say, half the height of the existing bronze in size, whereby Menelik appears on his knees, raising his hands as if to ask the women and the Almighty for mercy. I think such a statue would be meaningful and uniting, serving a greater purpose of today. But the proposed statue is to tower over the victims, undermine the Annole statue, and bring back the memories of old and brutal ethnic wars which gave rise to a kindling state of Ethiopia. The winning side may celebrate the glories of 1880s, but the victims may be tempted for revenge in 2010s. That is why the artist Qamar Yusuf’s song warns “it is playing with fire”.
The motive behind the idea
In Ethiopia of today, brutalities that accompanied state formation are still within few generations and in fresh memory. Children of those whose hands were cut by Menelik’s army are still alive. Children of mothers who lost their breasts are numerous and have visual memories of their mothers without breasts. Grandchildren of the victims are majority in the South, a stone throw away from the site of the conceptualized statue. Simply put, Ethiopia has so far, somehow, amassed peacefully those who murdered for conquest and those who suffered immense pain as conquered, to live side by side as neighbors. Now, what is the point of flashing pictures of the murderers of grandpa and grandma, posting the memory of a brutal emperor who perpetrated untold misery on the people?
Proposing a statue with utter disregard to the feelings of the victim generations is a reckless poke of old wounds of neighbors. The power balance has changed, making the once upon a time mighty army of Menelik obsolete or very weak. Proud of their ancestor’s success more than 100 years ago, today the Menelikites who used to enjoy the cultural supremacy, have only the ego left to nurture.
So, a radical version of Menelik’s brutality today appears among his conqueror-generation as a margin that wants to capitalize on old emotions, mixed with hate-driven passion. The group suffered a severe blow during Ethiopia’s leftist revolution of the late 1970s when they engaged their teenagers to kill or die for Lenin’s philosophy, not knowing the harsh consequence of Leninism on Menelik’s ideals. Prematurely exposed to dying and killing – as teenagers, with underdeveloped social values, the teenager warriors of urban Ethiopia became l’enfants terribles. Soon, a massive clinical situation of hate grew in the country, as the young and hateful minds continued to grow to adulthood. With no opportunity to get medical counseling of any sort – the type we saw in South Africa for example, the hate became a political paranoia wildely spread in today’s Ethiopia. With hate deeply seeded in and among them, the thinking of old greatness which is out of reach today became an irritating factor, yielding a nightmarish condition among the new generation of Menelikites. This is at the root of this ‘great idea’ of building a statue for a brutal emperor, in the neighborhood of his historic victims.
For history students, the coagulation of Menelikites, with their core extreme ideology of “Galla Geday” (Oromo Killer) is identical to the formation of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in the USA. Following the Civil War, the US Congress directed reconstruction of the war torn states and the society. In the South, the policies of Reconstruction aimed at extending the rights of blacks. However, the policy also injured the moral of the slave-owners, giving rise to the KKK, which immediately began organizing to perpetrate systematic violence in opposition to the new social order. KKK unleashed terror against former slaves, but also Northern teachers, judges, and politicians. Historians see the creation of KKK as a true sign of the death of slavery. The “Galla Geday” of Ethiopia, with a minute scale and unlikely chance to grow to any capacity of treat, also marks the beginning of the end of Amhara supremacy.
This unheard of celebration of a death instead of a birth of an emperor has become a new motto, a new uniting slogan of Menelik’s ethnic tribe that suffered great defeats economically and politically over the last few decades, just like the KKK advocated a wave of dogma to affirm the existence and interest of slave owners. The profligate claim to greatness by way of a brutal emperor fails to serve good for Ethiopia simply because the wounds of Menelik’s barbaric expansion are not allowed to heal for good. It also cultivates and grows hate among peoples.
Bad argument for the idea (Oromos, new comers)
There are many Abyssinian scholars who argued in favor of placing Menelik’s statue in the occupied territories, amongst his historic victims. Few said, for example, that Oromos historically did not belong to Ethiopia, and therefore Amharas have the right to build the statue anywhere they choose. This opens a historical argument, the type this writer adamantly prefers to ignore.
The argument that Oromos are recent immigrants to Ethiopia, and therefore should settle for less than their full rights has been thrown recklessly here and there, now and then. In fact, recently it was injected even to Wikipedia. I am aware this type of hate driven argument deserves no response. However, the Amhara scholars have conveniently ignored this rubbish propaganda, and the argument is now serving Amhara politics. It deserves a response, albeit brief.
It is very disappointing indeed, to see that the scholars and political leaders of Amharas keep silence when their leaders accept the notion of catering rights on a first come first serve basis. People should all be allowed equal rights, regardless of their history, ethnic origin, or political belief. The following is a brief rebuttal to those who believe Oromos are new comers to Ethiopia, and use this belief to suppress the inalienable rights of Oromos and other peoples of Ethiopia.
I present this references to document that Oromos and all Cushitic people of Ethiopia are native to ancient Ethiopia. As one Machiavellian writer noted, Ethiopia appears in the bible in several places. However, the original Hebrew version of the Bible uses Cush, and in some non-Hebrew editions it was replaced by “Ethiopia”. This replacement, which caused serious misunderstandings, was cleared by Wallis Budge, the ultimate scholar on the Nile civilizations. Budge, in his “History of Ethiopia”, Vol. 1, pp. vii – viii, writes “The identification of Cush with Abyssinia under the name Ethiopia made by translation of the Ethiopic version of the bible in the 5th (or 6th) century, has, for many centuries been accepted by the Abyssinians. And to this day the Abyssinian, in reciting Psalm LXVIII (V. 31), says, ‘Ethiopia shall make her hands reach unto God’”.
W. Budge further elaborates “Ethiopians whose manners and customs have been so fully described by Herodotus, Ocodorus, Strabo, Pliny, and others were not Abyssinians at all, but the natives of Upper Nubia and the Island of Meroe.”
Knowing Ethiopia is Cush, now we can also use the bible as a historical source, as was used by some shrewd Abyssinian writers to reverse the table. The Bible mentions Cush in several places. Amos (believed to preach around 760 B. C.) in 9:7 mentions the Cushites as a people over whom Yahweh has no special providence. Isaiah, believed to live around 700 B. C., mentions Cush several times in his writings. In 43:3 he wrote “with Egypt and Seba Yahweh will give Cush in ransom”. In 45:14 he writes that Cush is a land of merchants. In Zephaniah 2:12 (about 630 B. C.) a threat of doom is pronounced against Cush. Jeremiah 46:9 (about 630 B. C.) refers to Cush as the frontier of Egypt. In Nahum 3:9 (roughly the same dates as Zephaniah) Cush is called the strength of Thebes (its capital).
Cush and ancient Ethiopia referred therefore virtually to the same land and people, until Haile Selassie replaced Abyssinia by Ethiopia, which became popular only after the Italian war. The non-biblical name, Abyssinia, did not fulfill the emperor’s ancient claims to the region without admitting the “Galla” a more prominent role in the makings of history. His move was devious; he pillaged the biblical Cushitic name (or Ethiopia) that has nothing to do with Abyssinia, and excluded the Cushite from their own name and history.
According to Bartnicki and Niecko, in their book “History of Ethiopia”, during the might of Egypt, there, where today are countries of Yemen and Aden grew a civilization of few states who later migrated to the West coast of the Red Sea. And Wallis Budge in his “History of Ethiopia” Vol. 1, page 131 writes: “they brought with them Sabean language” – geez. The dominating state of the region was Saba with its capital at Marib in Yemen. The remnants of Marib have been declared one of the historic wonders of the world. The popular Queen of Sheba (Saba) claimed by Abyssinians to be from Aksum is the queen of this state, and Aksum itself is the result of the expansion of the Saba state which started around the V century B.C. A steady en mass migration of the Habesh tribe to the bordering sea side land of Cush started from the Yemen region in the I century B.C., but the first contact of the Habesh tribe with Cush dates much earlier. Eventually the Habesh dominated the indigenous Cushite population influencing the cultural and political life of the region. With its capital Aksum, its territory reached as far as south of present-day Mekele. It destroyed Meroe, the legendary city of Cush.
Some historians suggest that the Cushitic civilization reached as far as Babylon. About 4000 B.C., the Babylonians developed irrigation systems, built cities, invented alphabets, began astronomy, art, and science. Their level of civilization was unsurpassed for the next nearly 4000 years. They calculated the solar year with astonishing precision of 365 days and 6 hours. They predicted the eclipses with accuracy exceeded only by modern science. George Dorsey in his book “the story of civilization” states that “probably they were of an Ethiopic ethnic type”. Harry Johnston in his book “The Negro in the new world” states that “there is a curliness of the hair, together with a Negro eye and full lips in the portraiture of Assyria which conveys the idea of an evident Negro element in Babylonia”. And the “negro” of the region were only Cush. Furthermore, A.C. Haddon in his History of Anthropology asserts: “in the Babylonians there is a sign of Cushite”. Numerous sources can be repeated here to suggest the relation of Babylon and Cush. But the work of the renowned archeologist, Sir Henry Rawlinson, is most interesting. Rawlinson in his “The origin of Nations”, pp 212 states: “the dominant race in Babylonia at the earliest time to which the monuments reached back was Cushite. Rawlinson writes the vocabulary of the primitive race (Babylonians) was decidedly Cushite or Ethiopian. Rawlinson was able to interpret the inscriptions chiefly by the aid which was furnished to him from published works on the Galla and the Mahra.” He further writes “Egyptian, ancient and modern, Ethiopic, as represented by the Galla, Agau, etc., southern Arabian (Himyaric and Mahra), and ancient Babylonian, are discovered to be cognate tongues, varieties of one original form of speech”.
Again, let us use the bible as a historic reference. Jeremiah, who lived during the disintegration of the Assyrian empire and emerging conflicts of Babylon and Egypt, gives fair accounts of the events of his time. In 13:23 he alludes to the dark-skinned complexion of the people of Cush. Egyptian records and paintings also prove the blackness of the Cush. Herodotus’ (484 – 425 B. C.) writings provide undisputable evidence of the color of the Cushite (Ethiopian) race. He wrote about Ethiopians as “people of thick leaps, broad noses, wiggly hair, and burned skins”. He also praised the Ethiopians as “wise men occupying the Upper Nile, men of long life, whose manners and customs pertain to the Golden Age, those virtuous mortals whose feasts and banquets are honored by Jupiter himself”. His description about Cush goes on identifying them as “the tallest, most beautiful and long-lived of the human races”. He identified Meroe, the capital of all Ethiopia, as a city with most of its buildings built with red brick. Isaiah 45:14 reads “and the gain of Ethiopia and of Sabaeans, men of stature, shall come unto you and shall be yours”. Jeremiah 46:9 speaks of the mighty Ethiopians. Homer (8th century B. C.) commended Ethiopia in Odyssey, and in Iliad he praised the Cushites as the “utmost of mankind”.
D. D. Houston in a book entitled “Wonderful Ethiopians of the Ancient Cushite Empire”, declares that Saturn (the Roman god of agriculture), Dionysus (the Greek god of wine), Osiris (the brother of Isis and the Egyptian ruler in the underworld), Apollo (the Greek god of the sun), Zeus (ruler of the heavens and father of other gods) and his son Hercules (the symbol of power), were all ancient Cushite kings.
The destruction of Meroe, the last capital of Cush, was sad not only to the Cush but all, as it ended one of the greatest civilizations built by men. Meroe, now buried under the desert sand of Sudan, is the mother of African civilization, the product of thousands of years of cumulated knowledge from the days of Thebes to Memphis. The destruction of Meroe was also accompanied by the rise of the Aksumites.
The rise of Aksum pronounced the decline and fall of Meroe. The geez text of Ezana, king of Aksum, gives good account of his march northwest downstream of the Atbara River to the “Noba” who he defeated on his fourth confrontation at “Kemalke” on the Atbara River. He then went on chasing his enemy for twenty three days, set up a base at the junction of the Atbara and the Seda (probably the Nile) opposite “the town of masonry” (most probably the town of Soba) of the Kasu. From there he dispatched his army to the south and the north. The southern front destroyed the “towns of masonry and of straw” of the Kasu, and the northern front marched to the red Noba and destroyed the “towns of straw” of the Noba and two towns of masonry of the Kasu (one of these two is most probably Meroe) which the Noba had taken (from the Kasu). Noba and Kasu are obvious geez references to Nubia and Cush, and the red Noba who “took towns of Kasu” prove again the continued aggression of the Egyptians. This also marks the first Egypto Abyssinian confrontation on Cush territory. Aksumites will fight again later in the fourteenth century in Shewa region of central Ethiopia with another overseas group that penetrated through Zeila. In Abyssinian languages, red is used to characterize people of lighter skin, which would fit the Egyptian complexion. Seda appears in Oromo traditional songs, and it is probably a Cushitic name for Nile.
Now Aksumites have grown to a power of the region, and they got part of their knowledge from the Cushites themselves. Wallis Budge, Vol 1, pp xvi, writes “the Cushites (Nubians) passed on to the Abyssinians much which they themselves had learned from their Egyptian conquerors”. As a result the Aksumites monopolized trade roots of the Red Sea. Aksum, in the words of Basil Davidson, “cut the ancient caravan routes between Cush and the ocean ports. War followed; and Cush was vanquished, probably soon after A.D. 300″. This is where the Cush civilization starts mysteriously to disappear. Pressed by the hostile Egypt and the Abyssinians, anarchy and lawlessness reigned in the demoralized nation. Cush dozed for the next almost a millennium after which it repossessed its spirit of revival. The Egyptians were preoccupied with their Asian enemies, and the Abyssinians were too feeble to pursue south. Anarchy was gradually replaced by peace and harmony in a small scale, and culture had the impetus to flourish. It was the period during which the Gada system was invented as a viable option to the week kings who did not pull the nation out of chaos and prevent it from continued losses to the enemy. The time was uniquely favorable to start a unique social system, and so Gada started.
The late emperor Haile Selassie once requested several British historians, among them W. Budge and C. F. Rey, to write a book on Ethiopian history. They both came with excellent books now considered classical. The later was to include Ethiopian aristocratic chronology compiled by debteras and forwarded by the emperor himself. The book, “In the country of the Blue Nile”, published in London in 1927, contained the list of 165 Abyssinian emperors in its appendix A. The list of the chronology which included several kings of pharaohs also listed Adam as the first king of Abyssinia. Though academically naive, the list was included in the appendix as a mere respect to the wish of the emperor, but soon became a fact that was to be memorized in the Ethiopian schools.
These 165 Abyssinian “kings” are claimed to reign over Ethiopia before the birth of Christ, even before the Abyssinians conquered Ethiopia, the ancient Cushite land west of the Red sea. This emotionally serving legend was used to design a “longstanding and glorious” Abyssinian history justifying its patriotism which frequently developed into corrupt superiority complex. It is this self-indulgence, transmuting into and from chauvinism, founded upon bogus records of history and warfare tradition that started suffering in the wake of germinating liberation movements. Based on aggressive propaganda attacks waged against any non-Amhara ethnic outlooks that demonstrate intellectual challenge to this legend as chronology, one should assume that the fable has been taken too seriously. The guardians of this Ethiopian mythical tradition continue to mobilize emotions by mixing fable with history to defend what seems to be the last phase of their socio-political hegemony. Again Wallis Budge has put things strait: “The truth is that the Abyssinians know nothing about the history of their country in pre-Christian times. The first ‘king of kings known to us is Yekuno Amlak”.
The Cushitic people are indigenous to Ethiopia, and no history or myth should be used to deny peoples’ rights.
The author is currently based in London. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org