Oduu Haaraya

No universal Ethiopian hero or history: a rejoinder to Al Mariam

By Buri Waddesso

Jmenelikanuary 20, 2014 (OPride) – Menelik II, Ethiopia’s brutal 19th century king, has made a sudden return to the Ethiopian media spotlight over the last two months. Much has been written, from opposing viewpoints, in connection with a centennial intended to mark the 100th year of his death.

In his latest, rather nauseatingly lengthy, foray into the polarizing and heated debate about the king, Alemayehu G Mariam, who teaches politics atCalifornia State University, tried to recount Menelik’s “many accomplishments” and dismiss Menelik’s detractors as a deluded, irrational, and unenlightened bunch undeserving of being heard.

In a convoluted effort to rationalize his fetish for the greatest murderer of the Oromo and South, Al Mariam accused those he disagreed with of being government puppets. As a critic of the current dictatorial Ethiopian regime, for much longer time than Al Mariam, I would like to point out the follies of the likes of Al Mariam in trying to present a sanitized version of Menelik and the long past, which they desperately strive to resurrect to replace Ethiopia’s dismal present.

Menelik was a complex man of many faces. Al Mariam presented the monarch as a “true African” and a great leader who put Ethiopia on the path of modernity. The good professor brushed off charges that Menelik committed heinous crimes, amounting to genocide, during his ambitious greater Ethiopia project as mere “allegations.”

Compared to his two predecessors, Tewodros, a tug, and Yohannes IV, a religious fanatic, Menelik’s reign over Northern Ethiopia stood for stability,  moderation and have had a modernizing effect overall. While both Tewodros and Yohannes lost their lives, fighting Britain’s Napier and Sudan’s Dervish respectively, whom their miscalculations invited, Menelik’s well-equipped army gave Italians a thorough lashing at the battle of Adwa in 1896- while still leaving them unmolested beyond the Mereb River.

The latter was a shrewd move on Menelik’s part, not to risk squandering the Adawa victory. But the decision was what sawed the seeds for the 30-year long Ethio-Eritrean war that ended in their separation in 1993 and the much lamented loss of access to the Red Sea. One may also legitimately ask: How does Menelik’s decisions compare with Alula Aba Nega’s eviction of the Italian and Egyptian invading armies?

To be fair, Menelik’s was no era when differences were sorted out peacefully at the negotiation table. But is this enough to condone brutal subjugation?

To realize his ambition for total dominance over his erstwhile Northern rivals, Menelik had to amass a huge wealth, which meant waging war on his wealthier neighbors, the Oromo and the South. Al Mariam’s efforts to whitewash the brutality of Menelik’s campaign of conquest, not just expansion, are as irrational as it gets.

Hitler, too, built roads, laid magnificent infrastructure, ended social strife, and calmed down the rampant inflation of the 1930s that denied Germans the security of life following the disasters of the WWI and its messy aftermath.

However, what rises as Hitler’s legacy is not the modernization of German industry, which he destroyed through his unbridled aggression, but rather his crimes as the architect of the holocaust. To celebrate this evil is a crime in Germany. However, some Ethiopians, including highly educated ones, have no shame glorifying psychopaths and mass killers, whose crimes against humanity are horrendous even if not rising to the holocaust.

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