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HomeOpinionMenelik II and history as captives of Ethnic politics (Dimetros Birku)

Menelik II and history as captives of Ethnic politics (Dimetros Birku)

Menelik should never be a captive of ethnic politics

Adwa Victory - emperor Menelik - Ethiopia - Patriotism
Statue of Emperor Menelik in Addis Ababa

December 13,2013

As Ethiopians mark centenary of Menelik’s memorial, the controversy on him does seem to take pointless turn.

Nothing is wrong in reflecting on the past and forming opinion on it. In fact, it is an attribute of, so to speak, responsible citizens and I tend to see it in a positive light as a manifestation of care for and attachment to the society. And irrespective of degree of participation, no history is shaped without the participation of all members of the society – one way or another.

What would be wrong, in absolute terms, is the practice of creating impressions that one’s “historical” opinion is definitive and the rest is inconclusive or biased. Who is to deliberate authoritatively on controversial topics of historical nature? Not opinion leaders obviously! And what is so rational about shaping the race to lead opinion on historical topics but with politically charged convictions as opposed to accurate interpretations of history?

If what makes a subject matter “science” is a process which involves systematic inquiry and analysis, history, as a subject matter, is unmistakably science. It is not an area where novice political ‘opinion leaders’ form and/or deform historical facts so as to give what they think is rational and definitive ‘judgement’ to win the race for political opinion leadership.

There are certain principles to be observed and methods to be employed in the process of producing knowledge in the field of history. History is not just an inquiry into what is changed and what is not changed, it is also an inquiry as to what was right and what was wrong, and in whose eyes and why it was so, among other things* A historian is much like a judge in his own right in the sense that no matter what historical topic interests him/her, he/she is up for the task of objectively analyzing evidences and deliver judgment. If the judgment turns out to be unacceptable, then it takes another judge, (a historian) to look into the matter and produce acceptable deliberation. History has a higher purpose; it is not meant to be an area for polemics and novice “historians” to play with it with a spirit of authoritative historical knowledge. History can only be relevant for the present and for the future if it is spared from uncalled for political deconstruction.

It does not mean that there is no connection between history and politics, the past and the present ,and even between the past and the future. It does not also mean that professional historians do not have political persuasion of some sort. However, historian’s interpretation and analysis of historical events and processes cannot be based on irrationally dismissive practice and political sentiment as methods and principles of inquiry into historical topics are supposed to be pursued in a spirit of academic honesty and intellectual aspiration. And the methods of undertaking historical research are more like linear.

It may seem that manipulating history in ahistorical and anachronistic way, which essentially means deforming history, could produce desired political tool but in actual fact not much can be achieved by deforming history whether the purpose is political or otherwise.

The Verdict on Menelik II

For certain group of activists, Menelik is guiltiest figure Ethiopia has ever produced. As a result, it seems, Menelik is not just history and/or historical figure. He is politics. He has been part of, as a subject matter, contemporary Ethiopian politics essentially because of political elites who were/are obsessed with seeing the world of Ethiopian politics entirely with ethnic political lenses. (continue reading on next page below related post)

Menelik has a strong presence in Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) political manifesto which was published during establishment of the party as a guerrilla group something like 40 years ago. Similarly, Menelik has a strong presence in political rhetoric and documents of Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), again older than forty years. Menelik is also present in Anti-colonial struggle movements in Africa and the Caribbean. In the case of the former, Menelik is a caricature of monster nature and the cause of unfreedom- a subject exploited very much towards the project of creating a secessionist nationalist consciousness and movement. For this group, Ethiopia too is taken in bad light as a creation of Menelik II.   In the case of the latter, Menelik, along with the Ethiopia he managed to reunify, is a case of celebration and inspiration in the fight for freedom from the yoke of colonialism and oppression. Of course, there was favourable image of Menelik at home – a case where he was taken for what he was.

One of the reasons that the Caribbean and African image of Menelik should be taken seriously is that it is produced against the backdrop of the challenges of the time: Colonialism. The outcome of one of Menelik’s timely project – resistance to colonialism – was something that transformed the thinking of a generation in Ethiopia and elsewhere. No sane person who takes himself seriously with a grain of respect to the value of rationality should discredit that.

If you are venturing to judge Menelik with the politics of “nations and nationalities,” democratic principles and with his ability or inability to solicit fund from financial institutions and how well he implemented projects for which he was given fund, then you are fooling yourself and practically fooling the community which you claim to represent too. That is a case of anachronism. And there is nothing related to historical fact or nothing rational about it.

Menelik was not a system unto himself and he was a product of the Ethiopian Society! History of military planning, distribution of power, political marriages and so on of his time do not seem to suggest so. Economic history of his time does not tell a story of ethnic based economic policy.

Yes, the project of recreating a unified Ethiopia and his military campaigns caused atrocities and sufferings. But all his reign should not be measured with that.  Even “modern elections” (not war!) in our time produced a war like situation, unnecessary and unimaginable sufferings for many. In some cases much worse than Menelik’s military campaign is alleged to have caused. Many are still in prisons for that matter.

We should take Menelik out of much of the political discourse and put him in his rightful historical place. After all, what is the point of making history a captive of ethnic politics? Could it ultimately serve the purpose it is intended for? What do we want to make the subject of politics; the present and the future or the past? And how long shall politicians continue to engage in deforming history by way of bad even worst interpretations of historical processes and events?

By Dimetros Birku

Writer can be reached on twitter @dimetros

*Refer to Edward H. Carr‘s “what is history?”

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