By Tedla Woldeyohannes (PhD)
Published on Ethiomedia on November 27, 2016
For keen observers of the current Ethiopian politics, especially the writings, media interviews, and social media comments and posts by Oromo elites and activists, one topic has kept receiving a steady focus more than others: The role of Emperor Menelik II in the formation of the modern Ethiopian State and how largely negative and bad the emperor’s legacy is, especially for the Oromo people. In this piece, I sketch some major episodes in the Oromo Protest during the last one year to highlight the point that an attack on Menelik II and his legacy is not an isolated incident in the Oromo movement according to the Oromo elites; it is rather an integral part of it. One of my goals in this piece is to show why an attack on Menelik II is an integral part of the whole Oromo project according to the Oromo elites and activists. I submit that the dispute, claims and contentions about the meaning and significance of the Battle of Adwa 1, issues involving Addis Ababa from the Oromo elites and activists are also extensions or corollaries of the attack on Menelik II and his legacy. Also, the debate on whether there is an Ethiopian national identity, Ethiopiawinet, is an extension of the attack on Menelik II and his legacy. For the preceding reasons, I take it that to understand the significance of the attack on Menelik II is essential to a proper understanding of the project of the Oromo movement including a need to produce the Oromo Freedom Charter.
What Has Happened to the Immediate Causes for the Oromo Protest?
A year or so ago, the Oromo Protest began with the legitimate demands of the Oromos who suffered injustice under the current Ethiopian government. The injustice the Oromos have suffered under the current regime are part and parcel of the injustice the Ethiopian people have suffered under the regime in power for the last 25 years. We all know that the Oromo people in Oromia regional state have been mercilessly subjected to all sorts of mistreatment because they demanded the government to stop the ever-expanding land grab, to stop human rights violations, to allow peaceful protest to express their grievances, to stop marginalizing the Oromos from the political space in Ethiopia, etc. However, in light of what has recently become the frequent topics of debate by the Oromo elites and activists, it looks like we are almost at a point when we need a reminder what triggered or started the Oromo Protest a year ago. The last several months the issues raised as part of the Oromo Protest are no longer what had triggered the Oromo Protest a year or so ago. The truth is that the Oromos who were initially protesting against the Master Plan, or the land grab in the Oromia Region, were not protesting against Menelik II and his legacy at that point, or even until now. If the regime in power did not engage in land grab and other unjust treatments of the Oromos, like the rest of Ethiopians, would the Oromo Protest have started as a protest against the bad legacy of Menelik II as we have been hearing lately? From the perspective of the protesters on the ground, based on the available evidence, the answer to this question is a resounding “no.” Imagine starting a protest against Menelik II’s legacy calling it as such and asking the regime in power to meet the demand. That would be a bewildering demand for the government. An important and inevitable question now is this: Why did those Oromos who have paid ultimate prices with their lives and those who have suffered life-altering injuries and imprisoned and tortured have paid all these prices? There is a need for a clear answer to the loved ones for the deceased and to those who will continue to be part of the Oromo Protest. The Oromo elites need to offer a clear answer without mixing the reason why the Oromos on the ground were protesting and their frequent and increasingly growing project of revisiting and reinterpreting Ethiopian history by way of attacking the legacy of Menelik II.
It is one of the purposes of this piece to seek a clear answer to the question: What is the ultimate goal of the Oromo Protest? Now we all know that the Oromo Protest has rapidly evolved into what it is now: a deconstruction of Ethiopian history, Ethiopian national identity, calling into question the meaning and significance of the Battle of Adwa.2 Now it is absolutely crucial to understand the nature and the scope of the Oromo Protest or movement at this current stage. The answer the Oromo elites are presenting has frequently and increasingly comes in the form of engaging the issue of state formation in Ethiopia and with a claim that the Oromo nation has been colonized by the Abyssinia or the Ethiopian empire.
Menelik II: The Colonizer?
According to some Oromo elites, the answer to the question whether Menelik II was a colonizer is a resounding, “yes.”3 In his response to my article on the Oromo National Charter4, Prof. Ezekiel Gabissa writes, “The question of internal colonialism has been a subject of academic debates since the mid-1980s. In Ethiopian studies, the pertinent themes were outlined and discussed in several essays in The Southern Marches of Imperial Ethiopia edited Donald Donham first published in 1986. The eminent sociologist Donald Levine describes the two sides as the “colonialist narrative” and the “nationalist narrative.” These means the debate has ended in interpretive disagreement. A generation of students in Oromia and other regions have [sic] up grown up learning the “colonialist narrative” version over the objections of the advocates of the “nationalist narrative.” This is a settled issue to need any explanation.”5 From Prof. Ezekiel’s point of view, the debate whether the Oromos were colonized does not need further explanation. I disagree. We are not dealing with a mathematical or logical proof to suggest that historical disputes can be settled without a need for further explanation. At any rate, it is not the purpose of this article to engage in the debate whether Menelik II was a colonizer and whether the present regional state, Oromia, was once an independent nation which came under a colonial empire led by Menelik II. (continue on page 2)