Tuesday, April 16, 2024
HomeOpinionDr. Abiy in the Mirror of Emperor Yohannes IV

Dr. Abiy in the Mirror of Emperor Yohannes IV

Ethiopia _ Abiy Ahmed _ Emperor Yohannes IV

Tesfa Ze Michael, B.Phil.

March 10, 2024 was the 135th anniversary of the death of Emperor Yohannes IV at the battle of Galabat (near Matama) while defending Ethiopia’s sovereignty against the Mahdist invaders. His life and death embody historical lessons that are instructive to Ethiopians, who are currently being driven into Dr. Abiy’s bottomless pit of violence. The idea of the “upright posture”  derived from a lecture on the 13th-15th century Ethiopian philosophy I attended a few years ago frames my discussion below.

Certain manuscripts from these centuries give philosophical significance to the “upright posture” of man (ሰው, säw, which in Amharic is gender neutral). They link metaphorically the “upright posture of man” with his capacity to have a vision that enables him/her to go beyond immediate experience. Thus, for example, the 13th century idea to transform Ethiopia into an  “earthly Jerusalem,” or the 15th century idea of aiming “for the summit,” meaning to struggle to reach the universality that enables one to “stand upright” in freedom, equality, and justice. Those who discover and develop the vision that the “upright posture of man” postulates have a “head vison”; those who fail to do so have a “foot vision” or what is known as the “worm’s eye view,” a vision totally limited to one’s immediate experience.

Emperor Yohannes IV embodied the “head vision.” Though he was not an intellectual, he was a deeply religious person who intuitively  grasped the ethical implications of the “upright posture of man.” One could clearly see this in the 1888 letter he sent to the Mahdist leaders Abu-Anja. He wrote him that they are “one people,” that they should “respect” each other, and “unite” based on their mutual interests and for the greater prosperity of both.  Though he and the Mahdi leader had different religions and interests, Yohannes IV believed that they could go beyond these differences if their relations are mediated through the recognition of each other’s inherent dignity.

Another example of his “head vision”: He defeated decisively the Egyptian invading armies (1875, 1876) and took thousands of Egyptian war prisoners. Nevertheless, despite the death and destruction they caused, he treated them with dignity. 

Other examples of his “head vision” could be garnered from his internal politics. Internally, his main goal was the unification of Ethiopia. He took at least two visionary measures to advance this goal. 

First, he understood that Ethiopian unity cannot be based on centralization of power nor on ethnicity. Rather, he adopted a region-based approach. He promoted reconciliation  between Negus Tekle Haimanot and Negus Menelik and allowed them, under his suzerainty, to enjoy a certain autonomy in their respective regions. One could say that he instituted a kind of feudal neo-federalism based on regionalism. Yohannes IV did not have an ethnic bone in his body and was totally free from ethnic narcissism. 

Second, one could see his far-sighted vision in his decision to make Amharic the language of his court and administration. Though he recognized the importance of allowing Ethiopians to live and prosper in their mother-tongues, he also recognized that a commonly shared language is indispensable for Ethiopia’s unity and development. 

His critiques paint him as anti-Islam. However, a careful consideration of his actions in Wollo show that he acted not against Islam but against the instrumentalization of Islam in the service of the Mahadi and Egypt. An analogy could make this clear. Christianity was instrumentalized for colonizing Africa. One could reject this instrumentalization of Christianity without rejecting Christianity as a religion. The same logic could be seen in Yohannes’s policy vis-à-vis Islam.

Were we to take the above examples, expressive of the “head vison” of Yohannes IV, as a mirror for reflecting on Dr. Abiy’s actions, we discover that Dr. Abiy has a “foot vision” or a “worm’s eye” view of Ethiopia and her conditions 

Unlike Yohannes IV, Dr. Abiy has ethnic narcissism hard-wired in his brain. Inevitably, he has hardwired ethnic narcissism into his regime. His “worm’s eye” view limits him to the immediately given as the only possible reality.  You are born an Oromo, an Amhara, or a Tigrean, then he believes that is all you are forever. Hence his and his followers’ ethnic narcissism. You ask critical questions in parliament, then he considers you a total enemy. No dialogue with you; you are arrested and imprisoned. Dr. Abiy has his three meals every day. Well, since he is not hungry, he asserts that there is no hunger in Ethiopia. He has built museums, parks, and palaces in Addis. Well, he affirms that Ethiopia is developed, despite the degradations of conditions in the countryside where the majority of Ethiopians live. Dr. Abiy’s “worm’s eye” view limits Ethiopian reality to his personal experiences. Hence, the chaos and misery his regime is generating.

Whereas Yohannes IV unified the Ethiopian Church at Boru Meda (1878), Dr. Aby is trying to disintegrate it with his mystic intoxication with ethnic identity. He is repeating Mussolini’s assault on the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Yohannes IV would have seen Dr. Abiy as a new type of Mahdist, but one who professes the Prosperity Gospel baked in ethnic greed and nepotism. 

To be sure, Yohannes IV had a lot of shortcomings. Sill, in his dealings with Ethiopians, he had an upright moral posture. Dr. Abiy, on the other hand, has a “Dark Tetrad” personality. He has no qualms in killing citizens, in massacring them with drones, and resorting to torture as tools of governance. He has no scruples about inventing facts out of thin air. Unlike Yohannes IV, who was known for his modesty, Dr. Abiy is not embarrassed to talk about himself in glowing terms. Whatever he needs to feed his hunger for power, he does without any hesitation or shame.  Unlike Yohannes IV, who respected and applied the traditions and the law of the land, Dr. Abiy has made lawlessness and arbitrariness his modus operandi.

Yohannes IV would have considered Dr. Abiy as mortal a threat to the existence of Ethiopia as the Mahdist he fought against at Metema. 

Editor’s note : Views in the article do not necessarily reflect the views of borkena.com


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  1. Wow. What a convoluted argument you make, matching Ethiopian rulers just to prove your most favored Yohannes is exceptionally visionary. You seem to be suggesting Tplf, unlike “ethnic-wired Mahdist” Abiy, too, is “endowed with head vision.” I take it you must have heard about the clergy and royal chroniclers whose primary and “head vision” duty is to extol potentates of the past era. You are the modern-day version. Abiy is new-era potentate not caring to wait for your damnable biases but instead has shamelessly taken up self-promotion!


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