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September 18, 2021 at 1:57 pm #3318
By Tsebaot Melaku
The triptych of past, present, and future, intertwined in numerous ways, shapes experiences of our daily life. As the weight of the past inescapably oppresses our thoughts in multiple ways, it is impossible to completely do away with it. Individuals and collectivities understand themselves, explain the rationale for their polity and weave their socio-cultural fabric through stories, narratives, and mythos of the past. But, when accusations of subjugation of societies come as the burden communities have to bear in a post-authoritarian system, and when all past injustices are faced with the denial and legitimizing narratives, the present would be redolent with politics of the past rendering enterprise of positive future-making futile; hence a stalemate risking spiraling into the abyss in due course.
Contestation over how to understand the past has become mundane within the Ethiopian political scene. Interpretations of the past became acutely polarized and bigotry ensued from controversial historical narratives become entrenched in the national psyche. History and memory have become politicized and are permitted to play a very divisive role among the elite and public as well. The failure to teach Ethiopian History as an undergraduate common course, in order to minimize the national polarization demonstrates the gravity of the problem. The encroachment of politics in the realm of history has made Professional historians themselves take discordant positions on the contents of the teaching material. While many courses have filled the freshman program in Universities, currently, Ethiopian History is not being taught, leaving the higher education road map unfulfilled.
Following the 1960s Ethiopian Student Movement, the imagery of the Ethiopian state rooted in remote past and antiquity was challenged by different subaltern images, identities, and discourses. The characterization of modern Ethiopian history stands in sharp contrast among Eritreans, Somalis, Oromos, and the Amhara, while restoration of unity and regional autonomy on one side and a rule of force on the other depict different characterizations of past regimes. A stark contrast between narratives of the past, one claiming continuity, unity, and cultural identity while the opposing narrative constructions emphasize conquest, subjection, and difference.
Similarly, with the growing ascendancy of ethnic nationalism in the 1990s, contention over how to understand and interpret the past has gained an overriding influence within Ethiopian political discourse. New historiographies that re-created and re-appropriated ethnic collective memories have surfaced more than ever. Furthermore, the 2018 political opening also permeated another wave of debates and discourses over the past.
An account of Ethiopian’s historical memory, by Jawar Mohammed, can best illustrate countries’ dilemmas over the past. Prior to the interview, he visited the Anole monument on the date Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed had the Unity Park (palace of Menelik II) inaugurated. In the interview, he mentioned that his actions are rooted in “politics of memory” and insisted that if anyone lionizes Emperors Menelik II, Haileselassie, or former Prime Minister Meles, he will bring to the fore their “satanic” sides. Furthermore, he made assertions that the option is two for interpretation of Ethiopia’s past, either to close the chapter or to allow all interpretations of history an official outlet, leaving no option for the possibility of negotiated truth over the past. He ultimately declared that “the story of the oppressed, the poor and the victim must be told”.
Among other instances, the continuing controversy surrounding the equestrian monument of Menelik II can also epitomize social division over the past. Back in 1991, the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization put together a protest where protestors rounded Addis Ababa’s Menelik II Square, veiled the statue of Menelik with a black garment, and solicited for its immediate demolition. However, a few days later, other protestors also staged a counter-demonstration to take away the black garment, and raise money for the renovation of the statue. The public discord extends to date and reportedly, lives were lost in the skirmishes that occurred in 2019 among members of the Oromo community who insisted on the demolition of the monument and those who insisted on its preservation.
The principal reason for such a radical and fatal dispute over the past can be attributed to the detrimental role played by nationalist elites. Fixated on the extremes of national humiliation and of national pride, politicians, and activists sympathetic to and affiliated with different nationalisms, create, dismantle and restructure images of the past and intentionally forget and remember histories suitable for their present needs. The contentions over history do not emanate from history itself, but from the ways, it has been used and abused by the political elite, as they are involved in historical reconstruction aiming to [re] define national identity and in the process meet their parochial elite interests. Alas, politicians and leaders of public opinion become primary interpreters of history.
In this regard, the view that he who adjusts the past to hold open all kinds of different futures seems to govern the actions of the nationalist elite, leaders, and activists. Conflicting images of the past are now closely related to group identity formation and/or preservation in a way that it gives individuals a sense of biographical continuity through ideas of origin, golden age, nostalgia, loss of place, time, etc. Therefore, the struggles over history have also become, in part, a struggle over social identity.
As the past is enabled to steer emotions, motivate people to act, be received, and ultimately become a socio-cultural mode of action, it is now becoming difficult to share common national symbols, narratives, discourses, national heroes across different ethno-national groups. If such a crisis of worldview is going to persist, aside from the possible danger of disintegration of the state, scenarios of political nihilism resulting from the realization that the past cannot be re-appropriated and the future is void might govern. On the other hand, nostalgic cult movements would also proliferate here and there with a promise of utopia. However, we can deal with the gloom if interventions can be realized at the pre-political and not only political and structural.
Collective reflection and the pre-political
Attempts have been made to reconcile conflicting narratives of history but a concerted effort from the state to decouple history from today’s ethno-linguistic issues and political differences was not realized. On the contrary, efforts to legitimize a particular notion of the historical narrative over the other have been the exercise of the political elite. Recently, it seems there is a shift to official oblivion that aspires to forget the divisive pages of history by tweaking historical identities with the rhetoric of “አንድነት”(unity). Such an effort to blindly refuse a reckoning with the past cannot be the answer for claims of past injustices. A deliberate forgetting in itself might be considered as a form of ongoing complicity in past injustice. It might also represent a flagrant disrespect towards those members of the political community who continue to live with socio-economical traumas of past injustice.
Ethiopia would not benefit from collectively remembering or forgetting but from collective reflection. The way out of our contemporary predicament can only be found through new modes of public reasoning based on constructive dialogue, honest discussion, and debate. Thus, the past can be decoupled from today’s ethno-linguistic differences through direct negotiation of interests and positions without seeking to undermine each other’s legitimacy with historical arguments. Full recognition and acknowledgment of the extent of past injustices and accomplishments alike would constitute a galvanizing principle, the basis upon which a new political community could be formed. This may contribute to healing the past, reorder the ontological present and allow a reimagining of a collective peaceful future.
Collective reflection should not only aim to allow the truth of the other, but also involve interventions towards reducing the politicization of the past by nationalist movements and their leaders. The critical role played by those activists in reinterpreting the past, must not be left unchecked. Interventions should be made towards unraveling the genuine claims of historical injustices from day-to-day falsification of the past. Reconciliatory processes also must be held at all levels and involve all sections of the society who were neglected from the meaningful political decision-making process.
However, beyond conspicuous socio-economic malady, failed nation-building attempts, and ethno-nationalist zeal, something seems to block understanding the truth of the other. Something beyond the political. Our obsession with the past, reflected through consistent myth and metaphor, even stands in the negation of open time endorsed by dominant religions in the country. Perhaps it might be worth exploring our understanding of time and our cognitive cultural grammar at the pre-political level. The character of our contemporary existential experience points towards a certain type of ordering of our world, and of ourselves within it. A radical rethinking of such social and political experiences would require transforming reality settings at the pre-political level. Our notions of morality, virtue, justice, beauty, time, etc. must make possible new political imagination and action thereof.
Hence, questioning the implicit metaphysical assumptions that define the architecture of our reality and the structure of our contemporary existential experience might contribute to a deeper understanding of why our contemporary existence and reality system has been made to mirror the past. It is worth questioning, à la Federico Campagna, “What defines at the core the peculiarity of our present time, as opposed, for example, to previous times? For such and such cultural or economic forms to take place, what underlying assumptions are necessary at a metaphysical level? What ontology is necessary, to justify the ethical goals that are implicit in so many of our currently prevalent social institutions? And so on”.
We have now reached the point of no return. Radical disagreements over the interpretation of the past have expanded into senseless bloodletting. Civil wars are wrecking the state and directly or not, politics of the past among others play a role in the making of such violence. If we are not to escape it, we must at least attempt towards fading the darker shadow of the past. New political imagination requires foreseeing, envisioning new political possibilities. Existential destruction can only be confronted with an extended consideration of time. Time is not empty; it carries a possibility and projection into the future. “In it” argues the eminent theologian Paul Tillich, “we decide, and are decided about, concerning our future”. In this regard, the renowned poet Kebede Mikael’s work titled “ዓለም እና ጊዜ”  portray to us, the foolery of associating existential reality with the past and draws a temporal rupture as follows:
አንዱ ስፍራ ሲለቅ፥ አንዱ እየተተካ፣
ሁሉም ርስቴ ነች፥ እያለ ሲመካ፣
ሞኝነት አድሮብን፥ ሳናስበው እኛ፣
ዓለም ሰፈር ሆና፥ ሕዝቡ መንገደኛ፣
ትውልድ ፈሳሽ ውሃ፥ መሬቷም ዥረት፣
መሆኑን ዘንግቶ፥ ይህ ሁሉ ፍጥረት፣
ስትመለከቱት፥ በሰልፍ ተጉዞ፣
ሁሉም በየተራው፥ ያልፋል ተያይዞ።
By virtue of existing in historical time, we can envision “manifestations of the eternal” in the “doom of the temporal” and the possibilities for human [political] existence that lie beyond the present moment. Negotiating, healing, and reconciling our past need not only involve civil and governmental institutions and the process of enhancing a civic culture, genuine multiculturalism, democratization, etc. It also requires the unique efforts of those visionaries who are engaged in philosophy, psychology, theology, fine arts, and other fields that contemplate cognition and metaphysics to bring a socio-political change.
Ethiopia needs to put to an end to its obsession with fait accompli. The nationalist elite and public as well must contemplate the condition for endless creation, which makes social change and progress possible. The political power of those who attempt towards arresting history by means of conscious deception and deliberate lies must be transgressed and the resolution to the divisive politics of the past must be considered both at the structural and pre-political level.
 Kebede Mikael. (1956). Yequine Azmera (የቅኔ አዝመራ). P.4-8.