Obsession with History or Distorted Nation Building?

By Asrat Abraham

I read an article by Tsebaot Melaku entitled “Ethiopia: A State in an Obsession with Fait Accompli.” The article shows that Ethiopia is in a state of disarray over history and past political processes. I feel that the idea is partly true. For someone well informed, it is not difficult to see that our current problems stem from the so-called “past” events. In other words, it is not difficult to see some past issues are not over in our country. For example, we can take the Wochalle treaty. After the death of Emperor Yohannes at Metema, the treaty was signed between King Menelik of Shoa and a representative of the Italian government led to Italy’s legal ownership of Ethiopian territory and the creation of a country called “Eritrea.” Nevertheless, this reality did not change even after the victory of Adwa.

The post-war treaties of Feres Mai and Addis Ababa with Italy did not rescind the terms of the agreement of the Wochalle treaty, except that Ethiopia could negotiate directly with foreign governments. A few weeks after the war, a deal was made at Feres Mai that gave away the land across the river Mereb including Akuleguza and Seraine to Italy. One of the historical events that the history of Ethiopia neglects is this deal, the treaty of Feres Mai. I mentioned this as an example, but I believe that many of the historical events, both positively and negatively, are affecting our lives today as a nation and as people.

In essence, I believe that Ethiopia’s main problem is not the past or the present, but the result of a distorted nation-building process. As it is known, the foundation of modern Ethiopia was laid during the reign of Emperor Menelik II. Emperor Menelik II relinquished Eritrea to Italy via Wuchalle treaty and annexed the people of the South, East, and West, by force and/or will; thereby set the new shape of the Ethiopian border. In so doing, Menelik II concluded border agreements with the surrounding European colonies. This is a landmark historical event at the beginning of nation-building process of modern Ethiopia. While this may have been a good opportunity, it has also brought with it issues that are becoming increasingly contentious to date.

This process of nation building began with Shoa political supremacy, Amharic as the only official language, and the process of forming a segregated State based on the Orthodox Tewahedo a State religion. This in due course made the people in the State become unsatisfied and resentful. This is due to an ultra-unionist State policy that tends to abandon the annexed people’s identities and gradually create Amharic-speaking citizens. Besides, the process is not participatory, and it can be said that it was extremely segregationist. This is well expressed in an article written by Nagadras Gebrehiwot Beykedagn. According to his eyewitness testimony, the process of nation-building by Menelik II marginalized and alienated even Tigrayans and Gondar elites, who had played a significant role in Ethiopian politics in the past.  He further reported:

Every great palace appointment, especially the ministries are in the hands of the Shoa. Anyone who is from Tigre, Semen, Begemder, Lasta, and Gojjam was considered a foreigner and not consulted by the government. Nevertheless, because he has no education, the people of the north do not yet understand the shame of this situation. Because of this reason, as they were not humiliated by anything else, they have led adamantly.

Negadras Gebrehiwot only saw the humiliation of the people of the north. As for the people of the South, East, and West, if we see into the history, their land was taken; they were enslaved and were living in semi-colonialism. The nation-building process, which began with the suppression of the monarchy continued by adopting the French unitary model. Yet, with the help of strong urbanization and industrial expansion, the feudal system and land structure continued with Amharic-speaking peoples, which have no ties with languages ​​and cultures all around them. As it failed to establish a united single people, it was not successful to create the same people who speak the same language as much as is needed.

In this regard, the only non-Amharic-speaking cities in Ethiopia are found in Tigray Regional State. Interestingly, in the last 30 years, even at a time when nations and nationalities are said to be self-governing, and constitutionally guaranteed with the right to develop their language and culture, from more than eighty ethnic groups, none has been able to create a new city that reflects its culture and language. The only thing that has been done was to exclude from politics and oppress people who live in the Amharic-speaking cities that were founded through the process mentioned above.

Ms. Tsebaot’s other point is the issue of Ethiopian history education. She wrote that teaching Ethiopian history in higher education was ceased due to a lack of consensus on the content of the book. The reason is clear to me; let us see artist Getinet Eniyew’s poem:

የማይቻል አንድ ነገር…

እውነት- ቤት ስትሰራ:-

ውሸት- ላግዝ ካለች

ጭቃ ካራገጠች

ምስማር ካቀበለች

ቤቱም አልተሰራ

እውነትም አልኖረች።

He said that when a lie set out to help write the true history, it made our whole history to be mixed with truth and falsehood. There has never been a true historical doctrine in Ethiopia, but one-sided political narratives. This can be illustrated with various historical events. For example, we can start with the war on Mekedella between England and Emperor Tewodros. Ethiopian historians do not tell us that the reason for the war was that Emperor Tewodros imprisoned foreigners in Ethiopia at that time and that if they did not provide him with weaponry expertise, they would not be released. In addition, they did not tell us that the British army had entered Ethiopian territory to free the prisoners with approval of all of Emperor Tewodros’ rivals at the time, including the Lasta Wagshum Gobeze, Tigrayan Bzez Kassa, King Menelik of Shoa, and the Wollo Workitu and Mestawot. Instead, the Ethiopian historians teach the accusation “Emperor Yohanes brought the British to Mekedella.” On the other hand, they did not tell as the fact that Menelik II was written a joyful letter to Queen Victoria of England that his army was unable to march to Mekedella to help because they do not want to be separated from their family for the celebration of Easter holiday.

When we come to Adwa, we get the same thing. Article 3 of the Wochalle treaty clearly allows Ethiopian land to be given to Italy. Ethiopian history does not allow us to talk about this article. Instead, it says a lot about Article 17 and the resulting battle of Adwa. The argument that blacks defeated whites for the first time is also controversial. Even in our own country, Ras Alula’s army had already defeated the Italian army at Dogoali. The statue of the Italian Dogali Martyrs in Rome is a living testimony to this. Even though Egypt’s Arabs are not white, or would not cause much harm like the whites in Ethiopia, emperor Yohanes has defeated completely the invading Egyptian Arabs at Guraena and Gundat.

Had the Egyptian Arabs had won the Guraena and Gundat wars; they would have made us as politically meaningless as they had made the Coptic Christians of Egypt. This is also the case in Sudan. The other thing is that the history of Ethiopia does not tell us about the Maiy Feres and Addis Ababa treaties that are signed after the Battle of Adowa. Parts of land that had not been given to them in the previous treaty, most of the land of the province of Akeleguzay, as far as the Balsa Muna and the Mereb River, were given to Italy by these treaties.

The author’s contradictory statement about Emperor Menelik’s statue is also related to the Emperor’s legacy of nation-building. Just as some want to portray Menelik II as the founding father of modern Ethiopia, some see him as an invading, massacring, and colonizer. Therefore, as Jawar Muhammad said, we must either give up completely or find a way to reconcile both ideas. Furthermore, there is not much consensus about our heroes. For example, some portray Ras Gobena Dachi as a hero while Oromo scholars portray him as Menelik’s mercenary Banda or traitor. Oromo scholars see General Tadesse Birru and Wako Gutu as heroes as opposed to Ras Gobena Dachi. The Derg tried to promote heroes including Emperor Tewodros, Ras Alula of Tigray, Belay Zeleke of Gojjam, Abdisa Aga from Oromo, Dejazmach Omar Sumter from Somali, and others were portrayed as historic heroes through books, dramatizations, poetry, and narratives. However, Derg made the fame of Dejazmach Belay Zeleke overshadow King Teklehaymanot’s patriotism in the victory of Adwa.

In general, what we have seen in our country is the same problem that the famous poet Beiwketu Seyoum described in his poem “Nowari Alba Gojowoch”:


በባዶ መስክ ተመራምረው




የጎጆን ንድፍ ሲያበጁ


ዘመናቸውን ፈጁ።


መላ ዘመናቸውን

ጎጆውን በመቀለስ አለፉ።


ጎጆውን መውረስ ሳይከጅሉ

እንዲህ አሉ

‘ያባቶቻችን ቤት

ያያቶቻችን ጎጆ

ይሁን ባዶ ኦና

በኛ ቁመት

በኛ መጠን


The question is what should be the solutions? First, the error of nation-building must be rectified. To this end, it is necessary to follow a state-building system that gives broad autonomy to those who want to govern themselves. Second, we need to consider a State-building project that reflects the multinational and diverse ethnolinguistic diversity of Ethiopia. It is high time to develop a common political community and common understanding of history that recognizes Ethiopians as people with a commonwealth of cultural, linguistic, and economic interaction. If our history has something to be proud of, we should be proud of it together, and if anything is embarrassing, we should be able to learn from it together move forward. I firmly believe that it is possible to have a common country and history based on pluralism, by arguing boldly and reaching an agreement on common agendas, and tolerating our differences.