By Andualem Aragie*
If we went back in time to 150 years ago, we would not be living and thinking any different from our ancestors of the time. I would even think that we would consider the environment and context of the time as an immutable absolute. In this infinite thread of time, only the greats graced to each era by the Creator navigate across times like shooting stars on a dark sky, for all to see. Ethiopia always had Ethiopian greats that sparkle its accounts, cut across the maze of time to move at pace with living generations. It still does. Yet, from their midst, whom else can we place ahead of the figure we commemorate today, Atse Tewodros II? The famous historian Bahru Zewde in his Society and State in Ethiopian History (2012) calls Atse Tewodros II the “first dreamer” and explains the Emperor’s grand work of lifting the crown out of the catacombs of Zemene Mesafint and restoring the monarchy to its former heights. Bahru also holds that Atse Tewodros II felt great grief at the deep backwardness of the country. His sorrow was such that he lamented the people, himself included, were “blind, ignorant donkeys”. In the end and as Bahru also states, this desire for change that blazed inside Atse Tewodros II spared no one, not even himself. I feel great honour to be here today, at this event, to commemorate Atse Tewodros II martyred 150 years ago without engendering the dream of unity and modernity he conceived despite being himself the child of this deeply backward country, tired by squirmy chieftains and of uneducated, impoverished people.
Although retrospect makes for an unjust judge, we cannot deny that Atse Tewodros committed many acts of cruelty. Allow me nonetheless to state one of the reasons that inspire in me only great respect for Atse Tewodros. In the Bible, we read Moses proclaiming something that I personally find hard to believe. He intercedes for Israelites and says “But now, please forgive their sin–but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written.” (Exodus 32:32, New International Version) For a believer, to be “blotted out” of the book of life is the ultimate sacrifice. Atse Tewodros, as accounts have it, was one with in-depth religious schooling. Hence, when, at the last hour, he took the decision to take his own life, he was acutely aware that he would be closing not just the earthly doors on himself but also the heavenly ones. After rampantly slaughtering people, he was not among those who then decide to flee into exile. Nor, like others, was he caught in a ditch attempting to escape death. Instead, perhaps also aided by spiritual guidance, rather than leaving a legacy that would disparage his country, demean his people and shame generations to come, he chose to be thrown into the abyss of hell. It is a sacrifice that put a country and a people’s honour above all else. It is this legacy of sacrifice that Atse Tewodros has bequeathed our generation.
Something baffles me when I think of Atse Tewodros. I wonder where he drew this thirst for modernising Ethiopia and this hunger for greatness. What fuelled its fire? As Bahru puts it, “how did a man who grew up under Zemene Mesafint then become the latter’s downfall?” However, since the topic I was asked to speak on concerns current Ethiopia let me get on with the subject. First, one last point. Although I do not believe that Tewodros’s dream was fully delivered, the dream was conceived again after his death. From Tewodros’s fall at Maqdala, Yonannes IV and Menelik II have both achieved great feats. How can I go without mentioning Adwa? A victory that firmly positioned the consciousness of Ethiopians on a high ground. Still, although burning with a passion for modernizing his country, Atse Tewodros’s dream never took off ground. Similarly, his dream to build a strong and unified nation was realised much later and only to an extent with Atse Haile Sellassie.
From 1935 E.C. onwards, the clash between young Ethiopian public officials educated abroad and angry at the extreme poverty of their country on the one hand and noblemen and traditional leaders on the other was only a continuation of Atse Tewodros’s dream for modernity. Although Atse Haile Sellassie thrived in this tension that allowed him to maintain balance, in the final analysis, its splinters threatened his very own existence.
A hundred years after Maqdala, the brothers in blood and belief that were Mengistu and Girmame Neway conceived this same dream of propelling their country into modernity. Atse Tewodros had told the British in his final days “you gained the upper hand because your people abide by direction”. Yet he set up neither an education system nor a “social contract” that would mitigate this lament of his. Rather, fuming at the inability of his people to dream his vision and to labour his passion, he punished them. However, appalled at his own cruelty, he often prayed for death so “his people would find respite”.
Although not as forbidding as what Tewodros faced, General Mengistu and co faced similar popular resistance. The people did not quite understand the general’s dream. This explains why, at his trial, the general elaborating on his refusal to appeal for pardon from the Emperor famously said “I pity you, I lament for you when the day comes and Ethiopians finally understand my intention.” General Mengistu expressed, in his refusal to appeal the sentence, his hurry to join in death the comrades who sacrificed themselves for his dream. The general longed for death much as Socrates accepted to die for truth.
Today as well, several stress the importance of organising. Girmame Neway as perhaps the pioneer in understanding the importance of organising attempted to set up associations but was discouraged by the curse of fragmentation that is still alive today. Just as a frustrated Tewodros raged against his people, General Mengistu, upon realising that the coup d’état was aborted, took irreversible and unnecessary measures on the revered high officials of the regime.
In a scene that recalls Tewodros’s plea to future generations “to be his judge” in Tsegaye Gebre Medhin’s play, General Mengistu’s own hope hinged on budding students. Indeed the general seemed to be convinced that the yet nascent student protests began just ahead of the attempted coup d’etat, in 1951 E.C. was an expression of his own dream. The leaders of the attempted coup d’etat announced freely that their goal was to establish a Constitutional Monarchy bound by law and to accelerate development and tried to link their struggle to that of the students.
It was not many years after the general and his crew died that the student protests spread like wildfire. The protests that began with the celebration of College Day took larger proportions. Convinced of its power as an instrument of change, Atse Haile Sellassie introduced young Ethiopians from all over the country to education against the advice of some who foresaw that these students will turn on the Emperor himself. The prophecy happened. The student struggle directly targeted the Emperor. For the Emperor, College Day became a day of humiliation and insults.
Nevertheless, the students’ demand is a far cry from a call for democracy. Perhaps, in terms of calling for democracy, Haddis Alemayehu’s letter to the Emperor two years after College Day, can be considered the very first political and democratic document. Instead, the storm of socialism wreaking havoc on the world’s horizons started blowing on the thick clouds of the system that ruled our country for millenniums. The students vacillated between the age-old poverty and stifling governance in their country on the one hand and a socialist ideology gaining traction across the globe. Now their fists were not just directed at the Emperor but at the very history of Ethiopia.
While Atse Tewodros and the Girmame crew respected the existing history and went with it, the students had no esteem for the history of Ethiopia. It is impossible to find a historical event in which at the very least Oromos, Agas and Tigres did not take part. However, the students embalmed the entire history of Ethiopia as feudal and Amhara. The thread of racism/xenophobia that is still shaking the foundation of our country can be traced back to this student movement. In addition, even though a show of force has for years been used to climb to the top of power and to resolve differences, the student movement also introduced the culture of using writing to disparage one another. In particular, as some maintain, the paper by Tilahun Takele on the issue of ethnic groups can be cited as an example. A student protest that began with vilifying one another ended with killing one another.
Calling out the other for “siding against us if not with us”’, destroying one another over trifles even when one has convergent goals and programmes is now part and parcel of our political culture. While we can go on nit-picking several problems from the student movements, their willingness to give themselves wholly for what they believed in should equally stand out as the height of sacrifice. I am awed by the contempt for death they displayed at such a young age for what they believed to be true.
We can cite many other examples that shaped our political culture but this short paper will not do them justice. Perhaps, it is appropriate to mention a few points on the overall picture. In general, this ongoing battle between the people and its rulers is rooted in one thing. The governance desired by the people and the governance that its rulers want to impose is a complete mismatch. This incongruity continues to heighten the dissonance between the governors and the governed and remains the basis for gaining or losing support. Both the governed and the governors want the other’s subservience. Both want to force themselves as sole owner of sovereign power, of the country and of the country’s very own existence. The problems in our politics that remain to this day are all fundamentally down to this. While the people’s sovereignty is not realised the age-old absolute power of the governors has somewhat minimised.
Even though politics is an instrument of compromise of various interests and desires, we could not apply it in practice. Instead, we did not allow politics to be used other than to breed differences and build walls of hatred. It is perhaps why fear and mistrust prevail between the people and the governors. Our politics is not one that encourages the people to demand their rights but one that forcefully bends the people’s back to serve as a stepping-stone for the rulers. From past to present, it remains a relationship where people are subjugated to aggrandize the rulers. This continues to be the reason why we do not see much difference between our yesteryears, our present and our future.
Perhaps it is erroneous to miss the good while focusing on the worst. Hence, our overview now takes us to the repeated attempts by our country’s rulers to bind their relationship with the people on a constitution. It would not hurt to consider this attempt as one positive effort. In the early years of our history, between the 13th and 20th century, the Kibra Negest and the Fitha Negest were the main documents attempting to introduce law and order. Much later, during Atse Haile Sellassie’s reign, we see the first constitution purported to have been inspired from the Japanese experience, see the day in 1923 E.C. This constitution made the Emperor sole proprietor of both country and the people and the only right it accorded the people seems to be their nationality. The 1947 E.C constitution on its part proclaimed the source of power to be divine and not popular but, although never applied, provided some civil and political rights to the people.
Many regret the constitution drafted in Hamle 30, 1966 E.C. at the height of the anger and protests against the government, which they think, if adopted, would have perhaps saved us or at least prevented us from the political, economic and social crisis that we find ourselves still mired in. However, the flames of revolution already raging consumed along with the draft constitution the entire existence of the rulers. The dream for liberal democracy of our dreamers stayed just a dream.
The Derg regime’s constitution recognized that the source of power lies with the people and not with God. It went even further and stated, in its article 3 (1) that the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Republic lies not just with any people but its workers. In the name of the workers though, Derg only waved high the sovereignty of the barrel of the gun. The current EPRDF regime on its part recognized neither God nor the people as the source of power. It rather dug its claws in ethnicity/tribalism. Sovereign power is not given to the people but is rather handed out to each ethnic group separately. As EPRDF itself repeatedly tried to tell us, the constitution was not adopted by popular consent. Dr Negasso [Gidada] who was chairperson of the constitution drafting commission also said that the consultation took place only between EPRDF and a few individuals. Even if that were the case, the draft was never put to popular consultation and referendum. The sovereignty of the government continued to trump the sovereignty of the people.
Even if its word and its action always diverged, EPRDF’s constitution contains a number of rights provisions. However, just like the preceding constitutions, it could not even protect itself from the power mongers of our time much less protect the people. Sovereignty of the people is still not achieved. The rulers have still not, indeed cannot, become harbingers of freedom but of oppression.
While the 13th and 20th century, the Kibre Negest, the Fitha Negest, Book of the Synods (?), Hige Serwe Mengist (directives on government administration) served as directives in times of war and of peace, the constitutions’ main purpose was not to uphold the people’s rights but to entrench and prolong the lifespan of the rulers. Since the people’s interests and rights were never protected, the governments were never safe from shaking to their core. As we saw earlier, Atse Tewodros’s main goal was to build a strong and unified nation around a better government wrenched away from warring old men. He could not even fully deliver this dream.
The various rulers came in different shapes but in similar content. The people were subservient but never served. The documents that governed the relationship between the rulers and the people were never instruments of mutual commitment consented by the people but tools of subservience of the people. It does not mean that experiences of democracy do not exist in our country. The Gada system that we have not popularised sufficiently and other community participation based governance systems in the southern parts of our country were all democratic practices. Popular consent or lack thereof has the power to determine the success or failure of administrative and political directives from the rulers. It is the reason why our country has been standing still for so many years. It will be futile to expect results if the people are not allowed to consult on their problems, their interests and their hopes. The issues we raised 60 and 70 years ago are still our issues. We do not have an ideological thread that ties our yesteryears to the present. Our past and present are all jumbled up together. How will our tomorrow be then? Well, if we do not learn from the past and from the present it will be inevitable that our tomorrow will stay the same.
We have to learn from our dreamers and make our tomorrow a better one. As we saw earlier Tewodros’s dream to lift his country out of Zemene Mesafint and build a stable and modern country came out of his yearning for a better tomorrow. Those Ethiopians who have had the exposure to the level of development the world had reached in the early 20th century also dreamed of a modern Ethiopia. General Mengistu and his crew’s confrontation with the age-old monarchy is also related to the same dream of modernising Ethiopia. The students who protested with slogans of land to the tiller, equality to the ethnic groups, also dreamed, within their own ideological framework, for a better tomorrow for their people.
What would have happened if the circumstances and the times allowed them to succeed? It is a question we cannot answer because it is impossible to judge what did not happen.
A democratic Ethiopia is one of our unborn dreams. If General Mengistu and co had succeeded to bring about a constitutional monarchy, would it have led Ethiopia to democracy? We have no evidence to answer this question affirmatively. If the Hamle 30, 1966 E.C. constitution was adopted would it have made Ethiopia a land of democracy? We can only speculate. Was the call for a “people’s government” a call for a democratic Ethiopia? I find it hard to say. I for one think it is naïve to expect a democratic government and people’s sovereignty from youngsters crazed by a socialist ideology. After all, Marxism is about subjugating people by force for a common goal and not about giving power to the people.
Even though Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), itself a product of the student movement, claims that several were martyred for democracy, what we observe is a continuation of the old governance system with a new narration. What would their comrades in struggle feel if they came today to see what kind of governance their friends have set up? Perhaps we can speculate a few strongmen, like the student movement by a few Derg soldiers, hijacked their cause.
When in 1983 E.C one revolutionary government was replaced by another, also fattened by revolution, it was not clear where, Ethiopia, by then worn out by civil war, was headed. The transitional government, which many hoped would decide the country’s fate in a positive manner, not only was not inclusive of the many first hand stakeholders but having lined up a series of ethnic groups went about setting up a plot of strongmen on democracy itself. The transitional government’s key component the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) walked out. Thus began our flight back to where we started.
When the ensuing government still professed to lead us to a liberal democracy we believed, we waited. Journalists published newspapers. Several hopeful beginnings flourished to the point of suspicions about the intentions of the government. Politicians formed political associations. The international community cosied up to ostensibly positively influence the government with “constructive engagement”. The mills of the governance were heard far and wide but its pipes remained empty and nothing substantive came of it. We hailed Mary for revolutionary democracy to engender liberal democracy but we could not change the law of nature. Revolutionary democracy only multiplied itself.
You do not need me to remind you of the historic 1997 E.C when several midwives hoped to deliver liberal democracy from revolutionary democracy since, even those of you who were away from home still hailed Mary for the country. Democracy has always been a painful pregnancy for Ethiopia but has so far not cost the motherland’s life. Yet, the foetus of democracy, not sown from the right seed, was aborted without seeing light. It remains unborn.
The dawn of democracy, awaited by Ethiopians hungry for it from rural towns to the cities, from the cities to foreign countries, was shot to darkness by the governance that has gone on for years and muted the overflowing feelings of hope into deep frustration and helplessness. Countless Ethiopians were dragged to concentration camps; the lives of budding youths taken by the government. The people’s struggle to become sovereign squashed by the government’s heavy fist. The people’s own child, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), became one of the government’s principal victims.
The government’s train of revolutionary democracy now shed all pretence and continued riding its rail of oppression. The train flew backwards. In its journey backwards, it took cowardly pride in hunting, labelling and throwing away in jail the Ethiopians who broke the spell of fear and shunned death. Like hermits who recluse themselves in dark times, we faced isolation from our people, our loved ones and our beloved children. They called it a life sentence. But life is a gift from the Creator and not men. Their judgement did not hold. People’s will and determination decides the length of the struggle, not the arrogance of rulers. It is the reason you find us, here, today.
Today, we see some glimmer of light. I think the rulers have understood that the path it has taken will lead it nowhere. Youngsters and youths have paid the ultimate sacrifice of life for the sovereignty of the people. The trouble is that when the struggle slows pace, the government believes it is strong and respected by the people. If it continues with this belief, it would be making the century’s biggest mistake. It is imperative that the government now submits itself to the sovereignty of the people.
It is a mistake to expect all the solutions to pour down on us from the government. It is wrong to expect one person to be the solution for a country as big as Ethiopia. Everyone should do his or her part. Us the opposition should get acting now. We should bury for the last time the culture of intolerance and divergence that has plagued us since Zemene Mesafint or the student movement. We should be enraged for democracy not raging to destroy each other.
We have not succeeded in bringing about a lasting change for our country. Everything we have done so far was impulsive, unreasoned and unsustainable. The main reason was that the people, without whose participation nothing can be achieved, were not owners of their country’s affairs. The rulers of Ethiopia since Atse Tewodros have not succeeded in establishing a strong government because they were not governments of the people. No amount of weapons, nor gold reserves can make a government strong. Governments should obtain the blessing of the people and be founded on deeply rooted and just institutions. We have witnessed the Atse Haile Sellassie regime come to dust within 6 months. The mighty Derg army feared across Africa went to ashes before our eyes. We have seen the current regime’s labyrinthine weaves of tribalism that form its foundation stripped down to skeleton by the peaceful struggle of the people. Perhaps what differs this last situation is that it quivered with it the very foundation of our country. Thus, for stable and prosperous times to come to Ethiopia the people must become the sovereign source of power.
Even though the hands of the oppressive rulers were heavy, the deep roots of our cultural and historical social contracts and social practices have been our strength to withstand all. It will lead us nowhere to denigrate or malign one another’s ideas. To overcome our defects and to take back our hopes we need to find a common ground on our shared history. If we do not come to terms with our history, we cannot build a country we love. We will continue to cancel out each other’s achievements if our interpretations of the past is conflicting. No country, no people exists that is without faults in its history. The difference is in how they have learnt from their past and built a reliable foundation for their future.
We mark today the 150th commemoration of the passing of Atse Tewodros II who fell in the battle to build a unifying government at a time when Ethiopians are revolving their universe around their tribe.
Today the entire country is trembling from the tribe based zero sum game the government has played. Our consciousness has tipped sideways. As one side celebrates the ascending to power of their ethnic group another wakes with uncertainty about their tomorrow. We deserve a democratic government that believes in the dignity of all human beings. We cannot sleep on the duty to set up the framework for a country about which everyone is proud and where everyone is heard. To build a shared country with a shared vision we need to make it our agenda to come closer to each other and foster understanding. A congress bringing together all those who feel concerned about Ethiopia’s affairs should be called. Change and in particular positive change advances at a tortoise pace in Ethiopia. But this is not the time for business as usual. We are in fast moving times. The government should rush to facilitate such a forum, while the political forces inside and outside the country should fast adapt to the current political needs.
The culture of and desire for reciprocal retribution should be buried deep. Politics and not law can solve our political problems. It is true that rule of law is the basis for democracy. However, we cannot rely on the law alone to bring about all the solutions. We should cancel each other’s debt with forgiveness. Just as we say “forgiveness dries blood” we need to open our hearts to national reconciliation and brotherhood.
Forgiveness is indispensable for us to build a strong country where the people are sovereign. We have seen countries in worse situations than ours apply reconciliation and forgiveness. This is the time for allowing ourselves to see the contribution of the other. This is not the time for expecting democracy to come from a few individuals but for all of us to do our part without waiting for others. This is not the time for heroism over small victories but the time to give everything to birth the democracy we have been longing for years. We are at the edge of the Red Sea: to part the sea of oppressive governance and head towards a democratic Ethiopia or to get entangled on thin threads of differences and drown. I, myself, have resolved to cross the sea of oppression with forgiveness, love and brotherhood. But I cannot cross it alone. Indeed, I do not want to cross it alone.
Let us now stride, together, without losing hope and without dwelling on the past, the path of unwavering peaceful struggle and cross to our hoped democratic Ethiopia. This is the only way to deliver democracy.
May justice like midday sun, love like a strong current and brotherhood like a wreath of flowers triumph in Ethiopia!
- * Andualem Aragie, Speech at the 150th Commemoration of the Victory of Maqdala and the passing of Emperor Atse Tewodros II of Ethiopia in Frankfurt, Germany- May 12, 2018
-  All dates follow the Ethiopian Calendar unless otherwise indicated (EC).
 All dates follow the Ethiopian Calendar unless otherwise indicated (EC).