Will One Book Set the Record Straight?

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Bewketu Seyoum may have furnished one of the most important books in recent years, which could be a trailblazer for the debate on Ethiopian history and its consequences.

It is very difficult to be an Amhara and/or an admirer of Emperor Menelik and not feel vindicated by Bewqetu Seyoum’s latest book, Ke’amen basahger (Beyond Amen).
The past 25 years of the rule of the EPRDF were characterized by the bashing of these two as if that would be the fabric that would hold Ethiopia together. If extremists had their way, the famous monument of the emperor on the back of his rearing horse would have been demolished. People would also have expunged others from different ethnicities if those extreme people had their way.
They keep trying, but where the politicians and the government are not involved, some how the people have held on to each other and looked after each other — considering the amount of seeds of animosity that have been planted, some of which bore fruit and cut down some lives.
Ever since the EPRDF came to power, part of the game plan was to keep criticising the so-called neftegna for all the pain Ethiopians have undergone over the centuries. Them and the derg.
Political officials still feel little shame when they compare today’s performance with that the military regime. Criticisms, some of which draw a lot of laughter, on the continued comparison with the military-socialist as the benchmark have gone ignored.
For the Amhara nationals, too, who are as poor, hungry and sick as everyone else, it must sound very strange to hear of themselves referred to as the causes of all the pain in Ethiopia.
The ethnic politics of our age told the Amhara that they were the victors in the past who had abused their victory. By so doing it shut their mouth effectively from complaining, while the rest, who are assumed to have been subjugated by the Amhara continued to be abused as instruments for the insolence of ethno-political leaders at home and in the diaspora.
In the diaspora vitriolic verbal attacks are not uncommon among members of different ethnic groups. Languages get so bad as the mouth spews words from the corruption of the mind and the heart.
Bewketu’s book may be a turn around in some ways. Through a modest collection of quotes and anecdotes from old records by people who were present when history was made, and mostly through the lives of selected personalities, he lays his argument that whatever our leaders and other politicians were saying to stock up hatred and distrust was simply fiction, creation of evil minds.
While the book mainly focuses on Emperor Menelik and the Oromos, Harari, Wolayta and Eritrea have been considered in one way or another. It provides historical evidence that the Oromos were always represented in government in very significant way.
Taking a cue from the book, it looks like present day nationalists prefer to reject the historical importance of great and beloved Oromo fighters and officials for the sake of building an argument that the Oromos were always downtrodden; apparently this would serve a bigger political cause for them.
Most of the names Bewketu raises in his book have been turned into truly beloved figures through annual recounting of their heroic deeds in a country with a lot of days to remember its past. Gobena Dache, Aba Mela, Balcha Aba Nefso and more. For many entangled in nationalist politics, though, recognizing these people is tantamount to losing the whole political agenda. As if to close convincingly, Bewketu goes on to list the eminent Oromo ministers in Menelik’s government — and they are many.
He also tries to set the record straight about the alleged acts of cruelty Menelik is accused of committing on the Oromo people. He picks out a lie — the claim that Menelk cut women’s breasts; there is no single record to prove that, he argues. He also presents a context — that even before Menelik arrived, acts of cruelty were abundant among the Arussi Oromo, for example. Those were accepted practices in those days, which every ruler did. He urges not to judge rulers of the past by today’s standards, and boldly accuses nationalists of fabricating dangerous lies for selfish political gains.
Most strongly criticized and identified by name are Tesfaye Gebreab, who published books that targeted Oromo sentiments about past abuses, and Professor Asmerom, who he accuses of making up total lies to destabilize Ethiopia. Both these men are Eritreans.
These two names have been highly regarded by some Oromo writers on the web for showing how the Oromos had been oppressed. One writer calls Tesfaye “an Oromo by experience” for his book which Bewketu has attempted to criticise a little surgically.
It is a book written for the average reader, without the academic complexity and dullness. It has attempted to address issues of contemporary importance and of bygone origin by picking a few examples and finding evidences from some books. He has not attempted much to deal with what may have caused the tension among Ethiopians nor when and how history was left in the hands of amateurs.
Those well versed in Ethiopian history may now have their excuse for a bold and learned discourse of their past. And it is not the book that should be their agenda. The book is a trailblazer, and they have now a path to follow.
(The article was first published on the print edition of the Daily Monitor and was forwarded in an online website here.)

Ayenew Haileselassie
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