The Strange Twist in The Amhara Politics

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The latest fanfare surrounding the
celebration of Menelik’s centennial
marks an interesting strategic shift
in Amhara politics. This
memorialization function which,
both by design and default, turns
every futile, petty, even downright
brutal acts of ancient kings into a
dazzling action, began a decade ago
with a successful resurrection of
Haile Selassie I. Now it’s Menelik’s
turn. With the publishing of his
memoirs and multiple interviews,
Mengistu is just around the corner.
I argue that the resurrection and
rehabilitation of the memory of
past rulers is not just an obsession
of the fringe in the right and some
populist artists, but a calculated
and systematic undertaking by
intellectuals supported by the
broader political community
suggestive of a deeper and seismic
shift in the Amhara politics.
In 1990s most people, regardless
of their ethnic background,
remembered Hailesilassie for the
despotic ruler that he was, as a
king who oppressed millions,
starved Wallo and held the country
in perpetual darkness. That began
to change in less than a decade. All
of a sudden, newspapers,
magazines and songs began
transforming him into a glorious
king whose deeds, big and small,
must be inscribed in stone and
made present for posterity. His
remains were exhumed and given a
public burial; his crimes were
erased from public discourse. With
vocalist Teddy Afro as a leading of
revivalist voice of the Solomonic
dynasty, Hailesialassie’s
sanctification reached its climax.
He was accorded a status of not
just a caring Emperor of Ethiopia,
but also a unifying father of
Africa.With his revival in public
culture, those who suffered under
his authoritarian rule rendered
even more invisible and inaudible.
With successful completion of
Haileselassie’s remaking, the next
project is the difficult task of
portraying Menelik’s legacy as the
most shining not only in Ethiopia
but also in Africa. The Adwa victory
has always been celebrated but
now all of a sudden it began
receiving a heightened emphasis in
media, academia and the arts. The
historical significance of the war in
the black-white racial divide is now
given special attention and Menelik
is refashioned as a hero of all black
people around the world (despite
the fact he himself denied being
black, telling the black rights
activist Benito Sylvain “I am not a
Negro at all; I am a Caucasian”).
To further advance this tactic of
cleansing Menelik, small slices of
credits were thrown for his
commanders such as Habtagiorgis
(Qusee) Dinagdee and Balcha Safo.
This credit sharing was meant to
spread the blame around so that
the massacres committed during
the war of conquest in the South
would be reframed as a war of
unification waged by the unified
leadership of all nationalities, not
just the Amhara onslaught on the
rest. The aim is to turn the bloody
massacre of millions into a blessed
holy war, as declared recently.
Now we are observing the
beginning of an attempt to sanitize
the not so distant dark memory of
Mengistu Hailemariam’s rule. A two
volume biography by a talented
writer and autobiography are
followed by choreographed
interviews on noble issues such as
the future of Ethiopia and
Mandela’s legacy! It’s a matter of
time before we start seeing picture
of him on t-shirts and banners.
The question then is this: why are
Amhara elites laboring so hard to
rehabilitate the image of past
tyrants at the cost of antagonizing
the rest of the nationalities? The
answer is that they are undertaking
a fundamental shift in their
political strategy from the Pan-
Ethiopianist narrative to a plain
Amhara ethno-nationalism. Masking
the Amhara partisan interest under
the garb of pan-Ethiopian rhetoric
required deemphasizing the past.
However, as a result of the robust
transformation in the national
consciousness of other groups over
the last few decades, neither hiding
the past nor masking partisan
interest in the name of unity is
selling well. In fact, the past has
been dug out and being used as a
roadblock to the ambition of
restoring the Amhara hegemony.
Moreover, the effort to bury the
past in order to keep the
increasingly less profitable pan-
Ethiopian narrative floating has
split and weakened the Amhara
base. The division is between those
who want to openly advocate for
Amhara interest and those who
want to stick to the masking. Now
it seems a consensus is emerging in
favor of the modified version of
the former.
As mentioned above, the
indignation and violence committed
by the Amhara elites in the past
have been used to delegitimize the
ambitions of the current generation
of Amharas. Hence, they feel that
their effort to distance themselves
from the legacy of these rulers has
not worked. Thus, in rehabilitating
past tyrants, Amhara elites are
trying to turn historical legacy of
those men from political liability to
asset. They aim to do this in two
ways. One is by denying,
minimizing or rationalizing the
heinous crimes committed by their
past rulers; thereby developing a
narrative that provides post facto
justification for it. If that past is
successfully reframed as
unfortunate but justifiable and
largely positive undertaking, men
like Menelik would no longer be
liabilities but assets whose credit in
‘unifying the country’ could be
cashed out by the current
generation. Once the war of
conquest is turned into a civilizing
mission, it then would enable
Amhara elites transform the
discourse from defensive to
offensive, attacking their
adversaries as ‘ungrateful savages’.
Note the common utterance that
goes ‘had it not been for Menelik,
you would have remained naked
and enslaved by European
colonialists’!
The second tactic is to embrace the
legacy of the past rulers as a way
of turning them into unifying and
motivating historical figures for the
Amhara base. This is particularly
important at a time when the
Amhara political community lacks
any contemporary unifying figure
due to being scattered into
countless rival factions. While
Menelik can be rebranded as a
unifying figure, the rehabilitation
of both Hailesialssie and Mengistu
would also help to heal the wound
caused by the split of the Amhara
base in the 1970s in support of or
opposition to the monarchy and
the revolution.
As effective as this strategy of
rehabilitating past rulers to
advance contemporary politics may
be, it carries serious risks for the
Amhara political agenda. By
promoting these past rulers,
Amharas will obviously face two
problems. Morally, it becomes hard
to justify their criticism of Tigrean
domination or point out crimes
committed by leaders like Meles
Zenawi while glorifying their own.
Second, by rehabilitating these
rulers, Amhara elites might be
benefiting from a unified and
energized base, yet at the same
time they further antagonize the
rest of the nationalities—
consequently facilitating recreation
of a unified opposition to
themselves, the type that brought
down their past hegemony.
Finally the shift in Amhara politics
from the pretension of speaking
for others and hiding behind the
Ethiopianist mask towards openly
advocating their partisan self-
interest is an encouraging
development. But they have to
seriously think how best to
articulate this transformation. No
doubt that these past rulers could
be considered heroes in the
Amhara community. After all they
brought about and sustained their
socio-economic domination that
lasted almost a century and still
persists. But they were also a
brutal war criminals who
devastated other nations; turning
them into a socio economic
underclass. Hence using these
rulers as central heroes of the
emerging Amhara nationalism
would be scratching old wound and
putting the Amhara political
community in perpetual tension
with the rest of the peoples in the
region.

By Jawar Mohamed

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