How Historians Have Failed Ethiopia

Ask folks who were there in the 1970s and managed to survive the ordeal about the Derg. Ask them about the horrible misery caused by a cult of Marxist psychopaths, the slaughter of innocents and the rapes committed. A British ambassador to Ethiopia was once asked who introduced Communism into Ethiopia, whether it was Chinese or Russian agents. “There was no need,” he replied. “The revolution was largely brought about by British and American Communist school teachers and university lecturers.”

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It makes sense. It’s hard to convey just how powerful an influence Western teachers can have in the developing world, even to this day, and these individuals no doubt got a big ego boost from their idolizing students hanging on their every word in the 1950s and Sixties. Of course, a people must ultimately search themselves over how they’ve earned or been stuck with the government they have. But that influence was there.

And if Marxism was the poison seed of forty, fifty years ago, today’s toxic fruit is ethnic divisiveness. A friend in the diaspora told me recently, “Ethiopia is turning into a country of all victims and no oppressors.” I think you can lay a good portion of blame for that on certain academics and historians, especially Western ones.

Yes, I recognize there’s an element of irony in me pointing this out — white, middle-aged dude from afar. But I can’t change my color, and even that wouldn’t change the facts. The reality is that while there have been some wonderful Western scholars of Ethiopian history, there are those who are responsible for a great deal of spiritual and educational damage.

At one end of the spectrum are highly respected names in Ethiopian Studies who cared little for how other peoples besides Amhara factored into the country’s narrative. Here is Edward Ullendorff, one of the biggest names ever in the field, summing up in 1960 in his book, The Ethiopians, the Oromo in the 16th century: “The Gallas had nothing to contribute to the civilization of Ethiopia; they possessed no material or intellectual culture, and their social organization was at a far lower stage of development than that of the population among whom they settled.”

In our world in which so much is deemed offensive, to say this is offensive now says next to nothing at all. Oh, it’s offensive, all right. It’s callous. It’s a steaming cup of mind-boggling arrogance. But then Ullendorff wasn’t alone.

At the opposite end was a generation of scholars from the 1960s onward who could be equally hostile at times to Amhara. In Wax and Gold, for instance, Donald Levine wrote: “If the Amhara is by disposition inclined to bestow insults, he is still readier to take offense at the slightest hint of one directed at him…The Amhara is a master at deception [original italics]. With straight face and convincing manner he will relate the most preposterous fictions.”

You wonder why even back then, in an era when the U.S. was undergoing its civil rights revolution, no one thought to ask Levine how permissible his lines would be if you took out the word Amhara and replaced it with say, “Jew.” The anthropologist Paul Baxter engaged in multiple insults against Amhara in an article for African Affairs in 1978. In his final paragraph, he quoted the slogan of the Oromo Liberation Front, “Let Oromo freedom flower today!” I would love to know the rationale of the editor over this and just what standard of “academic rigor” and impartiality allowed this content to pass.

But you didn’t even need to fly your colors of partisanship in the academic journals. Paul Henze, author of the well regarded Layers of Time, is known to have operated as a CIA agent when he worked out of the U.S. embassy in the 1970s. In 1992, he was coaching Meles Zenawi in a private letter over how to undermine the OLF’s push for separatism and an independent Oromia.

Many of these writers, despite their open biases, still managed to turn out works that hold valuable insights and are even recognized as classics in the field. In the same book in which Ullendorff insults Oromo cultural achievements, there is a treasure trove of useful information, including yes, on Oromo history (though given his bias, I’m going to try to double-check his work). Harold Marcus tracked down and interviewed surviving officials and servants of Menelik’s court, which is why his biography of Menelik is so invaluable. But in 1992, Marcus offered a scathing critique in Ethiopian Review of the growing selection of alternative histories: “Passionately engaged in the Oromo quest for political sovereignty, various authors seek to create a historical nation called Oromia and fabricate a glorious history for the non-existent country.”

Marcus was full of curmudgeonly complaints about the Oromo gadaa system, Eritrea’s political aspirations, and the hindsight appraisal of Emperor Haile Selassie. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that his combative tone over Oromo historiography earned a reply of matching venom. Sissai Ibssa fired back in an article: “Marcus went to the forefront of Ethiopian Studies at a time when the state of the field was so abysmal that any foreigner who raised his hand to eat buddeena (injera) was considered an expert in the field…” He noted that if Marcus was willing to call Ethiopia a colonial empire, “Who does he think was colonized?”

This is close to the bullseye. And it takes nothing away from a modern Ethiopian’s identity to acknowledge that yes, it was an empire, just as those who charged in on their mounts for the raids of the Great Oromo Migrations in the 16th century were not swinging by to invite the locals to a picnic. We are products of our history, but we need not be totally defined by it. With a last name like “Pearce,” hey, where do I start? Given what the British did in India, Burma, massive portions of Africa, North America, and oh, yeah, there’s still the matter of their swiping all that loot during that nasty fight with Tewodros.

Despite his blind spots and his tone of scorn, Harold Marcus was right about one thing. He noted a disturbing trend, that “we are witnessing the creation of a new and poorly based historiography, the facts of which, if repeated often enough, will take on a veracity of their own.” And they practically have. By 2013, two historians repeated in an article for Al Jazeera the allegation that Menelik’s army had committed the genocide of five million Oromos. As I’ve written elsewhere, this is ludicrous just in terms of the math alone and has yet to find any substantial supportive evidence.

Evidence, however, has never been a problem for a certain kind of academic propagandist.

How to Make a Country Disappear

Here is the core argument of Bonnie Holcomb and surprise! Her co-author Sissai Ibssa. In the introduction for their 1990 book, The Invention of Ethiopia, they argued that the major powers of Europe — Britain, France, Italy — couldn’t settle who would gobble up Ethiopia during the Scramble for Africa. The solution “was to encourage, up to certain limits, the expansionist ambitions of the leaders of various Abyssinian kingdoms, then to establish a collective agreement among themselves to recognize and assist the resultant entity as a dependent colonial empire, claiming that an ancient ‘neutral’ sovereign state existed there. Such a defense became the basis for the mythology of a ‘Greater Ethiopia.’”

To buy into this logic, you need to be borderline delusional. The collective agreement Holcomb and Sissai are talking about is the Tripartite Agreement of 1906, which was a dirty, backroom bargain in which France, Italy and Great Britain thought they could divide up spheres of influence in Ethiopia — and without even consulting its sovereign. When Menelik received a copy of this sleazy little deal, he essentially responded with: Sure, you powers can come to your own understanding among yourselves, but he had the final say over his own country, and this arrangement wasn’t going to affect his decisions.

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So think about the neat trick these authors tried to pull, and you have to wonder, too, about the ugly current of bigotry behind their argument. Ethiopians, or Abyssinians as these authors insisted on calling their newly defined “dependent colonial empire,” can’t act for themselves or at least, they only have limited agency. Ethiopia has always proudly celebrated the fact that it was never colonized, but sorry, guys, apparently you were kidding yourselves. According to Holcomb and Sissai, you were dupes all along and under the thumb of Europe.

With this argument, the pair get to eat their cake and have it, too, In effect, they get to accuse their targets over historic power-structures while also giving themselves an “out” in a way and pointing a finger for the “real” blame at traditional white colonial villains. Oh, by the way, they also think the Battle of Adwa was “actually another indirect battle between the British and French over control of the region.”

In their summary, they concluded, “Neither Abyssinians nor any combination of indigenous Africans created Ethiopia. It was cooperation between Abyssinia and Europe that fashioned the Ethiopian state…” You’ll notice this is also a rationale that’s in vogue for certain extremist separatists today: “We deserve our own country because Ethiopia never really existed, and it was an inefficient hodgepodge of different kingdoms, and okay, it’s uncanny how a nation that didn’t exist still managed to efficiently commit genocide during the 19th century, especially when the numbers make no sense and even though Menelik’s military campaigns had the help of members of our own ethnic group, but shut up, we don’t want to talk about those gaps in the reasoning here!”

Oh, and Holcomb and Sissai also invoke Lenin on colonialism. Yep, Lenin. The leader of the Russian Revolution who once bragged gleefully to Bertrand Russell how he whipped a crowd of peasants into a frenzy so that they hanged a landlord from the nearest tree (Russell was suitably appalled). I don’t know about you, but I prefer not to bolster my arguments with the writings of murderous sociopathic dictators.

Around the time their book came out, its revisionism failed to fly with at least one astute reviewer, who wrote in African Studies Review, “Holcomb and Sisai succeed only in replacing one myth with another of their own making” and noted how they “provide little convincing evidence.”

I blasted journalists in a Medium article for not doing their homework, for not reading, but how well can they present the background of what’s happening in Ethiopia if certain academics and historians offer polemics such as this? They’re cloaked in the prestige of their universities. The media — and the rest of us — naturally look to these professors as authorities. We are even seeing a breed of academic vampire who, not content with sucking up the public funds of his own government, likes to engage in a little light warmongering.

More Than a Sum of Its Parts

Ethiopians are an amazing people. I can’t think offhand of another that is as willing to consider a foreigner’s interpretation of their past — so patiently, graciously and with genuine interest over what you might have discovered. The French may offer a smirk and ignore you. The Americans — well, many of them at least — will insist only they can write about themselves. Canadians would scratch their heads and say, “Really? You want to write about us? Why?” But good gawd, one of the greatest chroniclers of Ethiopian history was born all the way in Woodford Green, England and was so brilliant at his job, he earned a state funeral.

The least everyone else in the field can do is follow Richard Pankhurst’s gentle, decent example and bring the same passionate curiosity to the task.

And oh, yes, that’s my bias. Because the man wrote the foreword for my book, no, I can’t be totally objective about him. But in looking over his incredible, prolific output, I can find nothing like the prejudices in the examples I’ve offered here. Flip open a copy of The Ethiopians or his Social History of Ethiopia and you find balanced, matter-of-fact reportage on peoples, fascinating details on what folks wore, what the trade routes were, how photography developed in the region, the coinage, and so on. Richard wanted to know. He wanted to share what he learned because he fell in love with the country after he came over with Rita and his mother, Sylvia.

Today, however, we seem to live in an age where Ethiopian history has become an amateur blood sport. Even for some academics, it’s evolved from “Listen to this, it’s so cool, you’ll think this amazing” to a shrill, insistent “Here is my indictment of your great-grandfather!” On Twitter, the keyboard warriors pluck screen snapshots from old books without bothering to critically read what they’re quoting.

Case in point: I have told this story before, but it bears repeating, as it’s both hilarious and sad. The Harari Council of Ontario in funnily enough, my own home city of Toronto, decided to take me on through Twitter over my stand against ethnic violence. To refute me, the group attached its own report which argued that Harar once had a long history as a small, independent nation and has been specially persecuted in recent years by the Amhara. In making its case, it also claimed, “Before being conquered in 1887, Harar had the most advanced government system in Ethiopia [sic], as attested to by many, including the League of Nations.”

Okay, I’ve had to research the League of Nations for my book, Prevail, so I knew any League endorsement was patently untrue, and so I checked the report’s endnotes and was shocked by what I found.

The Council had cited a report published in the Annexes of the League of Nations Official Journal. It was titled “Ethiopia: land of slavery & brutality.”

Wait a minute, I thought. I know this document. I’ve read this document…

Sure enough, it was part of submissions made by Fascist Italy in September of 1935!

The Journal routinely published submissions as standard practice and did the same with those of the Ethiopian government. Far from providing balanced Harari and Ethiopian history, the report is part of a package of propaganda documents full of lurid tales of alleged cruelty towards slaves, cannibalism and corruption designed at the time to discredit Ethiopia’s government just before Italy’s invasion a month later.

In fact, in 1936, international headlines were made when the Italian air force bombed the undefended open city of Harar — a “Guernica” before the famous bombing of innocent civilians in Guernica, Spain later that year. I don’t know about you, but I can think of no worse and pathetic irony than Fascist propaganda getting repurposed by Harari activists, some of whom may even be distant relatives of those victims from long ago. If their great grandfathers could see this…

When I pointed this out to them, there was naturally a lot of angry abuse. It didn’t matter, blah, blah, blah. But facts do matter. The truth, as far as we can find it and piece it together, does matter, and we can only fit those pieces properly with the right intent. Weaponizing them for a political viewpoint only leads in the long run to disaster and tears. Ask folks who live in the Balkans. Ask Albanians, Kosovars, and Serbs about what’s known as the “Field of Blackbirds.” Read Tim Judah’s or Noel Malcolm’s books on Kosovo, and you’ll learn how history and legend can go through countless spin cycles, and yet you still end up drenched in blood.

Yes, history can have a point of view, and what you choose to include and what you leave out means you’re still taking a position. History is not a science, as much as certain Enlightenment fellows sporting wigs in the 18th century wanted it to be. But it can adopt that skeptical mindset from the sciences that relies on humility: what if I’m wrong? What else can be added? What am I missing? It’s never objective, but it can try to be fair, and the fairest way I know is to stay curious. Because historians and even popular narrative history writers like yours truly are teaching themselves as they go.

It’s easy on social media to dismiss my perspective as being pro-Amhara, but I am simply anti-bullshit, which is why I started with Ullendorff’s arrogance first. To me, the sins of omission are almost as bad as the sins of making crap up. I was talking to a prominent Ethiopian months ago, a person of profound conscience and decency, and we were talking about my trying to write a new history of Ethiopia and whether I should do it. Just like me, like all of us, this person is guilty of biases, too. In our free-flowing talk, they expressed a casual scorn for the oral history of the Oromo, and I had to interject, “Wait a minute…”

I pointed out gently that historians accept a good portion of oral traditions in West Africa as legitimate sources. What is The Epic of Sundiata if not genuine, real history as far as many West Africans are concerned? And so are the recitals of their skilled griots. Now you can debate the whole live-long day how much, but it would be pretty insulting and foolhardy to reject these accounts outright. So how can we casually dismiss Oromo oral traditions while respecting traditions in another part of Africa?

The person I was talking to was quiet for a moment and then told me yes, I should go ahead and write the book.

I will not pretend that the end result won’t have a point of view, nor will I apologize for it. In my research so far, what I find fascinating — what I find exciting — is that yes, of course, Ethiopia has had its ethnic peoples duelling across the ages. Find me a country that hasn’t. Oh, you have one? Great, go ahead, read that and zzzzzzzz...

The truth is that a nation, every nation, is more than the sum of its parts, and so far, what I’ve read leads me to believe there wouldn’t be an Ethiopia — not the proud, diverse, wonderful Ethiopia that’s inspired much of the world — without any of its constituent peoples, and not simply because of their conquest.

I’ve received touching direct messages through social media from young people in both Ethiopia and the diaspora, and they ask me with sincere innocence what should I read for our history? Who do you trust on this or that period? Because they know that some more recent accounts are so polarized, so partisan and one-sided that it’s not worth the bother, and how terrible is that? They come to me, of all people. Someone once said that you can best learn history by writing it, so I’m assigning myself a mission.

I want to write that history for those who asked me the question. I want to write a history that celebrates the contributions of peoples, plural. To me, Oromo are as integral to the grand story of Ethiopia as Amhara or Tigrayans. I want to find out more about how the Afar factor into the mix. I want to know more about the Gurage. Here is Hollywood, still making terrible movies that pretend to portray Beta Israel (Red Sea Diving Resort — ugh), and I look in vain in many source texts for their story. What about them? I want to find out. I want to know. There is always more to learn.

As I’ve suggested in an article before, there must be millions of Ethiopians of mixed ancestry for whom these divisive narratives do not ring true, who no matter how they vote or choose to help resolve their country’s politics (which is entirely up to them), reject an interpretation of a past that sees only their category.

Just as I stand with them in opposing this downward slide towards more ethnic violence and horror, I genuinely believe there can be a positive message in a more inclusive history of Ethiopia — hopefully one that gets the story right.

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