Prof. Mesfin Woldemariam’s thought-provoking and controversial book
The noted historian Prof. Bahru Zewde has quipped in his ‘Pioneers of Change in Ethiopia’ that, “There are few people as obsessed with history as Ethiopians.” Certainly, if the number of books run through is any guide to gauging the interest and taste of the readership here, works dealing with various aspects of the county’s past are the ones that top the list.
Prof. Mesfin Woldemariam’s recent Amharic book, a slim volume entitled, ‘Mekshef Ende-Ethiopia Tarik’ (which literally means “ missing the mark, à la Ethiopian history”) has definitely proved controversial and provocative, achieving the distinction of being the most reviewed book in recent memory. It is not strictly a work of history but rather a second order study taking issues with certain established approaches to Ethiopian history writing. It is also a jeremiad on the many failures and disappointments characterizing the history of the fair nation he loves and has been serving for many years now.
The perplexing phenomena that exercises the Professor’s mind is how, as he understands it, a once great nation which in antiquity could extend its imperial reach on faraway lands and seas is now reduced to a shadow of its former self, a glory that was with not much impressive to show for in terms of material and cultural achievements. The urgent need and the great historical challenge, that should accordingly, occupy the present generations of Ethiopians is the task of explicating, in the words of another Ethiopian scholar, the county’s ‘enigmatic present’.
An ardent patriot, and a scholar who has contributed much in his area of specialization, well received books on the current problem of famine in Ethiopia, Prof. Mesfin is a public intellectual par excellence who has taken it upon himself to engage the leaders and the wider public through his articles and other publications in the three regimes he has lived through his long career. In particular, he has come out as harsh critic of the existing regime, taking the role of a gadfly, or as some thinks acting as its nemesis, tirelessly writing bitingly critical pieces in the local papers.
It is this tenacious engagement with the public and steadfast commitment to stay in his country rather than seeking the safety of ensconcing himself in an ivory tower of some western institution, that many admire about him. In spite the many controversies surrounding him and the constant criticism he is subjected to (to my knowledge two book length criticisms have been written in response to his views), he has stayed the course, seeming to thrive on controversy. Not afraid of involving himself in the mundane realities of politics, he has paid by being thrown into jail.
Given such a close engagement in the realities of Ethiopian politics and being first hand witness to significant episodes in the history of the country and certainly given his great learning, one would expect him to be conversant on the social and political reality on the ground. No doubt, he is well informed and in fact more so than most of his colleagues in many aspects pertaining to the country.
And yet, being a person very much shaped and oriented by the institutions and attitudes of the bygone era, of which he is often nostalgic, he seems to be operating by a paradigm that is in need of, if not a complete shift, then at least some significant adjustments. The Ethiopia he is much enamored of and whose praises he sings was not always the utopia it is made out to be by those romanticizing its greatness. In the binary suggested by Ivo Strecker, it had not just its glory but its agony as well.
This defensive stance finds expression in the core of the thesis of his book. He begins his book by taking to task three historians who had written on how the nation came to be what it is today, Prof. Merid Wolde Aregay, Dr.Sergew Hable Selassie and Prof. Tadesse Tamrat. His problem with their ideas concerns the constitution of the Ethiopian nation-state and its territorial extent through the ages. He faults them for what he believes is a fundamentally flawed approach of using models borrowed from foreign writers in characterizing the Ethiopian nation-state. For him any suggestion that Abyssinia was distinct from Ethiopia is unacceptable. Ethiopia has remained what it has always been. But this is not entirely the case. To quote a prominent political scientist writing on this issue, the country has ‘covered widely different territories at different times.’
As many would agree, anyone writing on Ethiopian history today without so much as taking notice of the proliferating discourse of counter-histories advanced by the diverse proponents of identity politics and the vexed question of the trauma of ethno nationalist memories they champion, which dominates the terrain of current Ethiopian historiography today, is operating, not to put too fine a point on it, in an anachronistic framework. The reality on the ground ,whether one likes it or not, needs to be addressed and shrugging it off as if would go away on its own is not going to be of much help if a democratic and peaceful country is to emerge.
Professor Mesfin also has his biases. In what some readers consider as a flag-waving gesture bordering on xenophobic paranoia, he finds the motives of westerners writing on Ethiopian history to be suspicious. For instance, he takes issues with the title of Donald Levine’s “Greater Ethiopia”, with what he considers its suggestion of irredentism, without however appreciating the fact that the latter’s project was no very much different from his. Levine was advancing what in the literature is characterized as the Great Tradition approach of the country’s history by synthesizing the historical experience of three major ethnic groups of the nation.
Another issue that has prompted strong reaction from reviewers is the rather uncharitable view he takes towards Emperor Yohanes IV which reminds one of the same attitude often displayed by those on the other side of the political divide towards Emperor Menelik II. It appears as if the primacy of politics dictates that political elites use competing versions of the past as vehicle for political point scoring. Given the heated political atmosphere prevailing in this part of the world, the various elites and actors in Ethiopian political landscape seem to believe that one’s voice is not heard well unless, if one is , as an observer put it, ‘overstating one’s case,’ as if assuming adversarial posture is the only way ‘the art of possible’ is conducted. For an unabashedly partisan public historian, writing Tigrayan ethno history by vilifying Emperor Menelik II might be, if not excusable, at least something one can understand given the populist agenda and the goal of ethnic rehabilitation informing his undertaking, even one deplores some of his outlandish claims.
But for a seasoned scholar of Mesfn’s stature, stooping to play the same card as his opponents would be beneath him. If we take the trouble to study the records, in the political dynamics of the day in which many regional rulers were contending for the throne, both Yohanes IV and Menelik II resorted to seeking foreign allies in their pursuit of power. Hence, the causes of objectivism and fairness are not best served by singling one for blame for putting his interests ahead of those of the nation. In a statement which has ruffled some feathers, Prof Mesfin even goes as far as to claim, in a way that smacks of essentialism, that the readiness to collaborate with the imperial powers is a characteristic feature of the region, that is Tigray. Responding to a reviewer who pointed this out, the professor simply says he is being charged of being a partisan. What I wonder is, how else a reader who tries to be impartial is expected to understand his skewed presentation of some of the historical record.
But on the whole a thought provoking and timely book that should be read and and widely discussed.