Home > Books, Mesfin Woldemariam > Prof. Mesfin Woldemariam’s thought-provoking and controversial book

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.

  1. June 10, 2013 at 2:57 pm

    I am surprised about the enormous smear campaign that is currently going on against Professor Mesfin as a result of his bold book. He has raised some important questions about certain aspect of our history that we have been accepting without questioning and our Ethiopian historians who opted writing in foreign languages. Aren’t Ethiopian history principally written for Ethiopians? Why has it been especially important Ethiopian historians to write entirely in English? I wholly concur with his analysis and conclusion.

  2. Seyoum Asfaw
    June 11, 2013 at 9:37 am

    History, the series of events that we affirm and hold in memory, are intimately associated with what we are doing and with what we are hoping to do. Our interpretation of what happened three hundred years ago can be employed by citizens and governments to create social cohesion or division. This means that in the making of history, there is scope for the distortion and manipulation of historical events. I understand what Prof. Mesfin is saying that our story has been told and defined by others and we have taken that for granted and we considered them authorities on the subject. Not that he is dismissing Western historians and their writings in Ethiopia. In fact, he expressed his admiration for those foreigners who chronicled the country’s history, based on the country’s ancient manuscripts. But he is posting a question and challenge for us. How we happen to view normal and never bothered to write our own history and keep it for the coming generation?

  3. Blen
    June 11, 2013 at 1:26 pm

    Those who say Mesfin is right don’t seem to realize that he is deliberately misleading readers, conveying the impression that everything in the country has failed and is failing. We’re not talking about ideology or even historical, economical analysis here—just a plain misrepresentation of the events. Far from being a “failed state,” Ethiopia is proving itself to be one of the most successful countries in Africa, one that making the transition from an agrarian economy to a modern industrialized one, while moving from a closed, authoritarian regime to a vibrant democracy. I don’t have any reason to buy his myth of Ethiopia “failed state and failed history.”

    • Alem
      June 11, 2013 at 5:33 pm

      Blen, I guess you are writing from party HQ. You have not provided any evidence similar to that of Prof. Mesfin. You say, “Ethiopia is proving itself to be one of the most successful countries in Africa, one that making the transition from an agrarian economy to a modern industrialized one, while moving from a closed, authoritarian regime to a vibrant democracy.” I don’t think for a moment even you believe your own statement. And you want everyone to accept it without any question. It could be you are part of the elite that is smuggling money out of the country and/or have relatives in power so much so that you are blinded to the widespread misery plaguing society. It could be you have told yourself lies so often that you do not any more realize you are telling lies. FYI, authoritarianism is when free press is clamped down and only one party is allowed to exist. I hope you could figure out that. I know you prefer to call that ‘democracy’.

      • Blen
        June 12, 2013 at 1:26 pm

        Proof me wrong if you can, but all figures and indications show that Ethiopia’s economy expanding amid a political stability, the country is becoming a relatively safe and strong economy and ever evolving into a vibrant democracy.Does where I write my comment from matter?

      • habtish
        June 14, 2013 at 9:16 pm

        You write: “Proof me wrong if you can, but all figures and indications show that Ethiopia’s economy expanding amid a political stability, the country is becoming a relatively safe and strong economy and ever evolving into a vibrant democracy.”

        Okay, I take up your challenge. The proof is in the dismal ratings Ethiopia currently gets in terms of quality of governance.

        1)A starting point can be:

        Click to access pdf_WGI_full_version_EN-2.pdf

        2) A second opinion comes from the Mo Ibrahim index: http://www.moibrahimfoundation.org/downloads/2012-IIAG-summary-report.pdf

        In terms of vibrant democracy, it must be said it is doing far better than most neighbouring countries, all the way from Sudan, Eritrea, Yemen, Djibouti, Eritrea, Somalia and South Sudan. Unfortunately, Somaliland does seem to be doing far better in purely democratic terms, but that’s another issue. I won’t even get into the Kenya issue.

        But when you put Ethiopian democracy at an even African level, it must be said it is not a very encouraging data. When we measure a democracy by how vibrant it is in terms of variety of political parties who have a fair chance of becoming movers and shakers in parliament (whether they win or lose elections), when we measure a democracy by the plurality of views in media, in the tolerance to writers and journalists who say things which annoy the government but are nevertheless allowed to continue with their work unmolested, then a few countries doing significantly better: Senegal, Zambia, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Botswana, Mozambique, Tanzania, and South Africa, of course. We can take consolation that Congo Kinshasa and Burundi are behind us, but that’s not a very positive attitude to build a country.

        I firmly believe the Ethiopian government has done many good things, policies that history will judge as a courageous building step, both at a national and international level for Ethiopia. The best loyalty it can be shown is by criticizing it in a construcitive way, which, like a father to a son, brother to a brother, mother to daughter, is sometimes a painful and offensive conversation. It is the duty of those opposing to offer a constructive alternative, but is is also the duty of those who have power on their hands to facilitate an environment where the discussion can at least take place. And that is not happening.

  4. emmyl
    June 11, 2013 at 1:40 pm

    I’m not sure I agree with you Blen. This country is more screwed up than before. You’re not telling us to turn a blind eye to our failings.

    June 12, 2013 at 11:21 am

    We were always told that Atse Menelik unified the various tribes within the nation and created the border that exists today. Mesfin’s take on the issue is different. He strongly believed that united Ethiopia, comprising the south and the north existed long centuries before Atse Menelik II. For him, during Amde Tseyon, a king of the 14century, the Ethiopian territory stretched to the far south and west, which he cited Sihab ad-Din Ahmad bin account of the early sixteenth century Jihad in Ethiopia. Well, forgive me if I don’t believe him. Because he doesn’t say much about what happened in between those long periods. How did the northern Christian and the southern Muslim cohabite with each other? Do the northern rulers have a power over the cattle keeping Borena people who were administered by their own gada system?

    • Mekonnen
      June 13, 2013 at 10:59 am

      Professor Mesfin is not the only historian who has pointed out that Ethiopia (North and south including) existed long before Menelik. Here is what Harold Marcus has to say in his ‘A history of Ethiopia’
      “ from 1896 to 1907, Menelik directed Ethiopia’s return into southern and western regions abandoned in the seventeenth century and into areas never before under its rule. Many of the newly incorporated peoples lived in nonhierarchical societies, practiced animal husbandry, or nonplow agriculture, followed traditional religions or Islam and spoke non-semtic languages. The superior weapons of the northerners and their hierarchical social organization gave them significant advantages, but they were also inspired by the notion of regaining Ethiopia irredanta. Menelik certainly believed that his was a holy crusade and his soldiers presumed, with considerable justification, that they would help their sovereign to restore Ethiopia to its historic grandeur and size.”
      P. 104.

  6. habtish
    June 12, 2013 at 11:00 pm


    You mention that during the reign of Amda Seyon the country stretched to the far south and west. You also cite the work of the Futuh al-Habasha, written around that time (a bit later, but in any case, in the same historical period). I agree with both points, but with reservations:

    Did these borders, even if they weren’t detailed and printed on maps like nowadays, stretch as far south as Lake Turkana? Did they stretch all the way west up until current Gambella? What about the huge territories of current Somali Regional State, all the way to a few miles from Garowe in Puntland?

    The answer to me is NO, they didn’t. they didn’t even get close, with the exception of Gambella, as you could argue that the Oromo Nekemte regions and Assosa / Gumuz areas were more integrated into the sphere of Abyssinia, even if they were culturally dislocated from the “Habesha” reality. But this is still quite far away from Gambella…

    On the east, Harar and even the odd Afar sultan have relation with Abyssinia (including tribute, economic ties, common security concerns against external threats at times -more than once an Afar sultan has helped Abyssinia in her time of military need, most notably the invasions by Ottoman/Egyptian troops who had taken Harar just before Menelik). But I struggle to see how this would mean that it is the same that ALL of the regions in Afar and Somali were “Abyssinian”.

    The opposite can also be applied: if historically Abyssinia had some kind of relation with a neighbouring territory, and this is supposed to legitimize it’s current inconditional right to sovereignty over it, then Prof. Woldemariam’s argument can easily be applied to much of the current Republic of Sudan and South Sudan by virtue of its Aksumite expansions (yes, it was a long long time ago, much more than Amda Seyon’s 14th Century, but it also lasted a lot longer!), and, even, to the Sinnar era. Of course Yemen can just as easily be considered under the same logic (=it was in some way or another Abyssinia, so it should be now), and let’s not even mention the Battle of the Elephant against Mecca around the birth of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)…

    For me, this is the danger in such an idea: past relations, past rule over a territory, cannot be blindly accepted as the only and inconditional reason for claiming a territory as yours, and only yours. The people in those areas have an even bigger say, whatever they say. And when they try to re-evaluate the national or regional history so that it doesn’t limit itself to the old narrative of center-periphery (=looking at the history and culture of the peripherial region as a subproduct of the more important Center history and culture), then they perhaps doing future generations a favour: it turns out our History is even richer, more varied, more contradictory, more dynamic, more multicultural than we had ever imagined. An argument like Prof. Woldemariam seems a move in the opposite direction.

    My professor of History at University quoted to us that “History, with a capital H, is only that…. a history. It’s never going to be about “what happened?” and “why”, but about “what we think happened”. To the hearted historian, it is nothing more: it’s not a political tool to impose, unite or divide. That’s a politician’s or an ideologue’s view on History, and in their premise and intentions they are as accurate about History as an academic Historian will be in politics and legal policies. They are navigating different seas.

  7. Ahmed Ibsa
    June 14, 2013 at 7:40 am

    Professor Mesfin does not shy away from big themes, unlike so many of our contemporaries. Thus, it seems to me, Ethiopia is declining because it has abandoned the virtue of self-sacrifice, the virtue that our heroic patriots exalted. He has a good reason when he reminds the sad parts of our history when the true heroes were punished and traitors who collaborated with the enemy were rewarded. Ours is a tradition that has never valued truth or self-knowledge and even if it does it is sort of truth that emanates from belief and a sort which is not to be contested. The author is rightly disgusted by a system that values mere political loyalty than virtue or talent. I think it is fair to say that our mode of government promotes those who obey authorities without questioning and demote those who stand for truth and challenges authorities. We have become a society that thinks blind faith in the regime is necessary and accepts power is the source of knowledge. Ours is a political order in which power and status hinges on strict deference to superordinate patrons, the open voicing of critical sentiments is intolerable. We have built a state that conducts arrests and oppressive laws for short-term victories, but that alienate many and prove distasteful even for some in the governing elite. We seem to accept that those who are in power are not to be faulted. We see no contradiction between reports of record harvests and empty shops, or glittering construction projects and shoddy, just-built public offices. I must say, I find this interpretation very attractive. Perhaps every empire falls for this simple reason – a lack of vision, a lack of belief. If that is the case, we can perhaps better understand our own national crisis. Contemporary Ethiopia is in decline (can that be denied?) because few of our leaders seem to believe anything much any more. Indeed, if they believe anything at all, what they seem to believe strikes one as being opposed to the traditional beliefs of the Ethiopia people. While some in the media may be actively trying to besmirch Professor Mesfin for his bold conclusions, they will all come to naught. He comes to his conclusions honestly and after tremendous work and analysis. Their criticisms are the result of knee-jerk reactions to a work that differs fundamentally from their paradigm of how the foundation of the state must be maintained.

  8. Abdela seid
    June 15, 2013 at 3:17 pm

    I am an Ethiopian not in a sense that people were narrating for centuries. By default I acquired my citizenship because I am born from Ethiopian spouses. I love my country, I mean my mother land and my people. I sensed from many writers of my own country as they are expected to travel many miles. Always they are telling about previous hegemony, civilizations and so many others Sometimes they tell us as the entire country of the same origin. Sometimes they tell us as there is differences among Ethiopian people taking sides as an Amharan, Oromo, Tigrian and the like. In fact one can understand from their very writing as they are ethnocentric. Even under the comments offered here and including the professor’s writing are full of fallacious conclusions only supported by emotion. please you people do not decieve innocent people of Ethiopia. your intelect should be fully utilised for the betterment of your own country (people, mother land, government and Sovereignty). Tell me the benefits acrued from previous sytem by southerns’, Gambella, Oromo, Afar, Peasantries of Amhara, Tigray and so forth. I can say No one was benefited except those people who were serving the system. I remember the illitracy rate in Rural part of Akaki, Sendafa, Sululta, Sebeta and Holota within 20 km radious from Addis Ababa just before 10 years. you can imagine in other parts of the country. Thus, let us refrain from enhancing hates on one another. Let us cooperate for betterment of our own people. It is possible to bargain from where we are without tracing back the previous injustice. I am happy if I can read writings that enhance love, mutual respect, plurality and humanity. Do not tell me cooked story which is quite meaningless for new generation.

  9. Tsega
    June 25, 2013 at 5:22 pm

    Ethiopia’s aim is mere survival. The idea that Ethiopia was and would be an African superpower looks like a bad joke today. Ethiopia’s ambition today is merely to survive as a nation. The pressure for a breakup on ethnic and tribal lines has never been strong. Primordial passions are raging everywhere as people scramble into tribal tents, having lost faith in their place in the Ethiopian mansion. Of course, this is this is a failed state.

  10. goonga
    October 6, 2013 at 12:27 am

    i think habtish are right ! , but to day we have to see very large and very fare ! , its mean we to be A ONE PEOPLES , because new the world become country continent ! its mean china one billion & half , india one billion & half , european union half billion , usa 400 millions , brazil 200 millions , so the think by zone ( groupe ) but stil we we think by ethnic groupe , so its can be a very big probleme for us ! , GOD BLESS UNITED OF AFRICA ! ethiopia have to show the way ! because ethiopia is the MOTHER OF AFRICA and free forever !!!

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