True unity requires acknowledging historical injustice

( Fetsum Berhane)

While the rest of the world was bracing for the festivities of Christmas and the coming New Year, Ethiopians spent the past month engaged in a heated debate about a personality that has been dead long ago, 100 years to be precise.

The drama begins when the far-right Semayawi Party announced its plans to commemorate a controversial King, Menelik II, who is loathed by the majority of Ethiopia’s 80+ ethnic groups for his brutal unification campaign. Many found it distasteful but were not surprised due to the party’s track record and the fact that its advisor is Tadios Tantu, a person who wrote more than 150 opinion pieces defending Hitler and advocating for a repeat of the Holocaust to solve Ethiopia’s problems.

And then Teddy Afro, a top musical celebrity who a few years earlier served two years for a hit-and-run felony entered the scene. He gave an interview for ‘Enqu’ magazine’s special edition fully dedicated to the king in which he described Menelik’s unification campaign as a “holy war”. Teddy’s musical career was already controversial due to the political tinges of his songs and selective glorifying of past emperors from the Shoan elite that reigned for a century before its fall in 1991. The singer earned contempt among Tigreans after his unflattering characterization of their bloody struggle for equality that cost them more than hundred thousand lives. Still the blow-back to the singer was insignificant until his recent characterization of Menelik’s campaign as “holy war” in his interview that went far as comparing him with Christ. That struck a nerve among many especially the Oromo community who suffered the most during the reign of the king.

Adding flair to the whole drama, Bedele Beer, a local brand of Heiniken, announced a musical tour of Oromia cities with the singer dubbed “Journey of Love”, in an remarkable feat of hypocrisy. That was welcomed by people as it provided an opportunity to express their dismay giving birth to the “Boycott Bedele” campaign on facebook and twitter even attracting the attention of the Dutch media. The campaign crossed partisan borders and brought the cooperation of pundits and people from different ethnic groups, especially Oromo and Tigrean, in an unprecedented show of collective outrage. And it culminated in the cancelation of the tour making it the first bipartisan successful social media campaign in Ethiopia.

Don’t be misguided Ethiopians do not enjoy dwelling on the past amidst their relentless struggle to create an African economic miracle but this is what happens when a nation fails to confront its ugly past and get past it for so long.

In his eulogy at Nelson Mandela’s memorial President Obama said, “Reconciliation is not a matter of ignoring a cruel past” mirroring one of famous quotes of Mandela, “we forgive but not forgotten”. It appears that increasingly historical matters have become subjects of considerable political significance in today’s world. The necessity of history is widely understood in terms of remembering and thus avoiding repetition of past mistakes: “Never forget. Never Again,” remains the pledge of Holocaust survivors who now face historical revisionists claiming that Hitler’s Final Solution never happened.

However, the world often experiences celebrities making offensive speech and insensitive commemoration of infamous historical figures by states and political parties. In West Germany, the president of parliament was forced to resign after commenting, on the eve of 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht, “Wasn’t he (Hitler) chosen by Providence, a Fuhrer such as is given to a people only once in a thousand years?” In the U.S., controversy overshadowed the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ first voyage to “the New World”. And recently, footballer Nicolas Anelka celebrated his goal by displaying the anti-Semitic ‘quenelle’ salute (an ‘inverted Nazi salute’), a perfect example of insensitive celebrity making offensive public speech.

History won’t rift us apart, willed oblivion does

Here at home, some Ethiopians at the far right of the political spectrum display insensitivity and are engaged in deliberate suppression of memory framing the injustice as a historical accident, an outlying event, so atypical as not to be worth mentioning, with no implications for the present one.

Many Ethiopians however, choose oblivion for a different reason. Whenever a discussion about our darker history arise, many object to the agenda fearing it results in weakening our unity or it’s relevance. The deficit of historical thinking, the high dosage of ultra nationalist propaganda of past regimes and the hush-hush culture that allows discussing our glorious past have all served to make the search for a shared communicable past contentious. This view point assumes we can erase our dark history by not discussing it and build unity based only on the glorious part of history, however non-inclusive it can be. This view is compatible with our hush-hush culture giving it adherence even among the new elite. A considerable mass amnesia is required if we are to disregard past generations’ injustices and vendettas without discourse.

But why should an injustice that occurred long ago, by people now dead against people, who are also dead, be relevant today?

At the core of many conflicts in the world lies some kind of historical grievance. Some of these claims are dubious but many are not. Sociological studies show that violence, fear and hatred during a war result in construction of myths and stereotypes to explain one’s own or some other group’s behavior – and in so doing justify whatever horrid atrocities committed. After the war, the societal and cultural fabric is inundated with these beliefs. And time alone fails to undo these beliefs, they linger for generations. They can be seen in how history is described, how the language is used, in education, the media, arts etc. In order to live in harmony, these beliefs must be examined and transformed. The changing of stereotyped beliefs is a vital step in the process of reconciliation. Inquiring history, both the good and the bad, helps us understand the nature of various kinds of inequalities that persist today and maybe also what we can do about them.

Prof. Neumann, a German historian who made a research on the issue refutes the desire to rinse a society’s memory, to dismiss an unpleasant past as merely a ‘black armband view of history’. He calls them ‘ghosts’, the leftovers of past injustices haunting present-day societies, sometimes with devastating effects on descendants of both victims and perpetrators. According to his research, these ghosts become really important when it concerns instances of historical injustice that have not been resolved. And he says, “Irrespective of whether we were personally responsible for particular injustices, we need to take responsibility for how we remember the past. And maybe that means trying to identify means whereby we can live with these ghosts rather than trying to pretend they don’t exist, or that it’s not worth the trouble to remember difficult and bothersome pasts.”

In his book ‘Superseding historical injustice’ Jeremy Waldron puts it eloquently as “To neglect the historical record is to do violence to this identity and thus to the community that it sustains. And since communities help generate a deeper sense of identity for the individuals they comprise, neglecting or expunging the historical record is a way of undermining and insulting individuals as well.” Hence, dealing with the nature of historical injustice is often an essential feature of political life.

If someone feels they haven’t particularly benefited from being a member of a nation, or they (or their ancestors) were coercively assimilated into it, there may be strong reasons not to value his membership into that nation and to reject being part of it. All Ethiopians, especially those of privileged ethnic background who believe that they should not feel responsible for the injustice of their forebears should consider giving acknowledgement to historical injustices since one cannot claim inheritance of only the pleasant parts of history and that unpleasant legacy and stands in a way of building a harmonious society.

History matters and it would be morally callous to simply dismiss every historical injustice as superseded by the passage of time. Off-course not all historic injustices matter because not all of them feature in our shared history and collective memory in the same way. And collective memory can be manipulated to terrible effects, as we have witnessed. However, that doesn’t mean the best strategy is simply to ignore claims of historical injustice since historical injustices matter for the determination of justice in the present.

National reconciliation is not a quick fix

The actions we can take to undo past injustices can be in the form of acknowledgment or official commemorations meant to show shared pain and a reminder so as to prevent recurrence of past errors. Historical injustice is a heavy burden on a society with no expiration date if it has not received due recognition and condemnation. Acknowledgment of it and refrain from glorification (if not condemnation) of loathed historical figures contribute to an ideal of democratic inclusion, which means to treat each other equally and respectfully.

The historical injustice against many ethnicities in Ethiopia has remained in the psych of our nation–and with that we are entering the 21st century. We do not want to be slaves to the past–however freedom resides in the nation’s recognition of its past. So we should take historical injustice seriously as recognition of it will serve advance peace and harmony.

We should understand that reconciliation is not an act of forgetting historical injustice rather a societal process that implicates mutual acknowledgment of past suffering and the altering of negative attitudes and behavior into productive relationships toward societal harmony and off course, true unity.


*The author Fetsum Berhane is a blogger on this blog.

Fetsum Berhane is an Ethiopian resident, economist researcher and a blogger on HornAffairs.

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