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Q&A with Professor Abbas Haji Gnamo — Part II

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Written by Sinke Wesho

OPride: The history that you have written especially about Aanolee, is extremely provocative to the Ethiopianist scholars and conspicuously sensitive to the Oromos, how do you think this book will be received on both ends of the divide?

 

Gnamo: The Aanolee atrocity is not new, not invented some years ago as some try to suggest. Serious historians including those at Addis Ababa University where I studied, and all those who read my work know it. This tragedy took place in the fall of 1886 corresponding with Menelik’s last campaign and decisive victory against the Arsi. It is deeply entrenched in the collective memory of the Arsi Oromo and Oromos everywhere. Some of the survivors lived with the mutilated right hands until the 1950s and 60s. One example which captured my imagination was an Oromo elder who lived with a militated right hand among the Jaawwii clan and who always showed his mutilated hand to the public, and explained how he lost his precious hand in defending their dignity and land. He served as living book to recount Aanolee’s genocidal atrocity.

I felt I had to tell the story of this man and unknown soldiers and victims of Menelik’s war. Systematic killings and mutilations were common in Ethiopian history. However, what makes Aanolee unique is that it involved women. Mutilating men was a common phenomenon and widely practiced by Ethiopian leaders during the war and uprisings. For instance, a French missionary, Martial De Salviac, who wrote a book entitled Un peuple antique au pays de Ménélik: les Galla (dits d’origine gauloise) grande nation africaine, 1901) claims to Dejazmatch Wolde Gabriel, who was defeated many times by the Arsi combatants, mutilated the rights hands of 400 warriors in single day in eastern Arsi. He seems to have arrived just a few years after the end of the war and he had original account on Menelik`s war against the Arsi.

Ras Darge, the commander of Menelik’s army, killed 12,000 Arsi combatants at Azule in a single night in pre-planned massacre. Yet, he felt even that was not enough for his appetite to kill and maim. He found a way to gather the survivors of Azule and many other battles at Aanolee to undertake his genocidal and diabolic plan of mutilating the right hands of men and the right breast of women present. Mutilating women was unheard of and it keeps on shocking generations of Oromos. In Oromo culture, women are Woyyuu (sacred) and were not the object of targeted attacks or killings even during atrocious wars. They are peacemakers, and when they intervened in the midst of the war, the hostility stops. No one crosses their line when they are in the middle of warring groups with their Siinqee. Mutilating women was an atrocious crime, a breach of any ethical boundary in the conduct of war and a sacrilege, which resonates more than any massive killings against the Oromo including the Azule atrocities where 12,000 men were mown down.

OPride: How do you respond to those who say Aannolee never happened?

Gnamo: They may deny but that does not mean it did not happen. In fact, they deny what Menelik himself personally acknowledged that his atrocities in Arsi would render them accountable before God. In my book I quoted his words during the war of 1886. It is not surprising that those who commit atrocities and genocide never or rarely admit it. For instance, there are still some who deny the holocaust or minimize its magnitude. During my research on the Rwandan genocide* and the Interhamwe (Hutu killer militia), I met some Hutu and their scholars who deny the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi and Hutu moderates which happened before the eyes of the entire world in 1994.

It is true that for the 21st century people what happened at Aanolee is odious and they try to do the best they can to deny it or to run from it. In fact, they cannot be proud of that and they would have liked that it did not happen. But, it did. Only those people without conscience and basic human instinct may call it a holy war. Facts are facts and the truth has to be told and taught however ugly and unpleasant it may be.

In this book and other work, I wrote on Menelik’s war of conquest based on facts and carefully and meticulously collected and analyzed data over 30 years. I have published other major articles ever since (in Journal of Oromo Studies 1995, and in French in a Journal called Africa “La conquête impériale éthiopienne des Oromo-Arsi (1882-1892).” I also contributed an entry on “Aanolee” in Encyclopaedia Aethiopica, Institut f. Afrikanistik und Athiopistik, Universitat Hamburg, Germany, 2004.

These publications are not intended to serve any political interests/purpose or to provoke anyone. It must be noted that the Oromo people have lived with the memory for a very long time without using it as a pretext to provoke any hostility towards anyone. Menelik may have been a gentleman and a nice leader for the Amhara but he was the enemy, and remains as such, for the Oromo people as his reign represented atrocities, indignity and pestilence. It caused unbelievable physical and psychological damage on this free society. This book is fact based and reconstructs the true history of conquest and its legacies (what happened during the war and its political, economic and cultural consequences).

drabbasHSome people, the Amhara in particular, do not really grasp why the name of Menelik provokes deep anger and painful memories among the Oromo people. This is mainly because his violence was underreported in Ethiopian history as opposed to Tewordos’ violence. Tewodros’ violence shocks them because it targeted the Christian population or Semitic component of the Abyssinian society. Menelik’s violence and atrocities appear to have been tolerated or ignored because it aimed at non-Abyssinian “other”. They called those people “Aramane” – meaning savage (as reported by the Menelik’s chronicler and other writers of the time) and killing and mistreating the “Aramane” people did not really matter. Some have the audacity to call it a holy war? Ask the Walaita, Kaficho and the Oromo in Arsi, Shewa and Harar. Their answer will permit us to understand why the Menelik they venerate and adore is cursed and despised by other people. He created the empire, imperial people and imperial subjects (slaves and serfs). He and his wife, Taitu, owned more than 70,000 slaves. He even gave some Walaita hostages of the war to European travelers as slave-gift. He empowered some by disempowering and dishonoring others. He created an imperial system based on injustice and inequality. He established imperial legacy from which the country has failed to recover after the end of the monarchy and changes of governments and regimes. The book establishes this based on irrefutable facts: Who owned the state and ruled the Ethiopian empire? Who owned the land? The book tells the story of the empire from another angle and fresh perspectives.

Moreover, as opposed to what his apologists claim, Menelik did not bring any positive legacy but suffering and indignity to the southern people. In fact, he had nothing to offer unless someone comes up with a new history to convince us that he was campaigning in the South to redistribute the surplus from the thriving economy of Ankober. He took property, land and liberty from the people he conquered. I cannot think of any positive achievements associated with Meneliks’ name in the conquered land called “periphery”. I found none and I challenge any historian to prove the contrary and explain what Menelik’s modernity mean for the Oromo? Those who talk of Menelik’s modernization and reform in the empire are disingenuous at best and fraudulent at worst. Ask former southern serfs and slaves the meaning of Menelik’s “modernization” and “enlightenment agenda” of king Menelik. He had none. Slavery and serfdom have nothing to do with modernity; they are vestiges of a pre-modern world. But, that was what he brought to conquered lands in the 20th century.

Also, the other false and strange propaganda disseminated around by desperate people who pretend as if Aanolee was invented by the current Ethiopian regime to incite anti-Amhara hatreds. I hope people are not naive enough to buy this cheap and childish propaganda. Do they really expect anyone to believe that the Oromo do not even remember what happened to them at Aanolee and in many other killing fields? Had the Oromo waited Tigrean People’s Liberation Front’s arrival to learn and know about the naftagna system and naftagna-gabbar relationships? One would like to see better arguments and a meaningful discourse on this important period of Ethiopian history.

OPride: I have often heard and read the brutality of the Ethiopian regimes, most of our older generations are victims of these regimes, and don’t you think your book will invoke bitter memories?

Gnamo: No. I know the Oromo are kind people and open-minded and they never teach and incite their children to hate. They are capable forgiving although they may not necessarily forget these atrocities; they honor and remember their heroes and those who were victimized by the intolerable system. But they are not the prisoners of the past. The best way of addressing historical problems is to talk and write about them in order avoid the tragic mistake of the past. Partial and selective history or memory about the “goodness of the empire” and its emperors as promoted by the Ethiopian elites and some “historians” does not permit us to learn from past experiences, shortcomings, lapses and injustices which haunt the current generation or may be the generations to come. Writing true history opens the door for a healthy debate and open dialogue about national identity and common problems in order to find a better future for everyone.

The Oromo people and other people of the south obviously have a different account of this history and there is some fundamental injustice to deny them to speak on behalf of the victims, while the others would like to continue to celebrate Menelik as the father of this nation. It is unimaginable to expect Ethiopia to build a healthy state for all its’ people without addressing these discrepancies and while the scars of these atrocities continue to be denied and overlooked.

abbasHajiGOPride: You have written a lot about the resistance of Arsi, tell us how the Abyssinians conquered the Bale proper?

Gnamo: After the end of the war in Arsi with the battle of Azule and the atrocities of Aanolee and the battle of Calanqo in January 1887, nothing could prevent the conquest of Bale inhabited largely by the Arsi Oromo. The Arsi form a cohesive socio-cultural unit and the Arsi of Bale crossed the Shabale River to rescue their bothers in the fight against Menelik’s army from 1882-1886. There is strong evidence that the Arsi of Bale came in large numbers to fight in Arsi region. In 1889, the war against Bale was launched from two fronts: from Central Arsi at Azule by Ras Darghe – Menelik’ uncle and butcher of Azule and Aanolee – with his two sons Desta and Asfaw, and another campaign from Eastern Arsi by Dejamatch Wolde Gabriel.

The Arsi of Bale, although weakened by previous war in Dida’a, fought as hard as they could but failed to stop a well-reinvigorated and boosted army. Moreover, Ras Darghe appeared to have used diplomacy to convince some leaders such as Kabir Kalil and Kabir Kaddee to submit peacefully. Many rounds of battles were fought in northern and eastern Bale and, despite their determination they could not repel the Shoan army. However, Waaqo Bororo, the famous Raituu leader was said to have inflicted heavy casualties on Wolde Gabriel`s forces and won some battle. In the end, he was captured and hanged in Ghinir. According to some informants, in fact Waaqo was mutilated before being hanged.

Also, the Army was said to have deliberately introduced a contagious disease, which decimated the entire population in some districts of Bale. Both Amhara and Oromo informants and local documents confirmed this. It said to some Gosa such as Shafiila and Silxana hardly survived the epidemic. The Habernosa Gosa counted only five survivors! Above all, the Arsi of Bale did not get access to firearms and they could not create a coalition like their Northern brothers. During their great resistance, in the northern Arsi, they formed three major coalitions: Dide’a front (Eastern, South Eastern Arsi), the Gadab-Sirka front (Southwest, Southern Arsi including Bale) and the Tchancho front (Northern Arsi).

Moreover, it is important note that Bale was not densely populated to raise a large fighting force as in northern Arsi. Most of the Bale region was conquered in the early 1890s and this period corresponded with the period of the Great Famine (1888-1892). The campaign was suspended for a while. After the end of the famine, Menelik’s invading army, under the command of Dejazmatch Asfaw, the son of Darghe, and Dejazmatch Mekonen, the son of Wolde Gabriel Dide’a front (Eastern, South Eastern Arsi), returned and completed the conquest of Bale in 1897. The last battle too place in Gobba, where six high-ranking officers were killed in surprise attack, and then Ras Darghe named Gobba as ya dam maret (the land of blood) in honor of his officers. The fall of Bale extended the Ethiopian territory to its present border and by same token confirmed the creation of the Ethiopian empire. Those who wanted to resist had recourse guerrilla tactic by becoming shiftas (rebels)

OPride: What is one thing the younger generation should grasp from your book?

Gnamo: I hope the younger generation can learn or better understand about the beautiful institutions of their ancestors who crafted the Gadaa system which allowed them to live under a democratic and egalitarian system based on law and justice; how they resisted the occupation and how their representative institutions were destroyed after their conquest and forced incorporation to the Ethiopian empire and their sufferings as serfs or second class citizens. I want the younger generation to remember that they have a history and heritage to be proud of. The historical legacy of the colonial conquest cannot alter that fact and make them inferior to anyone else, as the Abyssinians wanted us to believe. Each generation has its mission and role to play to bring about a positive change. The current generation should explore its avenues to create a better future. The struggle for justice, human dignity and freedom, for which their ancestors fell in large numbers, is far from over and a big task lies ahead.

OPride: Are you satisfied with the book launch event organized last month in Canada? How accessible do you think is the book to the Oromo diaspora population around the globe?

Gnamo: I am very pleased with the way my book has been received. It was with a great enthusiasm the book was launched in Toronto, Canada. The event was well attended and many men and women worked hard to make it a success. I am very thankful to all of them. Also, the event provided an opportunity to celebrate Oromo’s historical heritage and identity. All ordered books were sold. Many Oromo communities are organizing to purchase the book collectively and planning similar events where I am invited to attend and sign the book. More importantly, OSA colleagues and its leading scholars welcomed my book.

The book distribution has also started well on global level. Many university and college libraries worldwide have begun to acquire it. We will have to see the evolution in the coming years when the book reaches different parts of the world. But, the major market remains our people in diaspora and Ethiopia.

While I have no control over the price (the publisher sets the price), I negotiated to lower the price by 25 to 30 percent. Our people here in Toronto and Minnesota who made large orders received a discount of 30 percent. Anyone who would like to get the 25 percent discount can visit the Oromo Studies Association’s website or directly contact me at agnamo@hotmail.com.

OPride: Finally, this book must have cost you both personal and academic commitments, is there anyone in particular who has been your number one supporter throughout this long process?

Gnamo: First of all, I owe everything to my parents who gave all they had to my education without having any formal education of their own. I dedicated the book to their memory. Many teachers in elementary schools inspired me because the numerous awards I received as one of the top students helped me to keep going although I did not have a career plan per se.

In addition to many people whom I thanked in my book, my children, Hawa and Hussein are very important part of my life and the completion of this book. They take a huge credit in this long project. They were babies when I was doing my doctoral studies and now they have graduated and they contributed to the fruitions of this book with enthusiasm. My son has the necessary skills and I did not need anyone’s help from outside for technical matter. I jokingly call him the co-author because of his significant amount of time and energy on the preparation of the book.

I also thank those who have been with me in this project for a long time and the organizing committee of the book launch as well as our ladies in Toronto who showed up in great numbers and with the traditional costumes and delicious Oromo food. I also express my appreciations to the members of the various Oromo communities across Ontario who came to the book launch of March 9, 2014. Finally, I thank professors Hamedesa Tuso, Mohammed Hassen and Kuwe Kumsa who joined the book launch event, where they discussed about the book and addressed the audience.

*“The Role of the Interhamwe in the Regional Conflicts: The Origins of Unrest in Kivu” in War and Peace in Zaire-Congo: Analyzing and Evaluating Intervention, 1996-1997, edited by Howard Adelman & Govind Rao, Africa World Press, Inc., Trenton, NJ, 2004, pp. 85-108; “The Rwandan Genocide and the Collapse of Mobutu’s Kleptocracy, Zaire” in The Path of a Genocide: The Rwandan Crisis from Uganda to Zaire, edited by Howard Adelman & A. Suhrke, New Brunswick & London, Transaction Publishers, 1999, pp. 321-349.

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Thank you for the opportunity to answer these important questions.

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Sinke Wesho

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