by Henok G. Gabisa
(OPride) – A recent social media campaign against Ethiopia’s Heineken-owned Bedele Brewery, over its planned sponsorship of a yearlong musical tour for controversial Amharic singer Tewdros Kassahun, has forced the premium beer maker to drop the agreement.
In a span of two weeks, the campaign rallied more than 42,000 supporters on Facebook pressuring Heineken NV to issue a statement saying, “we are not going to pursue the sponsorship contract” with Kassahun.
Kassahun’s unexamined adoration and immortalization of past Ethiopian rulers is popularly seen as offensive and deluded among the Oromo and other nations in Ethiopia’s south. As such, Heineken’s sponsorship of Kassahun, who is better known as Teddy Afro, was widely viewed as a complicit attempt to revive a historical injury among those forcibly incorporated into Abyssinia during Menelik’s 19th century southward imperial expansion.
The anger against Teddy reached fever pitch mid-December after a local magazine published, but later retracted, Teddy’s comments condoning Menelik’s war of conquest as a “holy war.” The social media-based activists said the music tour which was scheduled to start on Jan. 11 in Oromia, the Oromo homeland, amounted to inviting victims of Menelik’s deadly campaign to a dance-party on their ancestors’ graveyard.
Teddy’s crude comments were not surprising per se, but the tour served as a reminder of his scurrilous behavior and bold insolence toward Oromo history. In a statement celebrating the group’s triumph, the #BoycottBedele campaign noted, Dire Dawa, where the tour was scheduled to taper off, is “only miles away from the grave at Calanqo” where according to eyewitness accounts “the blood of Oromos (killed at the battle) gushed like a river.”
After stopping the multi-million sponsorship, the campaigners posed a series of questions that are likely linger in the minds of this generation: what does Teddy’s tour got to do with love? How does lionizing and glorifying someone of Menilik’s statue ever meet the minimum threshold for a tour meant to promote love? Has Teddy ever thought of honoring the victims over the killer?
Beyond its momentous victory, the swift social mobilization and reverberation of the campaign offers a menu of lessons. First, notwithstanding the schism of diaspora politics, it proved how vociferously and in unison the Oromo people could stand together against a brick wall of historical injustice. The novelized assumption of political disunity among the Oromo saw its self-rectification which was inimical to a flaw in speculation.
The Oromo youth, who came together and stood up to powerful political and business interests, passed a “litmus taste” by turning Teddy’s ostentatious “journey of love” into a “walk of shame.” Menilik’s brutal campaign epitomizes one of the most callous acts of pain in Oromo history and the history of Ethiopia’s southern nations and nationalities. While much of Menelik’s brutality is obscured by the battle of Adwa, in which Ethiopian forces defeated Italy in 1896, no other Ethiopian ruler represents such a savage face of repression for the Oromo.
In one of the first acts of acknowledgement, the Oromia Regional Government erected a memorial statue in 2009 to honor victims of Menelik’s genocidal campaign at Anole and Calanqo. In 1886, at the Anole gathering called to make peace with Arsi Oromos after a deadly battle at Azule, Menelik’s forces cut off Oromo women’s breasts and men’s hands amputated. One of the harshest chapters in Ethiopia’s tortuous history, Anole stands as a single most traumatic event for the Oromo.
Which road to love: denial or repentance?
Now that the euphoria and disappointment over #BoycottBedele’s victory is over, in order to move the conversation beyond individuals and historical figures, it is important to take up the underlying issues at the core of the debate.
As hopeless as it looks given the current political climate, there’s a greater need for reconciliation and healing. However, it’s even more important to note that such an endeavor presupposes not a stingy denial, but an active repentance and acknowledgement from those who were historically privileged.
The events of last two weeks offer ominous prospects. Posing as academics, journalists and historians, revivalists of Menilik’s vision offered a wide range of views in different forums. On the face of it, the diversity of perspectives and robust discussions of issues is crucial. However, much of the commentary focused on downplaying or outright denial of Menilik’s murderous expansion and the consequent extermination of the Oromo and other southern people.
In addition, using their media establishments and vocal presence on social media, they sought to control the direction of the discourse by portraying all debates on past injustices as a fair game. Even more appalling, they tried to draw a false parallel between Menelik’s colonial project and a phenomenon known as the Oromo expansion. The later historical event refers to a period in 16th century described by historians as a return of Cushitic Oromos to their roots.
As sober and at times poignant as some of the denials get, much has also been uncovered from a group whose basis of reaction was a simple ignorance and emotional ambition to keep the phantom of the “highland kingdom” alive, even in this century.
Tabling the issue of past injustices for debate does great disservice to the millions of victims. Nonetheless, this benign question begs for a sober consideration by Menilikian revivalists: which road takes to reconciliation in Ethiopia – denial or acknowledgement of historical injustice?
Freedom of speech and customary laws against heinous crimes
One form of denial was disguised and masqueraded under the posture of “freedom of speech.” Teddy’s fans were quick to point out that the cancellation of his contract sat a dangerous precedent on free speech. But the reactionary gate keepers and vanguards of hallow Ethiopianism didn’t wait too long to accuse Oromo activists as separatists, secessionists and other labels, essentially for exercising their inalienable freedom of speech.
Alarming hate speeches, some only marginally short of a declaration of war, were hurled at Oromo activists under the camouflage of free expression. Some liberal Ethiopianists even sought to turn Teddy and his fans into martyrs for freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is a universal right for all but why did a simple act of campaigning to stop the continuation of historical injustices warrant so many tantrums and whining?
Let us examine similar cases and interpretations elsewhere with regards to the denial of historical injustices.
The nature and degree of atrocities committed by Menilik, even if not of similar proportion, in some ways resembles the Jewish holocaust that took place in Germany. Absent a robust media spotlight, the inherent socio-political fragility and efforts to obfuscate the facts by varnishing rosy layers over traumatic events make the former far less glaring. Notwithstanding the ongoing bid to contain the bad publicity generated by the campaign, the grief stands, the wound itches and the trauma resonates across Oromos from all walks of life.
Across continental Europe, the denial of the holocaust constitutes a legal and moral offense penalized by applicable criminal laws. For instance, in Austria, under the 1945 criminal statute, which was amended in 1992, the denial of the Holocaust is punishable by a prison term of up to ten years. In 2006, in one of the most publicized cases, an Austrian court convicted David Irving, a British writer, for Holocaust denial and sentenced him to three years in prison.
Similarly, in France, Robert Faurisson a professor of literature) was convicted in 1991 for contesting that holocaust doesn’t constitute a crime against humanity under a French criminal law.
Faurisson subsequently appealed his case before the UN Human Rights Committee (a quasi- judicial body with the mandate to monitor international human rights) by contending that the law curtails his right to freedom of expression and academic freedom. The Committee upheld the legality of the French legislation by noting that France’s introduction of the law was intended to serve the struggle against racism. From Spain to Germany there are simply a plethora of examples to prove that laws criminalizing the denial of historical injustice are not in violation of the normative framework of freedom of expression.
Jurisprudentially speaking, freedom of speech is not and has never been an absolute right. It has a number of justifiable and legitimate exceptions. Article 8(2) of the European Convention on Human Rights, one of the most progressive protection instruments, stipulates similar kinds of grounds limiting the bounds of freedom of speech. Article 29(6) of Ethiopian constitution, in theory, sets a fine limit on freedom of speech to protect against injury to others’ human dignity. In the eyes of most Oromos, nothing is more injurious and offensive than the denial of historical injustice perpetrated by Menilik and his successors.
In fact, Menilik’s atrocities could easily be placed under crimes against humanity and war crimes. For those who argue that violence during Menelik’s time was the order of the day, it is enough to note that several international customary laws that regulate heinous crimes were fully operational dating back a century ago. In addition, no law bars the retroactive regulation of these crimes. For example, after WWII, at the Nuremberg Trials for German war criminals the terms laid down in the 1907 Hague Convention were retroactively used in sync with other laws and customs of war.
Ultimately, whether justice is administered or not, Menilik’s atrocities in the south cannot be cherry-picked for expedient political goals. Efforts to disassociate Menilik’s brutal war from the normative framework of customary rules of crimes against humanity and war crimes are shallow and obloquies.
In a specific reference to the non-limitation statute regarding crimes against humanity, article 28 of the current the Ethiopian Constitution gives a weighty tone to the intolerance of the law toward past perpetrators and their current idolizers.
Besides these legal regulations, the recognition of Menilik’s brutality by Oromia regional government itself speaks volume. The inference is clear: honoring the Oromo martyrdom at Anole and Calanqo with a memorial statue is a first important step in the establishment of a historical and legal truth.
The ramification is that any act of idolizing and glorifying the past injustice is offensive to the Oromo people. If justice was administered as per applicable local and international laws, Teddy and the Menilikians have no legitimate right to glorify these injustices.
Yet, much more remains for young generation of Oromos to continue to deconstruct Ethiopia’s fictionalized history and reconstruct Oromo historical narratives in order to reclaim their agency.
The Imbroglio of Ethiopian Emperor and Theory of State-Formation
In response to the campaign, in sync with Teddy’s hagiography, several pundits tried to cast Ethiopian emperors as unifiers and state builders. Some even went so far as to equate Menelik with American unionists. They alleged that state-formation normally exhibits and comes at the cost of violence and war. And that Ethiopia’s was no exception to this rule. A quick glance at the theory of state-building might help these pseudo scholars out of their confusion. Hobbes’s and Locke’s “social contract theory” presupposes the existence of “State of Nature”, where individuals are entitled to an absolute right, including even the right to kill each other over fulfillments of their interests.
According to Hobbe’s, in this state of nature which solemnly favors the most powerful group only the strongest survives. The society has to come together under a “covenant” and agree to voluntarily pass over their authority to a sovereign body, which is duly authorized to look over all members of a society pursuant to “the contract or the agreement.”
Here, such a covenant presupposes a voluntary and consensual agreement as opposed to a brutal and targeted massacre of specific groups in the society. This is how a supposedly unorganized society (living in a state of nature) is legitimately and sanely metamorphosed into a modern polity or nation-state. Seen through this lens, the glorification of Menilik as a nation builder – as often shamelessly claimed by neo-feudalists – is utterly ridiculous and a gross distortion of reality.
Instead, Menilik’s brutal killings and imperialistic expansion illustrates the gloomy shadow of the “State of Nature.” Menelik and his successors never tried to create a polity based on a social contract. In many respects, Ethiopia is still a continuation of its imperial past – stuck in Hobbe’s state of nature.
That is why pro-Menilik activists and those with unexamined and superfluous knowledge of history continue to suppress efforts to reform and redefine the notion of home and national state in Ethiopia.
Dream as they might, the era of monopoly over historical facts is long gone, never to return. Oromo people have reclaimed much that has been lost and now own their narratives. The successful execution of #BoycottBedele campaign is but a dramatic example of a resurgent voice that no amount of hullabaloo can dwarf.
*Henok G.Gabisa is a Visiting International Law Fellow at Washington and Lee University School of Law, Lexington Virginia. He can be reached at GabisaH@wlu.edu