No universal Ethiopian hero or history: a rejoinder to Al Mariam

Written by Hassen Hussein

(OPride) – Menelik II, Ethiopia’s brutal 19th century king, has made a sudden return to the Ethiopian media spotlight over the last two months. Much has been written, from opposing viewpoints, in connection with a centennial intended to mark the 100th year of his death.

In his latest, rather nauseatingly lengthy, foray into the polarizing and heated debate about the king, Alemayehu G Mariam, who teaches politics at California State University, tried to recount Menelik’s “many accomplishments” and dismiss Menelik’s detractors as a deluded, irrational, and unenlightened bunch undeserving of being heard.

In a convoluted effort to rationalize his fetish for the greatest murderer of the Oromo and South, Al Mariam accused those he disagreed with of being government puppets. As a critic of the current dictatorial Ethiopian regime, for much longer time than Al Mariam, I would like to point out the follies of the likes of Al Mariam in trying to present a sanitized version of Menelik and the long past, which they desperately strive to resurrect to replace Ethiopia’s dismal present. 

Menelik was a complex man of many faces. Al Mariam presented the monarch as a “true African” and a great leader who put Ethiopia on the path of modernity. The good professor brushed off charges that Menelik committed heinous crimes, amounting to genocide, during his ambitious greater Ethiopia project as mere “allegations.”

Compared to his two predecessors, Tewodros, a tug, and Yohannes IV, a religious fanatic, Menelik’s reign over Northern Ethiopia stood for stability,  moderation and have had a modernizing effect overall. While both Tewodros and Yohannes lost their lives, fighting Britain’s Napier and Sudan’s Dervish respectively, whom their miscalculations invited, Menelik’s well-equipped army gave Italians a thorough lashing at the battle of Adwa in 1896- while still leaving them unmolested beyond the Mereb River.

The latter was a shrewd move on Menelik’s part, not to risk squandering the Adawa victory. But the decision was what sawed the seeds for the 30-year long Ethio-Eritrean war that ended in their separation in 1993 and the much lamented loss of access to the Red Sea. One may also legitimately ask: How does Menelik’s decisions compare with Alula Aba Nega’s eviction of the Italian and Egyptian invading armies?

To be fair, Menelik’s was no era when differences were sorted out peacefully at the negotiation table. But is this enough to condone brutal subjugation?

To realize his ambition for total dominance over his erstwhile Northern rivals, Menelik had to amass a huge wealth, which meant waging war on his wealthier neighbors, the Oromo and the South. Al Mariam’s efforts to whitewash the brutality of Menelik’s campaign of conquest, not just expansion, are as irrational as it gets.

Hitler, too, built roads, laid magnificent infrastructure, ended social strife, and calmed down the rampant inflation of the 1930s that denied Germans the security of life following the disasters of the WWI and its messy aftermath. 

However, what rises as Hitler’s legacy is not the modernization of German industry, which he destroyed through his unbridled aggression, but rather his crimes as the architect of the holocaust. To celebrate this evil is a crime in Germany. However, some Ethiopians, including highly educated ones, have no shame glorifying psychopaths and mass killers, whose crimes against humanity are horrendous even if not rising to the holocaust. 

As Menelik spared Ethiopia, Stalin saved the former Soviet Union from Nazi occupation. At the same time, in addition to millions that perished in his endless political purges, he drove and dislocated millions out of their homelands.

However, Stalin’s biggest accomplishment – protecting USSR’s territorial integrity – was not enough to make him a hero for all times. Al Mariam and his likes have every right to celebrate Menelik’s centennial. However, it is foolish and insensitive to rub it on the noses of descendants of Menelik’s victims.

In Russia, Stalin still has apologists, who are laughed at by the majority. Menelik’s acolytes should not be shocked when they are laughed at for their willful ignorance of and callous refusal to acknowledge the magnitude of the crimes committed.

Menelik poked gaping holes in the European claim to superiority. His victory over Italy is instrumental in resurrecting the pride of the Black race all over the world. However, this need to be tallied against his institutionalization of the inferiority of the nations subjugated. He was going around telling the subject people’s that their religion was pagan, their stock was of an inferior race, their way of life was backward, their kind not fit enough to own and farm their own land, and so on and forth. 

While we’re on the subject, how does his denial of being Black – a sickness of the soul that afflicted many Ethiopians to date – square with his image as the quintessential Black hero?  Should this be brushed aside as a minor lapse or a defining character of his? As a society that gave a blind eye to such self-denials, should we dismiss such topics as irrelevant or face all our demons, small and big?

State formation

No state is made other than by blood and iron. Ethiopia could not be an exception. But to deny the multitudes of bloodshed in the process of state formation, especially one as expansive as Ethiopia, does not do service to the country’s continuity as a common state of victors and the vanquished.

Menelik’s army, where the emperor himself was at the lead, committed unspeakable atrocities, especially in areas where fierce resistance was mounted. Talk to the Kaficho, who were almost wiped, about Menelik’s benevolence. Tout Menelik’s greatness to the to an average Walayita, who were reduced to rabble from being a great kingdom. Talk to an average Oromo in general and the Arsi Oromo in particular, men and women, who were subjected to inhumane mutilation, about Menelik’s magnanimity at and after the war.

The list is long and gruesome, suffice to say, you will be met by universally deafening silence, underneath of which lie the pain and pent anger from a historical trauma of untold proportions. Without appearing totally anti-modernist, may I ask what the average person from the vanquished benefited from Menelik’s “modernization”? 

A cynical among them may be justified in claiming that the benefits of the telephone lines were providing the opportunity to be spied on by the state. The upside of the roads was to bring soldiers, their supplies, and reinforcements to quell discontent by the natives. The advantages of the airstrips was to provide platforms from which the natives would be straffed should they stir for revolt against inhuman treatment at the hands of the authorities. 

Rather than bothering to acknowledge even these niceties, Al Mariam lumps all his opponents into one camp and scolds them for re-writing history. Professor, is history not always written and rewritten? Does it take pulling a license from a self-appointed authority to engage in historical inquiry? By the way, professor, was Ethiopian history not penned by court historians at the pay of the monarchs whose lives and exploits they chronicled in the name of Ethiopian history?

It is Ethiopian history so written that the likes of Al Mariam want us to worship without questioning. For so long Ethiopia’s worship of history and idolization of false prophets of the past had risen to an almost legendary level. And no wonder why we are debating the legacy of a bygone era. However, today we are no longer in a state where we take half-truths as truth, one-sided readings of history as the whole truth, and self-interested interpretation as if the very word of the almighty.

Al Mariam had been trying to make it appear as if he was preaching for a more enlightened vision of Ethiopia. The reality is that he shamelessly joins his right-wing cousins in making a case for a pride in such one-sided history and divisive historical figures for the ostensible goal of helping “us” united as people of one common country. Notwithstanding the fact that Ethiopia’s diverse people do not need a common history to be united, pride in murderers, past or present, is a recipe for polarization not unity. People are united by ideals rather than idols. And ideals are about the future rather than the past. I am not calling here for the wholesale discarding of the past but rather its subjection to a critical light from multiple angles.

Al Mariam is not the only one who got it wrong on Menelik. Many are going astray in the hope of not giving solace to today’s tyrants, who should have known better but persist in their tyranny, and out of the illusion that they are working for the country’s unity, which they falsely believe was built on the greatness of its leaders rather than the goodness of the people.

By and large, elites from Amhara, Oromo, Tigrean, or Southern nations alike have another sickness. To compensate our deep dissatisfaction with the present, we habitually hearken back to a lost paradise, the good old days. Through the foggy lens of our collective amnesia, the past always looks pristine. Those who relive the shadowy past wallow in nightmares. While not whitewashing the crimes of the past or not wholly dwelling upon them, we have to cast false pretenses and face our present situation head-on to shape a better and common future.

Suspended on the air between the tall towers and opposite poles of the long past and an unrealized future, we could not resolve our current impasse. As much as this calls for strong political will, it also requires intellectual courage to see the contorted and many faces of truth, especially about the murky annals of the past.

Al Mariam is racing in the opposite direction by lumping together all who are opposed to Menelik’s centennial as EPRDF’s “lackey-proxies, stooges and puppets.”

Al Mariam’s revisionist historiography is condescending and full of exaggerated claims. Using racy language doesn’t make one a better historian. By the way, what’s with all the parenthesis, prof?



About the author

Hassen Hussein

Hassen Hussein, a writer, teaches Leadership and Management courses at the Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota and can be reached at

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