Unheeding history thwarts a nation’s vision!
As the 200th birthday of Emperor Tewodros II, who is credited with laying the foundation for modern-day Ethiopia and installing a central government after ending the decentralized Zemene Mesafint (Era of the Princes), is marked this week it’s imperative to ponder on some issues of critical importance in the context of the current political reality in Ethiopia. Born on January 14, 1819 Emperor Tewodros II was a great leader whose ambition to unify, reform and modernize his ancient country was cut short due to his suicide on April 13, 1868. Although he did not see the fruits of his nation-building endeavors, the fundamental initial steps he took were taken up by his successors and have got Ethiopia to where it is now with all the attendant problems. A letter he wrote and dispatched to General Robert Napier, the leader of a British expeditionary force tasked with freeing English prisoners, immediately prior to the fall of his mountain fortress of Meqdella, contains passages that are relevant to present-day Ethiopian politics. It’s negligent not to examine contemporary developments while commemorating a visionary hero.
Realizing that his end was nigh as the forces of General Napier shelled the Meqdella citadel with heavy artillery following the defeat of his army in a battle at Eroge, in the plain facing Meqdella, Tewodros penned a letter to Napier in which he lamented that while his fellow countrymen refused to abide by a centralized system of governance and rebelled against him, the latter vanquished him with the help of people under such a system. Written just before he shot himself with his pistol the letter also speaks of his frustration and vision in the following words: “…My fellow countrymen accuse me of taking up the religion of faranjis (white men) and converting to Islam. If I am evil to them let God grant them the best; let them be as they wish. If God granted it to me I intended to rule over everyone…I imagined that I would march on to Jerusalem and drive out the Turks let alone conquer my habesha (Abyssinian) enemies…” It’s sad that a man who had a great dream during a time of darkness came to an untimely demise in his prime. Unfortunately, Ethiopia continues to witness to this day events which its people rue. As Emperor Tewodros said it’s becoming increasingly difficult to engage in a system-based nation-building.
Modern Ethiopia was founded under the pioneering rule of Emperor Tewodros. Succeeding leaders did whatever was in their power to consolidate his gains. Though the nation-building process is has far to go and is fraught with flaws, there is no reason why it cannot succeed if the patriotism and bravery of our forefathers is emulated. However, the process has not proceeded in the desired manner owing to the country’s inability to make use of the opportunities that came its way at various times. Without going far back in history a cursory examination of the last 45 years since the fall of Emperor Haile-Sellasie leaves one with a strong impression that Ethiopia indeed is an unlucky nation. The years wasted while killing, incarcerating and causing the exodus of compatriots who had a grand vision for the country only served to push it to the edge of the precipice. And over the past 27 years during the tenure of the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) the absence of a shared vision coupled with the perpetration of widespread rights violations and economic disenfranchisement has precipitated deadly conflicts in which thousands have died. The tolls of preferring a heavy-handed approach to a civilized resolution of differences can never be forgotten. It’s in the backdrop of this political crisis that a new administration was ushered into office. The state Ethiopia presently finds itself in to heed the lessons of history.
Although the winds of change have been blowing in Ethiopia in the past nine months, the change is floundering like a boat buffeted by a storm. Even as the political reform underway has brought about, among others, efforts to put an end to intercommunal tensions and strengthen the unity and solidarity of Ethiopians, the release of thousands of political prisoners, the return of exiled insurgent groups upon an invitation to participate in a peaceful political struggle, the resumption normal relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea after a 20-year hiatus, and the process of changing draconian legislations, the events taking place on the ground have been quite alarming. Actions that in no way advance the process of democratization including slaughtering and displacing innocent citizens, dissolving administrative structures, robbing banks and torching government property as well as blocking major highways with the aim of hobbling the economy have become all too common. Emperor Tewodros’s venting of exasperation with his compatriots some 151 years ago for refusing to abide by a centralized system of governance and rebelling against him still rings true today. At a time Ethiopia is in the throes of political unrest it’s madness for those lacking a vision to disregard the consequences of repeating historical follies.
The people have never been the source of political instability. The root causes of the myriad of challenges facing Emperor Tewodros were the elites of the time. Similarly, the mess Ethiopia is now in can be traced to elites. This said care should be taken not to lump all elites into one category. Some of them are power mongers who instigate conflicts to achieve their goal while others watch from afar with indifference the reckless acts of the former. Frankly speaking destructive forces manage to gain the upper hand when elites who have a historical obligation to steer the nation on the right course fail in their solemn duty. It’s not yet late to encourage citizens who have great dreams for Ethiopia having learned from past mistakes. Anyone who feels he is invested in the fate of the country should stop individuals lusting for power from setting off time bombs with intention of creating favorable conditions for the attainment of their evil objective. Turning a blind eye as politicians who earned a long-sought freedom on the back of the sacrifices paid by the public are wreaking unimaginable havoc exacts a heavy price. Self-serving characters devoid of the capacity and the desire to engage in constructive politics must not be allowed to smother the aspirations of visionaries. Emperor Tewodros was cut short without realizing his dream because of the kind of challenges the country is confronted with nowadays. Unheeding history thwarts a nation’s vision!