Monday, June 25
Throughout history, it has been the inaction of those who could have acted; the indifference of those who should have known better; the silence of the voice of justice when it mattered most; that has made it possible for evil to triumph.Emperor Haile Selassie I
July 23, 1892 - August 27 1975
It is not politically correct nor particularly cool to speak well of Ethiopia's last Emperor and it has been that way for too long. Indeed, Ethiopia's entire past before 1974 / 1975 / 1991 / 1998 / 2000 (take your pick), is to both of his successors, nothing but a catalogue of horrors and wrongs that only Mengistu / Meles / a host of other Lenin wannabes (take your pick) had the vision to make right - at any cost.
Ethiopians often hear insincere tactical proclamations that are meant to serve the political purposes of the moment. Mengistu suddenly forgot Ethiopia's illegitimacy and suddenly discovered his love for Mother Ethiopia when he was losing wars. Meles also discovered patriotism in the early days of the 1998-2000 war but had a more mature campaign overall.
It ranged from outright hostility based on tribal divide and rule with quick tactical u-turns such as the return of the Axum obelisk, memories of the original Woyane revolt (while today Tigrayans have the least right to dissent), the burial place of Emperor Tewodros's son, and the second millenium celebration. This despite a state founded on determined hostility to the very notion that Ethiopia's existence is legitimate.
In Ethiopia and abroad, those themes have been accepted to a great and quite harmful degree to Ethiopia's interests. Even the 2005 celebration of Bob Marley's sixtieth birthday in Addis Ababa was conducted, presumably with winks and nods from at least some Rastafarians, without a mention of the Emperor or a kind word for the one for whom Rastafarianism were named and who inspired them.
What amounts to cartoon images of the past based on selfish interests of today define too much of Ethiopia's history. Actually, it is not even about the Emperor or other ones but about the hundreds of millions of Ethiopians that have lived and died over the past three thousand or so years. Did they all live their lives for lies and pieces of rag?
Ethiopian pride has become a somewhat cliched concept in some ways, but like folk wisdom, cliches can mask or reveal real wisdom and what is worthy. The magnificent shared culture and history kept alive against the odds at the price of immeasurable blood, sweat and tears was an expression of joy and faith in the value of their present and future - that we should recognize.
That the ideology of the moment or the political campaign of the day can dictate the meaning of history the same way a cat plays with a mouse is destructive to say the least. Once a nation has lost its connection to its past and some decades have passed - it is impossible to get it back. By then it does not matter what was good or bad about the past - it is all just gone.
The reality is that every Ethiopian has a stake in the past because that is who they are. At some point in history every nation was ruled by kings and in every case the more viciously the past was dealt with the worst off the future has been. Every time. You see dear reader, a people who don't believe in the value of their own past are forced to accept the manipulations of the present and the guns behind them as the ultimate definition of reality.
This happens first out of fear and ultimately because they just don't know or care to know anymore. Like scientific socialism or revolutionary democracy of tribal divide & rule or the absence of private property rights - the purpose of government policiy is control of every aspect of a nation's life - even its memory when it can lead to conclusions not in the ruler's favor.
The ultimate result is a sense of illegitimacy on a national scale. If all of the past is nothing but a litany of injustice then by definition whatever the current government is doing is right. Actually, at that point the question of any right or of a higher purpose or interest in the nation ceases to exist. Readers should wonder who is served by such low expectations?
Anyone who looks for perfection in an idea or a nation's past or in that of an individual is on a fool's errand. Any discovery on that journey is not only likely to be bitterly disappointing but to become a part of a sophomoric wisdom based on the silly certainty that nothing is inherently worthy. Such observers fall easily into the trap of ideology and its get-rich-quick certainties and solutions to the complexities of human life.
It is never that easy. Having high standards and expecting, no demanding, progress is vital but not when that becomes a matter of words alone. It is to his eternal credit that while the Emperor lived, judgment of progress and of public virtue was made in comparison to an ideal. The core sense of optimism felt then was intense in a way that it is impossible to imagine now.
It was actually expected that Ethiopia would improve year after year. When Haile Selassie’s rule failed in any way it was considered unforgivable, even criminal. Reality seldom intruded on the varied imaginings and plans of what could be easily in hand only if the Emperor were not in the way.
In the more than three decades since he did get out of the way Ethiopians have learned to expect far far less - not only of the future but of the present. Adjusted for inflation per capita GNP is less than it was in 1973. The growth and economic changes of the 1960s and early 1970s based on Ethiopian native dynamism and planning has yet to be matched.
Foreign aid then was a tiny fraction of what it is today. Coffee remains the source of most domestically generated foreign exchange and it earns progressively less income. The big money and planning today is in popular suffering and the embrace of successive regimes of permanent international beggar status. Because of secession and erosion there is far less land now for far more than twice as many people to live on.
Discussions of land reform with no reform were rightly condemned during Haile Selassie’s rule. The solution was not Mengistu’s confiscation of all land and Meles’s ongoing grasp of every square meter. They have left most Ethiopians as eternal serfs to their government whose power is thus assured. Land reform is no longer even an issue and feudalism is part of Ethiopian constitutional law. The very idea of empowering peasant farmers and of self sufficiency in food has been abandoned beyond press releases and unworkable schemes.
The Emperor left Ethiopia during the Italian occupation and the eventually successful resistance. He would not have served his people better by capture or by death in battle. His actions within the international system meant that Ethiopia’s freedom and unity were not abandoned as the Second World War was won and its aftermath shaped.
He was by no means a democratic ruler. Neither was he a common dictator. He was a traditional ruler in an impatient age with real limits placed on his power by tradition and the community of peoples and religions he was part of. Eventually he stretched the bounds of that rule to their snapping point by encouraging the modernizing forces that he eventually allowed to replace him.
The tradition that he represented was vital and its loss should be mourned. Without it Ethiopia lost her bearings and became lost in a miasma of defunct ideology. Instead of social and political reform that was well underway a radical break was made that still haunts the country with its echoing slogans, wars, broken lives and failed policies.
We must imagine that he saw the forces that rose up in 1974 as somehow legitimate or natural expressions of dissent. Maybe he agreed that the slings and arrows directed toward his government were deserved. The Wello famine, its cover-up and the resultant shame surely contributed to the lassitude that allowed Ethiopia to be dragged into an era of darkness. Possibly he thought it would all just go on as before with a cabinet shuffle or by land grants to selected rebels.
How else can anyone explain a government of millions with roots stretching back three thousand years ... simply fading away? That was the real tragedy of his reign. The country’s institutions and thoughts raced ahead of the Emperor and he did not prepare for a political future of stable government and more rapid democratization.
Neither did he fight to guarantee what had been so far achieved at such cost by his people. The young Tafari Makonnen who took the throne and embarked on the hazardous journey of modernization would surely not have made that mistake.
What followed him is a seemingly endless nightmare of national turmoil and suffering that may yet reach its crescendo in ethnic politics. The traditional absolutes of God, Emperor and Country were abandoned in a fevered search, not for solutions, but for new absolutes to answer every question of existence.
The hard earned optimism in the country and in the future was hijacked by the promise of salvation in a new trinity of Marx, Engels and Lenin. The high priests of the new religion did not discover the keys to heaven but did find a glib catechism that justified their own rule and any crime in the pursuit of power. Traditional authoritarian government was far less jealous and brutal towards opposition than the actual totalitarianism represented by the subsequent occupants of the Menelik Palace.
The bigger a problem is and the longer it has been around - the more cautiously should its solution be found and put into practice. To change thousands of years of Ethiopian history, what should have been Ethiopia's greatest generation, suddenly lurched towards a silly catechism that had by the 70s already enslaved billions and killed tens of millions - all on the basis of promises that were never and could never be kept.
There is no reason that should not have been known then. A listing of former Maoist-Marxist-Leninists includes Yemane (Jamaica) Kidane . He is described as a retired civil servant now poet who believes in an evolutionary process rather than a revolutionary one,
I am rather sobered by the experience of life. In hindsight, Haile Selassie’s continuation with a peaceful transition would have been much better than what we have now.Eritrea and Ethiopia where one back in the day so Jamaica can be described as an Ethiopian but one thought to have the best interests of the EPLF at heart. Also we would include the violent period of Meles Inc. along with that of the Dergue.
Had the violent period of the Derg been avoided, we could have brought about economic development through a peaceful struggle.
I was an idealist then, I am a realist now. A realist and pragmatist."
His statement is clear, true and mature - but in practical terms far too late. Would it be that the whole generation of angry young Ethiopian men willing to purge and fight and kill in the name of foreign political theorists and who therefore knew exactly what needed to be done - had a sense of history or thought beyond easy answers - instead of going down the same dark holes that more than a billion Russians, Chinese, Vietnamese, Cubans, Cambodians and so many others already regretted by the time Ethiopia's alphabet soup of revolutions began.
While it is also impossible to argue that Haile Sellassie's rule was ideal - it did have the significant virtue of not being revolutionary. Therefore, the foundations of tradition could be used as a base for reform in the same manner as dozens of successful societies worldwide that matured with wisdom and never pretended to forget where they came from. That society had a real vision of a better future without destroying everything in its way.
If the past century, actually the past centuries, have taught us anything it is that radical re-organizations of society and mantra-derived solutions are harmful and invariably lead nowhere good. The lessons range from the palpable messianic evil of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia to the local but similiarly loathsome Afro-Socialism of Siad Barre's Somalia or Mengistu's Ethiopia and the Clerical Dictatorship that is Khomeni's legacy in Iran. All were bloody and needed someone to ritually blame based on religion, ethnicity or social class - with inhuman results.
In comparison, South Africa's ANC and India's Congress Party or for that matter America's own revolutionaries or abolitionists were relatively conservative and therefore delusion free even though they are remembered as radical, socialist or revolutionary. They wanted national independence and power but with no 'spiritual' vision of creating heaven on earth at the direction of party visionaries and at great cost to their own people or a targeted minority.
Their relatively firm grip on reality kept them within the more rational limits of the left-right continuum avoiding the frank evil at either end. Thus they either propelled, or at a minimum preserved, the ability of their societies to advance in the future by preserving the parts of the past that deserved it. Those who can't look back critically and forward with common sense can't move forward without delusions guarded so jealously that barbarism is a necessary result.
Chou En Lai (Zhou Enlai)was once asked for his judgement of the French Revolution. He answered, "it is too early to tell". Many come across this comment and are either impressed by his long view of history or imagine they have heard something really deep.
We aren't impressed. Chou, however blindly dedicated he was to Communism and party discipline, was well aware of the damage that he had helped do to China by the ruinous policies of Mao. His Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution cost tens of millions of lives and kept China down for decades.
Imagine an alternate Cold War history where American interests were based on keeping China radical, weak and poor instead of a secure capitalist anti-Soviet ally, Mao could easily have been an 'American Candidate' right there in the Forbidden City. Chou, while still a lackey of Mao had some minimal moral or more likely practical compass. He managed behind the scenes to preserve what was possible and to help keep some like Deng Xiaping alive who saved China in the end.
The right answer to the question about the French revolution was that aside from some cool slogans, and maybe Napoleonic Law, the whole thing, like Ethiopia's revolutions, was a bloody mess and a waste of time. The French ended up with a campaign of terror directed by the first modern totalitarian state and an eventual military dictatorship far worse than the king ever could have been ... as well as a series of disastrous world wars.
Europe was damaged not just by war but because the kind of democratic reform that the English were managing to carry out gradually was discredited. Despite the shocks of 1848, absolute monarchy managed a death grip on Continental political progress until the aftermath of World War I and probably helped to cause the war. Even then liberal politics were often stillborn with the advent of the ever more rapacious revolutionary catastrophes of the 20th century.
Arguably, France did not get its act together until the late 1960s and 1970s to become a stable liberal democracy. During and after the Algerian crisis, de Gaulle was effectively a popular but unmistakably military dictator. Chou was consciously defending himself in his answer. Having been Mao's consigliere for so long, how could he be honest and face himself in even the limited way that Jamiaca did?
If we remember Haile Selassie it should be in sober appreciation of his humanity and achievements. The poor service done to his memory and to the memory of a generation of committed patriots who served under him symbolize a great loss for Ethiopia that many are only now realizing.
After every consideration it is clear that Emperor Haile Selassie left his country in far better shape than he found her. That is tribute enough for any leader. He served his people most in giving them a vision of what Ethiopia could rise to during the most promising and bloody century mankind has ever known.
We are profoundly hostile to the notion that anyone should be allowed any measure of rule over humanity because of accidents of birth. To the same degree we are just as much appreciative of the idea that progress is essentially based on the assurance that parents can pass on to their children whatever they have legitimately acquired.
As far as government goes, it was not always so. From the relative comfort and sense of superiority that accidental birth in the late 20th or life in the early 21st centuries has given us - it is tempting to look at the past and see a bunch of idiots or evil men.
It is grossly unfair and plain dumb to wonder why they didn't all invent perfect socialist societies or at least liberal democracies and industrial revolutions in every corner of the world thousands of years ago. It is equally absurd to imagine that only the idea of those things can make them realities overnight.
Pride in Ethiopia's past is legitimate and especially in cases of disagreement, awareness of the past independent of current politics is essential. Countries that deal with the issue of old systems of rule by reform and by creating constitutionaly monarchy or some form of rational government that respects precedent are usually happier ones. Countries that run headlong into ditch after ditch of variations on creating perfection are invariably places of ongoing misery. Who benefits?
At three thousand years and counting, the wrongest turn made by Ethiopia's rulers has yet to be reversed. The same path of liberal democratic capitalism that billions have taken so far and billions are becoming well served by worldwide is denied to Ethiopians.
Today, the issue is no longer frustration at the pace of progress but the impossibility that a kleptocratic government hostile to its own non-citizen subjects and more dependent on foreigners than Ethiopians for its security can do any thing but always point away from promise and success.
We have to finish the post 'The Grey Lady Strikes Back' about ferenji journalism, 'The Greater East Africa Co-Prosperity Sphere' series about war and the civil contract that excludes the actual people, take another look at the fate of the opposition and some other things as well - but none of it will be done for about a month or so -at least.
In the meantime we will wish ourselves a happy third blogging anniversary and America a happy 231st birthday. Check out our links, Ethiopian or otherwise on the sidebar as well as our previous posts.
Above all, DON'T BELIEVE THE HYPE. Your knowledge will always be best served by instinctively doubting Meles Inc. on any subject from economic growth rates to the existence of gravity.