By Prof. Getachew Haile
This short article addresses the issue of how Ethiopia’s social and political problems are sometimes baseless, or based on minor misunderstandings. The Amharic section of the Voice of America (VOA) included a three-part discussion on the history of Ethiopia between Dr. Beyana Soba, a lawyer; Dr. Berhanu Mengist, a professor of conflict resolutions; and myself, a historian. A historian discussing history with non-historians might seem strange, but the end-result shows that it was actually not. Dr. Beyana represented people who believe that Ethiopian history, as they read it, neither includes them nor respects their human dignity. Dr. Berhanu’s place is obvious, as the views of Dr. Beyana and me occasionally conflict. I am satisfied that the discussion took place in this setting because I could hear the complaints of the so-called oppressed people from the source and rebut them. I thank Weyzero Tizzita for conducting the discussions and the VOA for broadcasting them [The discussions are on Ethiopia.org].
The purpose of this note is not to accuse anyone of distorting facts and thereby spoil the friendly atmosphere that prevailed during the discussion. The first misunderstanding came from the reading of the first article of the 1931 Ethiopian Constitution. It reads as follows:
The territory of Ethiopia, in its entirety, is, from one end to the other, subject to the government of His Majesty the Emperor. All the natives of Ethiopia, subjects of the Empire, form together the Ethiopian Empire.
Google will help find the constitution on the Internet if one searches for it under The Ethiopian Constitution of 1931 and reads the quotation him/herself. Some of the comments I read about it show how much it has been misunderstood. As you hear it in the recorded copy of the discussion, Dr. Beyana repeats the same misunderstanding. He believes and expands his belief, lauding the Constitution’s honesty in admitting the truth, that for the Ethiopian government, the Ethiopian people are of two classes, natives and subjects. He did not identify by name during the discussion who are the natives and who are the subjects, probably because no one asked him. But it is clear from his description that the natives and the subjects are, respectively, the conquerors and the vanquished “during Menelik’s wars of expansion.”
In my attempt to explain that the word subject refers to native in a different way, I even mentioned that English grammarians call this kind of sentence structure “noun in apposition,” where the latter (subject) emphasizes the former (native) in a different use of the word, like an adjective. If the words represented two different classes of people, they would have been conjoined with the word and, as in natives and subjects. But the phrasing does not put it so; and no government would ever divide its people into classes.
As I said, this misunderstanding comes from the fact that our knowledge of the English language is weak. Look how the word “subject” is used in the first sentence to describe the Ethiopian territory: “The territory of Ethiopia, in its entirety, is, from one end to the other, subject to the government of His Majesty the Emperor. Here “subject” does not exclude the territories that Menelik inherited. In fact, the 1955 constitution revises the article this way:
All Ethiopian subjects, whether living within or without the Empire, constitute the Ethiopian people.
The revision is not to call us all vanquished people by calling us all subjects but to avoid the possible misunderstanding of the word native in the plural form as a collection of tribes.
The question that Ethiopian history neither includes the people of the South nor respects their human dignity was discussed as much as time allowed. As the recording shows, we started far apart but ended up agreeing that inclusive historical events quoted from the sources during the discussion need to be included in the school curriculums. This is a noble outcome of the discussion and what we should strive to do if we ever survive the TPLF’s onslaught of the country and its history. In a forthcoming Amharic article I will briefly expand the quoted historical sources on the participation of the Oromo in the history of Ethiopia.