By Desalegn Birara
Preservation of cultural and historical heritages in Ethiopia is clenched with multiple challenges. Political ideologies, social organizations, ecological environments, structural infrastructures, traditional belief systems, policies and most profoundly historical narrations affected the endeavors to protect heritages in the country. Heritages faced these dangers because of intrinsic conservation limitations and flaws on risk prevention.
Previous studies (1) assessed the challenges of protecting cultural heritages in Ethiopia with the profound assumption that governments intend to protect heritages. They were designed to deal with the multitude of variables that affected the condition of heritages keeping in mind that the government and citizens indisputably have the will to protect the heritages. Not only the will, but also unreserved efforts to withstand the challenges, and keep heritages safe. Accordingly, the studies emphasized the impacts of scarcity of resources, illicit trafficking, natural disasters and accidents, collateral damage of conflicts, management and mandate clarity in regulatory bodies, adequacy of curatorial skill, availability of infrastructure and so forth as determinant variables. Hardly few studies in the Ethiopian context have slightly assessed the challenge [damage] of heritages by the purported policy initiatives. Nonetheless, priceless heritages have been demolished as both collateral damages of discrete conflicts and targeted attacks.
A case study of H.I.M. Hailesilassie heritage house in Ethiopia (2) scrutinized the assumption and assessed drastic damages of heritages by organized structures and social movements. The study reported a targeted attack on heritages by individuals and groups that worked in clandestine for various goals. Few interest groups such as the Wolayta Yalaga (2) organized and led mobs that destroyed heritages as a means of manifesting grievances on certain policies or government actions and to enforce political agendas or gain economic benefits, or combined effects. Even though the success rate can be irrelevant, government agencies and regulatory organizations did their best to withstand those criminal turns.
Surprisingly, today came up a regime with a crystal-clear ideology that vehemently erases the semitic memory in Ethiopia, abolishes Islamic and Christian relics blatantly, and shamelessly institutes an Oromo traditional belief system called Waqé-fenna as a state religion (3); and Oromuma as an integrated socioeconomic and pollical ideology (4). This paradigm installation is costing Ethiopian heritages just at the very introduction phase.
This article analyzes policy targets of heritage destruction in Ethiopia since the reign of Oromuma in 2018, using reflective thinking based on firsthand data from repeated site observations at selected contexts.
Oromuma in Brief
“Oromummaa eliminates differences that may emerge because of religious plurality or regional differences” (Asafa Jalata, 2012:12)
As a master ideology Oromuma, aspires each individual Ethiopian to become ethnically Oromo (5), speak Oromo language, believe in Oromo religion, accept historical narratives as presented by the elites of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and works with the perimeters of the Oromo value system. As Yonas Biru in his excellent analysis presented ‘the ideology is a low grade Nazification movement’ (6). Even ethnically Oromo citizens are obliged to accept Oromuma as a full package ideology consisting of its own religion, social relationships, roles, values, and life ways. In Oromuma, it is not possible to be Oromo and Muslim or Christian or any other believer other than waqe-fenna; and make relationships outside the provided Oromo circles.
The ideology is not only monolingual, but also establishes a myth of creation that puts Oromo at the head of the creed in its religious chunk. According to Oromuma Waqa is the God of Oromo. The Myth narrates the detail ‘Waqa let a creature rise from a lake water and it rose up and stood up right; then waqa called it Oromo’ (7) and with a squint of waqa at Oromo, the myth explains that the creature split in to two persons – one female and one male. It deduces therefore, all human beings descended from these two Oromo halves.
The general Oromo-centric construction of myths and narration of the common past is designed to be perpendicularly antisemitic and requiting (8,9). Oromuma as a new dynasty enthusiast that constructs models and theories to blame the past and seeks a suitable sphere, out of its ravage. It explains the most glorified history of black people on earth using colonial thesis: as if one black community had a colonizer relationship to the other black. The destructive choice emanates from this victimhood narration of history. It craves to revenge history and lay new foundations from clear surface. The ideology has dozens of destruction programs, starting from re-writing historical facts to the demolition of physical monuments and edifices.
Erasing the Monarchical Memory from Ethiopia
Heritage houses in Addis Ababa have been neglected to collapse. The government not only turned deaf ears to reports about their deterioration, but also had tacit plans to demolish them. As Piet Nieder (10) reported, heritage preservation was not on the agenda of Ethiopian decision-makers. On the contrary, heritage buildings were often regarded as obstacles to development, for those buildings are often situated close to the city centers and occupy valuable land. It can be concluded as a common strategy to deliberately let heritage buildings unmaintained until they are dilapidated enough to have a good pretext for demolition. The demolition of the Dejazmach Amde Kassa villa – the grandson of Leul Ras Kassa Hailu, (11), the demolition of the historical Ras Abebe Aregay house (12), prove the intention and dedication of the regime to eradicate historical things, to name few.
It followed that, by the cover of renovating the national palace, the age old Menelik II palace has been massively changed in its contents and transformed into a public recreational place.
“… the historical palace compound with the oldest and most interesting gems had been converted into a public park by the federal government. … there is also a political notion to the so-called “Unity Park”, as heritage is instrumentalized to tell a specific story about one’s nation. From an outsider’s perspective, it seems contradictory that Ethiopians generally value their country’s history so much, but when it comes to architecture, they are blind to one eye. Not only are heritage buildings being destroyed, but entire historic neighborhoods are being cleared for new developments without context.” (Piet Nieder, 2023).
After the silent denigration of the great Menelik II palace, a half trillion value palace complex is under construction at the top of Entoto mountain (13): with the rudiments that the ruling Oromuma ideology stipulates (14).
The introduction of SHEGER EXPRESS BUS in Addis Ababa was intended to diminish Anbesa bus – the oldest city transport service in the country. Anbesa bus enterprise is hated by the regime and craved to vanish for its reminiscence of the monarchical era. “The Anbessa City Bus started as a share company founded in 1945 and owned by Emperor Haile Selassie and members of the royal family, before it was nationalised in 1974.” (15) Anbesa bus had symbol of the Lion of Judah. In order to eradicate the symbol and associated memories of the monarchy, the current regime brought up the Sheger Express Bus with its own brand color and mark. Now, Anbesa bus is at the verge of extinction as an institute. The large garages, offices, data, buses, and other properties of Anbesa bus enterprise are being merged with [transferred to] Sheger express bus (16). The buses gradually change their colors from the famous orange Lion Bus brand to the Blue Sheger Bus, erasing their previous mark and symbols; and most likely will be similar story to the city of Addis Ababa being swallowed by the surrounding Sheger City. The Sheger City [Geda economy zone] is designed by Oromuma to encircle Addis Ababa and takeover all the economic, social, cultural, and political dominance in the country (17). It is undoubted that the Ethiopian Airlines is no exception in the eyes of Oromuma, by the way. Oromuma got no instinct to see the flag that high, anywhere. Perhaps it is the matter of time, but sure, they will go for it.
The reconstruction of Meskel square – a UNESCO registered world heritage site owned by the Orthodox Tewahedo Church, was not a singular intervention. It was a confinement of the site for the followed mega project in the area. The vicinity was by large transformed into Hora Finfinnee, just in a year. Thus, the world heritage site was surrounded with the emerged Irecha rites. The area turned out to be the largest Oromo religion and traditional ceremony place that replaced the previously known center in Debrezeit (Bishoftu) town, and hundreds of thousands of attendants from all over Oromia gather. As soon as the gathering started the rites in this new set up, they instantly started claiming the heir of Meskel square. The organized youth portrayed slogans of seizing Addis Ababa and chanted marching in the streets. It was intended to threaten the city resident and property owners; and none of celebrating a cultural ceremony. Oromo region president Shimeles Abdisa made a speech to the crowd saying, “we seized the land we aspired for so long. Our fathers and mothers were broken here, and now has come our time. We have broken them. We have broken Neftegna (Amhara) at the place where they broke us once in the past. We celebrate our feist in our own city, feel at home!” (18).
Uninterruptedly, renaming the Meskel square to Eid square was an agenda brought about to make the faithful community restless. The regime wants the conflict between religious groups more than the nomenclature by itself. Replacing Meskel square with Eid square was not an agenda of the real Muslim faithful. It is a design to make the conflict resemble religious. When the two groups fight, Oromuma’s claim of the entire area will come as a neutral third-party solution. Oromuma basically seeks to abolish both Islam and Christianity; albeit wants them to diminish by their own antagonized energy. The ideology aspires the type of domination that allows no differences to exist in the country. That is why the state’s spiteful intervention in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church did not stop with the Meskel square issue. It further went about long-lasting chaos in the church.
Oromuma attempted to establish an Oromo synod protested from the Orthodox Tewahedo Church [illegally, according to the church’s ordains] (19). The regime’s intervention in religious affairs targets to divide and weaken parts so as to eliminate sects to achieve the long run goal of wiping out the Abrahamic religions and install waqe-fenna in substitution. Thus, the conspiracy of splitting the Orthodox church has deep rooted attacks further. Methods and tactics of uprooting the institutional bases of the church are strategized. Crucial contexts and contents are targeted for evil manipulations and unnoticed attacks. The Tana Monasteries are among the primary targets with the disguise of surrounding mega projects.
Museum construction after heritage devastation
Tana monasteries are the densest heritage populated areas in the country. A few kilometers away from the very place where the Gorgora project are located the Tana Monasteries that hub the multi-centuries old heritage collections. The Deq Island hosts the monasteries of Narga-Silassie and Kota-Mariam amongst the oldest ones. These monasteries repeatedly quested the local government and the federal heritage authority to prioritize conservation of priceless heritages that were irreversibly dying. Among the most deteriorated ones are the frescoes of Kota-Mariam church that aged nearly a thousand years.
The systematic observation noticed that painters of these frescoes are not traceable. They do not write their name and signs on paintings of saints; as explained by a monk it was duly, perceived to be posturing the painter equivalent to the saints. Hence, painters of all the wall paintings are unknown for the sake of humbleness. Further exploration on the status of contents in the churches revealed that there is an intentional neglect of authorities to the pleas of the churches. The Monastery administrator and interviewed monks told their worries about the daily falling components in both structure of the church building and elements in and around the church. They were prevented to restore it by themselves by the heritage authority unless a written permit is provided to do so; and the authorities did not attempt to restore it by themselves. Albeit supervisors from the state culture and tourism bureau visit the churches periodically to report the statuses until it completely disappears.
Monks and administrators told conservation of these wall paintings has been tough for four intrinsic challenges and an extrinsic problem. First, the painting technique of these frescoes by far differs from the ones painters make today [as generations had their own styles, focus, and method (20)]. This doubted everyone on proper restoration of the original looking. Second, the substances, processes, and methods of preparing the paints that were used to make the original frescoes is different from the ones painters use today. Applying the present paints to conserve the age old frescoes may worsen the problem. Third, believers of the orthodox Christianity (who access the church and attend religious services) gently touch [rub] the fresco walls and pat their body parts in belief that these saints heal their body and spirit. This aggravated the deterioration, as prohibiting believers to do that contact may arise dogma issues and larger scale conflict. Fourth, termite is a huge problem.
As an extrinsic challenge, the tactless response of the government for quests of renovative intervention was discussed. Even more dreadful and worse plan to destroy them by depriving apt care, was deeply scrutinized. The heritage authority warned the monastery administrators not to make any physical changes on heritages without permission; and never acted until the heritages completely vanish. On contrary, a multitude of expert recommendations and advises had been submitted to officials to avert the aforesaid hazards (21). Basically, consideration of the Deq island, Daga stephanos, and monasteries by the western lake shore, in the Gebeta Lehager Projects of Gorgora town, as an integrated tourist attraction were recommended. This integrated development was sought to maintain the historical, cultural, religious, and ecological values, features, elements, and significances of heritages. Construction of the Museum at Daga Stephanos had also to be in congruence with the essences of the context originality. As a long-term strategic solution for challenges of heritage conservation in the country, redesigning curriculums and academic programs in a way that revitalizes indigenous knowledge of artwork and curatorial techniques, was earnestly implored. Because the revitalization of indigenous knowledge is believed to restore the knowledge of making and understanding the characteristics of the old ages’ products. As a temporary coping mechanism, maintaining heritages and sites has been recommended to be optimally a secular intervention. The government and religious institutes ought to work together according to the terms that the heritage owners state. This gives the heritage owners the freedom to set and adjust the extent of intervention, schedule operations according to the urgency of demands for preservation and conservation. Because, some go absolutely unrecoverable for any prolonged year of restoration. In this intricated demand of heritage conservation, a museum is under construction at the hilltop of the famous Daga Stefanos island; supply of tail for demands of heads. This is examined to be a more dreadful whitewashing plan than rudimentary misstep of priority-setting.
Heritage destructions in Ethiopia in the past five years showed patterned operations and can be characterized by their salient outcomes. All cases of intrusion had analogous methods. The step-by-step destruction of precious heritages has been undertaken using anesthesia projects. Anesthesia projects are beautiful ideas of development designed in/around the target heritages. These mega projects are introduced as a strategic approach to destroy heritages in Ethiopia. Procedurally, these project plans are deliberately over and over advertised to the public for exhaustive discussion so that the public falls good sleep in the aftermath operations. In most cases, the hypnotized public contributes a large amount of budget without questioning the pros and cons of implementation. The moment of operation of destroying the heritages is painless as the citizens and patriotic civil societies are engrossed with the glittering project designs whilst destructions are undertaken in the shadow, voicelessly. They are called big names such as ‘mega project’.
Abiy Ahmed in his ‘እርካብና መንበር – Stirrup & Saddle’ book clearly stated their deceiving tactic in Amharic saying ‘ሳሩን እያሳየህ ትወስደውና ከገደሉ ሲደርስ “በሬ ሆይ ሳር መብላትክን እንጅ ገደሉን ሳታይ” ብለህ ትቀልድበታለህ’. Title of the book tells how he planned on whose shoulder to step up and grab power. Obviously, the ‘Stirrup – እርካብ’ is Amhara – the society that supported him wholeheartedly, to seize power; while መንበር – Saddle [throne] is Oromo, as we realize now. His strategy was convincing, confusing, and deceiving as they unashamedly revealed later. Oromuma has long ago devised the lip services, nice agendas, and attractive occasions to make Amhara a reliable stirrup until they are surely settled on the throne. Amhara had been deceived by these projects in a seamless analogy to the ox that is deceived by the pasture, according to the stated strategy in the book.
All the so-called mega projects have rival targets prearranged for elimination. Sheger express bus was established to eliminate Anbesa bus; The unity park was in such a scale reworked to eliminate its historical elements; Sheger city is planned to displace non-Oromo residents and dissolve Addis Ababa; Holly monasteries are invited to become neighborhoods of luxury; and so forth. Mega projects fundamentally change statuses of sites and eliminate them, ultimately. The emphasis of the government on these mega projects serves as a double standard. First, it helps the regime rationalize its deprivation of budget to heritage protection as priority would be given to the mega projects, which the public emotion approves; and it also justifies the neglect of dilapidating heritages. Second, it makes the abolition of heritages excusable as they already become too dilapidated and not worth it to spend more resources on. Thus, the focus on ‘future Ethiopia’ instead of ‘the past Ethiopia’ is presented in tantalizing shows.
Finally, the new establishments that completely erased historical, cultural, social, and religious backgrounds realize the Oromuma’s dreamed cultural republic. No wonder how Oromuma envisages to turn the majestic Tana Monasteries into island hotels and luxurious lodges. Oromuma is clever in manipulating and betraying the public, with its mega projects encircling predefined rivals and elimination tactics. It is a simple and effective model they applied not only to destroy heritages but also to destroy the northern Ethiopia political blocks – Amhara and Tigray.
In conclusion, protecting heritages in Ethiopia is an interlaced issue of sociocultural, historical, political, economic, and environmental problems. Government policies are changed according to hallucinatory malicious desires of the regime to the extent vexing the UNESCO convention and international heritage protection protocols & laws that Ethiopia adopted as a member country. Therefore, every concerned body ought to be aware of the undergoing and act before it is too late. Calling the global society and governments to advocate for the heritage protection, imposing international sanctions on the regime – Oromuma, and influencing its political decisions; and parallelly activating the grass roots level community who owns the heritages and resides nearby, can help heritages withstand the destructive ideology.
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