A Soft Landing Speech for Meles Zenawi?

September 15, 2007

The recent speech of Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s current Prime Minister, at the Ethiopian Millennium party in Finfinne has been characterized by some as a soft landing from his past political course.

He has obviously tried to make some connections with the Ethiopian people’s past after having led for a long time the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), an organization that was created to liberate the people of Tigray from Ethiopia. Eras of achievements and failures of Ethiopians, as well as a hopeful future, seem to be at the center of his message to the people. Perhaps, his statement about how “deeply insulted” we are because Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries in the world could be one of the reasons his speech has been characterized as a soft landing.

His political prognosis for Ethiopia’s future points to the end of Ethiopia’s Dark Age and the beginning of its renaissance at the dawn of its third Millennium. What makes this prognosis interesting is that he talked about Ethiopian Renaissance at a Millennium celebration.

According to Wikipedia, the European Renaissance (rebirth) was “a cultural movement that spanned roughly the 14th through the 17th century, beginning in Italy in the late Middle Ages and later spreading to the rest of Europe. It encompassed the revival of learning based on classical sources, the rise of courtly and papal patronage, the development of perspective in painting, and advancements in science. The Renaissance had wide-ranging consequences in all intellectual pursuits, but is perhaps best known for its artistic aspect and the contributions of such polymaths as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, who have inspired the term ‘Renaissance men.’”

Millennium, on the other hand, appears to have a religious sentiment. According to one definition in the English dictionary, the millennium is “the period of a thousand years during which Christ will reign on earth.” According to another definition, a millennium is “a period of general righteousness and happiness, esp. in the indefinite future.” The period of a thousand years appears to be the literal definition used in Meles' speech.

Thus, while renaissance points to the direction of cultural movement, millennium has a religious overtone, which are not necessarily in resonance. It is also not clear if Meles Zenawi’s speech was prepared with such awareness.

However, the subject of Ethiopian renaissance, Kushitic renaissance to be specific, has been raised and discussed in the past. It is only fitting to see the subject finally taken up as an official Ethiopian government’s perspective. Ancient Kushitic civilization was one of the oldest civilizations in the world, similar to that of the Indus Valley civilization. Today, the descendants of the Indus Valley civilization are found scattered in the Indian subcontinent, and may include the populations of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and so on. On the other hand, the descendants of Kushitic civilization are scattered across East and North Africa as the Oromo, the Amhara and to a large extent the Tigre (the Semitized Ethiopians, as Prof. Donald N. Levine calls them), the Afar, the Somali, the Sidama, the Masaai, the Tutsi, the Fulani, the Dogon, and so on.

While the peoples of the Indian subcontinent countries were colonized by European powers, Ethiopia defeated an attempt by Italy to colonize it. On the other hand, some of the countries grafted on the Indus Valley civilization struggled against colonization to win and join the world community and are emerging as powerful nation states. India is the leading country in this regard. Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of India’s struggle against colonialism, reportedly studied the cultures and traditions of the Indian population and founded the country on its past.

On the other hand, even though Ethiopia managed to defeat Italy and saved itself from being colonized, today it is one of the poorest countries in the world. Unlike Mahatma Gandhi, past Ethiopian leaders generally showed leanings toward adherence to cultures and faith traditions brought from outside instead of relying on the age old cultures and faith tradition of past Ethiopian civilization. This could be the reason why Meles’ gesture at this Millennium speech may be seen as a departure from the recent past.

An important question that need an answer is whether Ethiopians, and, in fact, all the descendants of Ancient Kushitic civilization, have a clear understanding of when its Dark Age started, what caused it, and what need to be done to get out of it.

In his book called Greater Ethiopia, Prof. Donald N. Levine points out about an identity struggle that was set in motion among the Tigre people a long time ago because of a statement in the Kibre Negest which was based on what is written in the Old Testament: “by the Will of God the whole of the kingdom of the world was given to the seed of Shem, and slavery to the seed of Ham.” This in turn was based on the “chosen people” concept, which may have been coined after Moses left to the Middle East, after having served as Ethiopian ruler, according to the Egyptologist Ahmed Osman, author of the book called Moses and Akhenaten. Incidentally, this period was also the era of a tumultuous history in Egypt’s ancient civilization, which is believed to have been influenced by the Kush people.

Even though the accuracy of Ahmed Osman’s research finding is debatable, we can argue that Ethiopia’s Dark Age started with the Exodus in the likely scenario that his findings are accurate. That would make the start of Ethiopia’s Dark Age that of its own making since Moses was forced to resign by an Ethiopian queen of the time. Since then, the concept of the “chosen people” and the children of Ham (Kush) “having been condemned to slavery by divine power” have been ringing in their ears after taking center stages in Ethiopia first through the Biblical texts and later through the Koran.

Perhaps, the beginning of Ethiopian renaissance should start by sanctioning the removal of those verses from the religious texts used in Ethiopia, or anywhere else for that matter. No self respecting Ethiopian should teach his or her children every week or so that they have been divinely condemned to slavery.

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