East Africa’s Ideological and Strategic Conflicts

December 10, 2006.

On October 24, 2006, Ethiopia reportedly agreed to exhibit its world acclaimed find, the 3.2 million years old remains of a female hominid known as Lucy. In connection with this news, Joel Bartsch, president of the Houston Museum of National Science where the exhibition is scheduled for September 2007 is quoted to have said: "Ethiopia’s rich cultural heritage, and the vibrant country that it is today, is one of the best kept secrets in the world and it is a story that needs to be told much more broadly."

The September 2006 issue of the journal Nature published an article about a yet another new find dubbed Little Lucy, skeletal remains believed to belong to the same evolutionary group as Lucy.

In its March 2006 issue, the National Geographic magazine published a report from its several years of DNA research known as the Genographic Project. According to this report, "modern" humans lived in Ethiopia at a place called Omo Kibish nearly 200,000 years ago. The same report also suggests that people started migrating out of Ethiopia, and hence Africa, to different parts of the world at a much later time.

In the period over two million years between the times Lucy and the "modern" humans lived in Ethiopia, perhaps no one can possibly say with any level of confidence how human consciousness evolved in that part of the world.

As we move fast forward to world’s recorded history, Ethiopia comes to the surfaces of history books in accounts of Pharaonic Egypt, ancient Greece, and religious texts including the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Quran. The name Ethiopia itself has been suggested to have Greek language origin, whereas the name Kush or Cush appears to have been equivalently used in the religious texts in reference to Ethiopia.

In the biblical texts, the name Cush, later replaced by Ethiopia, has been mentioned plenty of times. In Islamic texts, Ethiopia is referred to as a country wherein no one is wronged; a land of the righteousness.

In her review a few years back of the Aithiopika, an ancient novel written by Heliodorus from Greece, Kathryn Chew of California State University at Long Beach observed "Greek culture takes a back seat to the cultures of Egypt and Ethiopia."

Jean Doresse, a famous French historian made a link between his readings of Plato and the ways of thinking and ideas in Ethiopia. In an interview a few years ago with one of the private Ethiopian news papers, he had the following to say: "When I went to Ethiopia I found the life, the ancient culture which was at the origin of ancient Greece. I found this in the vein of people more than the excavations. I found there the exact way of thinking, the clear mentality of ancient Greece. I am very much fond of reading Plato and some of his dialogues but I could not understand those dialogues until I visited Ethiopia. This is because Greek literatures were translated into different languages including French. But while translations were being made, there were always distortions in meanings. When I visited Ethiopia, I found ways of thinking and ideas that made me very clear with my Plato's readings."

In the same interview, Jean Doresse further suggested that Ethiopia is older than Pharaonic Egypt, that Ethiopia is the birthplace of ancient civilizations, and that Oromo, Somali and Afar languages are the most ancient spoken languages.

In his American Book Award winning book titled Black Athena, Martin Bernal argues that Greek’s Classic civilization has deep roots in Afroasiatic cultures. He pointed out that this civilization borrowed the concepts of political institutions, science, philosophy, and so on from ancient Egypt. A recent documentary movie called Secrets of Ancient Greece also supports Martin Bernal’s arguments in that Greeks civilization started and grew after it borrowed egalitarian values from elsewhere.

Donald N. Levine, a longtime historian on Ethiopia, observed that the Oromo "Gada system represents one of the most complex systems of social organization ever devised by the human imagination."

In light of the above evidences, it may not be far fetched to speculate connections between the early egalitarian culture rooted in Ethiopia and how it may have been borrowed by the Greeks and later on became the foundation of classical civilization.

When contrasted with Ethiopia’s recent history of famine, poverty, war and so on, a close observer could not help asking why the region and the people who have such rich history have been suffering to the extent witnessed in the recent past and now.

While we leave the efforts to find full answers to academics who may have done detailed studies or wish to do so in the future, we could perhaps reason out our close observations for a better understanding of the matter as well as to make a call for a detailed research by learned social scientists. For the purpose of this writing, we will focus on the major recorded events in North East Africa.

The decline of vibrant civilization in ancient Ethiopia and Egypt appear to have been set in motion by the struggle between monotheistic and polytheistic belief systems. As the Egyptologist Ahmed Osman noted in his book titled Moses and Akhenaten: The Secret History of Egypt at the Time of the Exodus, the time when an attempt was made to replace Egypt’s multitude of ancient gods with a monotheistic God marks a tumultuous period of its history.

Ahmad Osman also argued that Akhenaten was one of the Pharaohs of that period who fled to Ethiopia before leading the Exodus to the Middle East as Moses. Whereas the point that both Akhenaten and Moses refer to the same person is subject to debate, the effect of the Exodus and what is written in the Old Testament regarding the people of Cush is a living history.

As Donald N. Levine notes, the script in the Old Testament "prophesizing" that "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" may have been, obviously, the source of confusion to the Ethiopians of that era. According to this historian, this confusion became the source of identity struggle so much so that "the Tigreans had to deny that they were the Hamites of the Old Testament," thereby replacing "an older Ethiopian tradition which held that the kings of Aksum were in fact descended from Ham-through Aethiopia and Aksumawi, his son and grandson!"

This confusion is a manifestation of a damaging social phenomenon which Donald N. Levine postulates as a protracted identity struggle set in motion by the sustained confrontation between the Northern Ethiopians and the intruding Oriental Semites. In fact, ever since this identity struggle was set in motion, the records of Ethiopian history show none sustained flickers of achievements in the resultant downgrade commotion amidst the world communities. Currently, the region is among one of the least economically developed and technologically advanced parts of the world.

The Cushitic civilization of the Exodus era was later destroyed by the Aksumite Ethiopian king Ezana. The magnificent Aksumite civilization, perhaps another Cushitic civilization, was nonetheless a product of the identity struggle or the causes of it. Despite its glory, the Aksumite civilization was destroyed by the expansion of Islam into East Africa, which displaced the center of identity struggle from Aksum in Northern Ethiopia to Menz, farther south in Central Ethiopia where a Solomonid Amhara Dynasty emerged in 1270 A.D. with characteristics similar to that of the Aksumite Solomonid Dynasty.

The expansion of Islam into East Africa not only further disfigured the Cushitic face of the region, but also sustained political turmoil in it for a long time.

An important mark by Ethiopia on the world’s historical stage in recent times was registered by the defeat of Italy’s colonial army at Adwa when Europe was busy trying to colonize Africa, thus remaining an independent African country in the middle of colonized nations. It was around this time that Flanders Petrie, widely acknowledged as the father of pre-history, traveled to the region and unearthed some of the remarkable achievements of the region’s past.

Even though Ethiopia defeated Italy, a European colonial venture, foreign influence on the region continued after that. Italy continued to influence the region through its colonies of Eritrea and Italian Somaliland until it was forced to leave after the end of World War II and the independence of Somalia, respectively. On the other hand, European missionaries found their way into certain corners of Ethiopia and started to make their presence felt long before their colonial army counterparts tried to control it by force but to no avail.

Both the Italian presence in Eritrea and the missionaries’ presence in certain corners of Ethiopia may have found the region in its Dark Age and have influenced their subjects intellectually to the extent that their students would look down upon the glorious history of the region as well as the mosaic of the Cushitic peoples. As beneficiaries of Europe’s enlightenment movement, both the colonizers and the missionaries may have found a fertile ground to cultivate a marked intellectual contrast between their subjects and the people of the region immersed deep in the confusion created by mythology and living off the pride of the past.

In fact, two of the three leaders of important currently active liberation organizations, namely, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), and the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which completely restructured Ethiopia in 1991, are more of the products of Italy’s influence in Eritrea and the missionaries’ investment in Ethiopia. To be specific, Isaias Afeworki of the EPLF and Lenco Lata of the OLF are examples of the harvests of Italy’s occupation of Eritrea and the missionaries’ investment in a remote corner of Ethiopia.

As the leader of the EPLF, Isaias Afeworki of Eritrea led the struggle for the independence of Eritrea from Ethiopia on the basis of Italy’s colonial boundary and at the expense of human geography that opened the door for dividing various peoples that speak similar languages into two countries. Consequently Ethiopia was rendered the most populous landlocked country in the world. Furthermore, it appears that the colonial experience in Eritrea has made their subjects so insecure that the governments they formed have become so adamant not to enter into any negotiations with Ethiopia in the two countries’ border dispute, so much so that one would wonder how much comfort they are getting from the colonial shackle. What is fairly clear is that they were able to outmaneuver malleable missionary school students who almost seemed to have put Eritrea’s interest before Oromo interest.

The most recent concern to Ethiopia comes from the Somali Islamic Courts Union, an outfit that has the audacity to declare a Jihad from an African soil against a fellow largely Cushitic neighboring African country; that becomes even more interesting when Somalia’s internationally recognized government states its adherence to secular governance.

Ethiopia has been in a position to check these triangular outfits, namely, an aftereffect of Italy’s colonization in the north, a missionary outfit from within and an Arab cultural outfit to the east, to ensure stability in its region and to come out from its chronic political problems of the past and chart its future by cultivating democracy and the rule of law that will benefit the mosaic of peoples for whom Ethiopia is home.

At this time, it appears to have effectively contained the misguided outfit from one direction, is on the offensive on the second misguided outfit, and has kept in check the third misguided outfit. Despite the turmoil after the May 2005 elections, the current Ethiopian parliament appears to be more representative of all the peoples living in it than it has ever been in its recent history. With no doubt, the ruling party must have learnt much from its blunders of the past and what appears to be on the ground today suggests Ethiopia is on an upgrade commotion for the first time in a long time. In effect, it has got the momentum to outgrow the two remaining forces, all the more so if it manages to solve the political turmoil that followed the 2005 legislative elections.

If this momentum is allowed to continue in the direction it is in, the country may soon usher in Cushitic Renaissance that will have bearing beyond its borders. Cushitic Renaissance may be the best door through which what Joel Bartsch called "one of the best kept secrets in the world" will be showcased.

Even though what will come out the door remains to be seen, it is not difficult to predict in the face of historical evidences that there is much in the store to ponder about. For one, the country has one of the longest recorded histories of evolution of mankind. If we weigh in what David Brooks of The New York Times wrote in his September 17, 2006, column that "... happiness seems to consist of living in harmony with the patterns that nature and evolution laid down long, long ago," East African in general and Ethiopia in particular will not be the last place to look for what nature and evolution laid down long, long ago.

In what was laid down long ago, humanity is poised to learn more about its past and, perhaps, look to the future with a better perspective.

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